Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Samuel Hayden Sexton, Schenectady’s Artist

In the days before photography, untrained local artists, or limners, were often employed to capture the important people and places in a community. For Schenectady, one such artist who was able to elevate his work above the mere craftsmanship that characterized this group was Samuel Hayden Sexton, who lived and worked in the city his entire life. Over his fifty-seven year career, he produced portraits, as well as landscapes and historical paintings. Currently, about seventy works are known to exist, some unsigned but attributed to the artist.  

Sexton was born in Schenectady in 1813, the son of Ezekial Sexton and Henrietta Hayden, his second wife. Samuel initially followed his father into a career as a cobbler, but eventually was attracted to art. He wed Sarah Fullagar and worked from his State Street studio. The couple had two children, James and Langley, who died young. 

Sexton was known as a “face painter,” who could render a “reasonable likeness,” but he also produced landscapes. The details of his training are not entirely clear. In 1835 a local newspaper, Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, claimed that although Sexton was primarily a self-taught painter, for a short time he may have been mentored by an accomplished artist in New York City. This claim is disputed by Ona Curran, art historian and one-time curator of Decorative Arts at the Schenectady Museum, now the Museum of Innovation and Science. She believes that Sexton was untrained until 1838, based on his sudden change in technique and style, as well as the introduction of subjects that would likely be accessible only in metropolitan galleries that exhibited works embodying contemporary art trends. He likely studied at institutions such as New York City’s American Art-Union or the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited a few times in the 1840s and 1850s.


Portraits

Sexton painted portraits primarily using live models, but he was also known to use other paintings, and less commonly, sketches as his sources. He preferred his subjects to pose for a frontal rather than a profile view. Many of his subjects were well-known individuals, including lawyers, educators, politicians, and business people, as well as their wives and children. Ona Curran explains the composition, or arrangement of elements within his work:

As for composition, he usually placed a three-quarter view of the sitter on the canvas. One arm invariably rested on the side of a chair. The hand of the other arm often reposed in the sitter’s lap and usually held an accessory item such as a hat, book or pair of glasses. A drapery often appeared in the background. He paid a great deal of attention to details. Accessories such as shawls, beaver hats, lace caps and ruffles were painstakingly done. As for color, the costumes of his sitters were painted most often in tones of black and white, draperies and chairs in shades of red. Green was often blended into the background color (Curran, p. 12).

The art historian notes that the flatness that characterized his earlier work disappeared by 1840, by which time his portraits showed more realism, better body proportions, greater three-dimensionality and distinctiveness. As she notes, however, he still showed an inability to paint hands skillfully, a shortcoming common to those not trained as professional artists, as seen in the portrait below of Nicholas Marselis, a merchant and boat builder.

Painting of a old white man dressed in black, sitting in a red chair, holding wooden tools used boat building.
Samuel Hayden Sexton, Nicholas Marselis, 1848, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

According to Curran, his artistic ability peaked in 1855, after which his production decreased. This 1852 oil painting of Ichabod Spencer, noted minister and a founder of the Union Theological Seminary, reveals the artist’s skill, as well as his standard three-quarter pose.

Portrait of a middle-aged white man in voluminous collegiate robes, holding a book.
Samuel Haydon Sexton, Ichabod S. Spencer, D.D., 1852, oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. Katherine Spencer Leavitt, Union College Permanent Collection. https://muse.union.edu/mandeville/project/19th-century-portrait-collection/

A few of Sexton’s works were painted from earlier works. The inspiration for his depiction of DeWitt Clinton (1840) was Charles C. Ingham’s fine 1824 portrait of the New York governor. According to Curran, he also completed two paintings of subjects who were deceased, likely using daguerreotypes, although not enthusiastic about the practice. 

Although the artist’s output dropped, Curran lists twenty extant portraits produced between 1857 and 1877. Some of them are unsigned but attributed to Sexton, such as a painting of John Ellis, first president of Schenectady Locomotive Works. In addition to all of his existing portraits, the Frick Art Reference Library has attributed to him three additional portraits, whose whereabouts are unknown. Another attributed work, a portrait of Eliphalet Nott, noted minister and Union College president, was unfortunately lost in a fire.

Historical Paintings

Five of Sexton’s historical paintings are extant. His first known work is The Schenectady Massacre (ca. 1833), a depiction of the 1690 burning of the Schenectady stockade by the French and Indians. Interestingly, the work is not historically accurate. Although step-gable roofs were characteristic of Dutch architecture from the colonial era, Curran theorizes that the simpler A-line steep roof was more likely to be featured in a frontier settlement like 1690 Schenectady. Furthermore, according to Kathryn Weller, former curator of collections at the Schenectady County Historical Society, French attackers likely outnumbered their Indian counterparts.

Painting of Native American firing rifles at buildings in a Dutch colonial village with white colonists running away or lying on the snow-covered ground.
Samuel Sexton, Schenectady Massacre, circa 1833, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

An 1813 sketch by a local man, Giles F. Yates, was the inspiration for Sexton’s four paintings of the Old Dutch Church--two dated 1843 and two dated 1845--which stood on the corner of Union and Church Streets and was the congregation’s third building, the first at that location. Although the paintings of the 1813 building were done many years later, a new church building served parishioners starting in 1814. Curran is not sure if the works are accurate representations, noting that “it is highly probable that the paintings served as memorials to the venerable old church rather than a documentation of local architecture” (Curran, p. 14).

Painting of a church with Dutch colonial buildings in the background.
Samuel Sexton, A North View of the Old Dutch Church in Schenectada, 1843, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

Landscapes

Although considered a “face painter,” Sexton’s exhibition records in New York City from the 1840s and 1850s describe his paintings as landscapes and Biblical works, none of which have been located. Of Sexton’s seventy existing paintings, five are landscapes, all painted in 1890, the year of his death. Four are titled Mohawk Valley Landscape, offering four different scenes, and the other is Frog Alley River, referring to a part of the Mohawk which once separated Schenectady from Van Slyck’s Island before the land was filled in. According to John Caldwell, art historian and art critic, these works were inspired by the American Barbizon School, a movement characterized by naturalistic landscape painting. 

Samuel Sexton, Frog Alley River, 1890, oil on cardboard. Schenectady County Historical Society.

Caldwell also notes that Sexton’s commissions may have decreased during the second half of the century as photography became more popular. Like other artists, Sexton had to earn a living. A bill to J. B. Clute in 1846 reveals that Sexton did additional jobs to help generate income, including painting a statue as well as stove plate ornament. The same bill itemizes the costs of two drawings and a sketch. Perhaps Sexton did more of this work as the years progressed. 

Sexton enjoyed local, if not national, recognition for his work, and earned a reasonable income. However, Joel Monroe, author of Schenectady, Ancient And Modern, claims that the artist died in a state of poverty in 1890. Sexton’s significance is assessed by Ona Curran as follows: “Today, in the author’s opinion, his work has merit more from a historical point of view than an artistic one, and serves as a documentation of nineteenth century Schenectady persons and places” (Curran, p. 9).
Some of his paintings may be viewed at the Schenectady County Historical Society, which featured an exhibition of Sexton’s works in 2008.

Black and white photo of old white man sitting, surrounded by easels and painting supplies.
Sexton in his studio, 1889. From Schenectady Ancient and Modern by Joel Henry Monroe.

Bibliography

Caldwell, John, et al. A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born by 1815. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

Curran, Ona. 19th Century Artist Samuel Hayden Sexton. Schenectady, Schenectady Museum, 1970.

Monroe, Joel Henry. Schenectady, Ancient And Modern: a Complete And Connected History of Schenectady From the Granting of the First Patent In 1661 to 1914: Presenting Also Many Historic Pictures And Portraits of Those Who Have Been Conspicuous Figures In Its History. Geneva, N.Y.: Press of W.F. Humphrey, 1914.

Stanforth, Lauren. Learn about Artist Samuel Sexton and Visit the Exhibit about Him by Laura Linder and Ona Curran Rotterdam Square Mall. Facebook, 25 Sept. 2009, 4:35 pm, https://www.facebook.com/notes/schenectady-county-historical-society/learn-about-artist-samuel-sexton-and-visit-the-exhibit-about-him-by-laura-linder/137281358151. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Frost Papers - Examples from the collection

The James Frost Papers comprises papers created by James Frost (1783-1851), a surveyor who worked in Albany, Schenectady, Montgomery, and Schoharie counties. James Frost lived in Duanesburg and most of his work was done in that area. The collection includes copies of survey sketches, maps, leases, receipts, legal documents, and other materials related to Frost’s work. This post highlights a few examples from the collection. 

D-9: Survey for Ebenezer Lockwood, 12 March 1842.


D-35A and D-35B: Textual documents and visual documents complement each other.


D-35A: Lease between William Thomas and William McClumpha and John Brown for the use and occupancy of the mills and lands called the Blooming Vale Mills and Farm, (4 March 1824)


D-35b: Map of wood lots at Blooming Vale Farm, surveyed 22 August 1848


D-61: Thomas W. Patterson to Benjamin Lockwood – Bond 1840


M-34: Map of Lot # 49 in Corry’s Patent, Charleston, surveyed for James Ingersol, 7 April 1825
M-34 detail of orchard and spring.

M-77: Map of the lands formerly of John Wemple near Fort Hunter, surveyed 15 November 1844

M-77 detail of Lot No. 1 and No. 2.

Misc-47: List of expenses for Schenectady and Duanesburg Plank Road Company, 22 March 1848 – 27 February 1849

To learn more about this collection, view the finding aid on the Collections and Catalog page of our website: https://schenectadyhistorical.org/admin/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/2006.2.19-James-Frost-Papers.pdf

Friday, October 30, 2020

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons

 This post was written by Schenectady City Historian, Chris Leonard.

Cookbooks are a fascinating if underutilized type of historical documentation. Not only do they cover what people ate and what foods were readily available, they delve into the state of trade and economics, the class of persons performing the cooking, and of those for whom the food is prepared. Class relations, gender roles, trade, the fashions of the day, and the evolution of language and etymology can all be discerned. And hey, you can even use the recipes if so inclined.

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons is a short work, just 49 pages, but provides a wealth of information in a snapshot of life in the 18th century America. First printed in Hartford, CT, in 1796, American Cookery was the first cookbook published in the United States. A second, larger printing occurred in Albany, NY, in the same year. As such, it is logical to think this work would have been present in Schenectady kitchens due to the proximity of the two towns, and because Schenectady was a part of Albany County at the time.

 

Image of the title page of the American Cookery cookbook
American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796 - Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Of Simmons, little is known. No biographical information exists aside from her description as “An American Orphan” on the book’s title page. Two hundred years of research has turned up nothing else.

On the title page of American Cookery, Simmons notes that the book is “Adapted to this country and all grades of life.” In essence, this is a very English cookbook, using English cooking methods. It is notable for its use of American food products. It contains that first known recipes for turkey (page 18) and corn (in this case, cornmeal) in Johny Cake or Hoe Cake (page 34). 

It is also the first American work to mention potash and pearl ash as leavening agents, used similarly to how we use commercial baking powder. The inclusion of Dutch terms such as slaw and cookey is engaging and shows how these terms slipped into the common vernacular.

 

The Servant and American Society

Simmons’ claim on the title page that the cookbook is aimed at “all grades of life” is something of a puzzle, when read with the book’s preface. Here she notes:

"As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general knowledge of those females in this country, who by loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society.”

Aside from possibly being the longest sentence ever written, Simmons, in essence, contradicts her statement that the book is for all grades of life. Indeed, it is aimed at certain lower-class women who find or seek to find themselves in the employ of a family that cannot only afford servants but purchase the foodstuffs to prepare the fare within the work. She continues:

“It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary orphan that while those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely on character.”
As such, American Cookery also provides a sort of resume for the orphan or member of the lower-class seeking employment with a family. It informs the wealthy homeowner that opening one’s door to such foundlings is safe as these are women imbued with a singular American tradition and character.

 

American Cookery as a Cookbook

One should avoid looking at a cookbook through the lens of the current time. Yes, the prevalence of butter and sugar, and the lack of vegetables would be concerning to a cardiologist, but this information speaks to food availability, seasonality, and tradition. 

Cooking in the late 18th century was seasonally focused, due to the lack of refrigeration. The higher fat and calorie count of the prepared foods were needed for a far more active populace. Even in cities, home gardens and farm animals were common, as the recipe for Syllabub on page 31 states, “…then milk your cow into the liquor…”

For this reason, the extensive section on preserves (in essence, preserving) and drying fruits for use throughout the year makes great sense. You will find little mention of citrus fruits and nothing on tropical or exotic ones as they were rarely available to a typical household in the age of sail.

What we would refer to as recipes are called receipts here. Both terms derive from the Latin word “recipere,” which means “to receive.” Some claim that Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to use receipt in this way in his 1386 work, Canterbury Tales. In this case, and others of the medieval period, the term refers to taking medicine. Often such receipts would list the ingredients needed to enact the desired cure. Since most of the noted elements were food plants and herbs, the phrase translated easily into the preparation of edible foods. By the mid-19th century, recipe took over as the cookbook standard.

The receipts are not precise. There is no mention of teaspoons or tablespoons, simply stating instead to use “a little sweet marjoram” or the like. There are no temperatures to bake or roast items as cooking over an open-hearth fire or an in-hearth oven did not allow for such specifics. 

Of fish, Simmons says of salmon it is the “noblest and richest” of freshwater fish. While common fish and shellfish are mentioned, she speaks highly and at length of shad, which, once a significant part of the American diet, has fallen out of favor due to massive overfishing, polluting, and damming of their natural habitats in the 20th century. There is mention of a fish called Hannah Hill, of which I can find no information through a cursory search. Further research is required, although I suspect its hake or sea bass.

A depiction of side-view of a shad fish, silvery fish with a small mouth, round belly, and short tail.
A depiction of a shad fish, from the First Annual Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries, Game, and Forests of the State of New York (1896). Public Domain.

While there is a section on Roots and Vegetables (pages 10-16), the focus is on the planting, harvesting, and preserving of specific types (there are eight types of beans and seven types of green peas mentioned by name), rather than cooking them. On the rare occasion cooking takes place, the vegetables are simply thrown in a pot and boiled alongside a piece of meat.

The longest receipt in the book, stretching over three pages (20-22), is “How to Dress a Turtle.” This receipt covers selecting, precisely butchering, and preparing a food that has mostly fallen out of favor. The recipe that follows “To Dress a Calves’ Head Turtle Style” is similar for how it is prepared and the rarity of such to be found today as food in the US.

Another interesting receipt is for Diet Bread (page 37). While we would expect to find such a product to be made with whole grains, high in fiber, and possibly low in calories or carbohydrates, Diet Bread is anything but. In this case, the term diet establishes the bread as a hearty, hefty item to sustain oneself, and a common food at that, as the Oxford Dictionary notes of the term diet “…in the early modern English period, habitually taken food and drink…” That the recipe calls for 1 lb. of sugar to 14 oz of flour (flavored with rose water and cinnamon or coriander) speaks to sugar’s commonality in the everyday diet. This, of course, speaks to the extensive English holdings in the Caribbean, where the production of sugar and molasses was a primary industry. 

The changing of cooking terms over time is also notable. While “a la mode” in our common parlance refers to something, usually a dessert, accompanied by ice cream, the term had a much different meaning in the late 18th century. Receipts for Alamode Beef occur twice in the book (pages 34-35 and 86). In both cases, it refers to stuffing a massive round of beef (16 to 18 lbs.) with what we would think of as meatloaf mix (beef, pork, bread, and spices), and roasting it in a pot with water and wine. In this case, Alamode is a method of larding and stewing beef, although another colloquialism for the term at the time was to cook something “in a current or fashionable style.”

Painting of a dinner. Three plates with beef and vegetables; silverware; wine carafe and glasses; on a table with a white tablecloth.
Carel Nicolaas Storm van’s-Gravesande (1841-1924) Boeuf à la mode, 1906, oil on canvas, Teylers Museum, Haarlem. Public Domain.

While I have focused on some of the book’s odder receipts, most of what you find in American Cookery is familiar and would cause no consternation if put on your dinner table. Recipes for roasting chicken and duck, and lamb and mutton would raise no eyebrows if the diners favor such fare. Similarly, a forerunner of pumpkin pie, as well as apple pies, bread and puddings would come across as quaint but would be easily recognized and no less desirable than they are today. 

Take a closer look at your cookbooks. The story they tell is far greater than the simple act of making a meal.

Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady, a trustee of the Schenectady County Historical Society, and a volunteer in the Grems-Doolittle Library. He is working on a yet-untitled history of food in Schenectady from Paleo-Indians through the latest waves of immigration.

 

Suggestions for further information:

-American Cookery by Amelia Simmons: https://www.loc.gov/item/96126967/

-Preserving Family Recipes by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/fall/family-archives-recipes

 -Two Experts Explain How to Care for Your Vintage Cookbooks by Megan Gordon: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-care-for-your-vintage-cookbooks-217813

-Feeding America: Cookbook Collection from Michigan State University: https://d.lib.msu.edu/fa

-The Sifter: Search the World of Food, a Tool for Food History Research by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton: https://thesifter.org/

Friday, October 2, 2020

Marie Curie Visited GE

Madame Marie Curie visited Schenectady on October 22 to 24, 1929, during her second (and final) tour of the U.S. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Curie embarked on the 1929 American tour to receive a $50,000 donation to purchase a sample of radium for the Polish Radium Institute in Warsaw. Due to her fragile health and discomfort with the public appearances, Curie’s trip was limited. Her tour included a celebration honoring Thomas Edison and the 50th anniversary of the invention of the incandescent light bulb, a tour of the GE labs, the dedication a building at St. Lawrence University, and a reception at the White House with President Hoover. 

A large group of men and one woman pose in front of a building
Marie Curie poses with scientists and executives from General Electric, Oct. 23, 1929. Photo from the Larry Hart Photograph Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.


Mme. Curie’s visit to Schenectady started with a spot of subterfuge. She departed Detroit, MI, by train on Oct. 22, the morning after Edison’s celebration. The press was told she would arrive at Union Station in Schenectady around 2pm and stay for two days at the Van Curler Hotel. Excited residents arranged to greet her, including a display and presentation of flowers by local Polish-American. However, the crowd would be disappointed. Due to chronic pain and ill health as well as a generally private demeanor, Mme. Curie had previously requested that she be allowed privacy and limited public appearances. Her GE hosts, Dr. W.R. Whitney, Dr. W.D. Coolidge, and E.W. Rice Jr., arranged for Curie to arrive at the train station in Amsterdam where she transferred to a car and was driven to a secret location in Schenectady known only to a handful of tour organizers. When the train arrived at Union Station, a small group of GE scientists departed, but the press and the awaiting crowd quickly realized that the celebrated Nobel Laureate was not among them. The press soon discovered that her reservation at the Van Curler had been canceled and speculated that she was staying at the private home of one GE’s executives.

Newspaper clipping with headline "Mme. Curie, here on visit, eludes her welcomers"
Clipping from the Schenectady Gazette, Oct. 23, 1929.

Mme. Curie inspected the GE facilities on Oct. 23. According to the Schenectady Gazette, Mme. Curie was “the absolute mistress of the extensive laboratories” and “permitted to make any experiment she cared to and to use all the apparatus that interested her.” In deference to her privacy and comfort, the buildings were minimally staffed and no employees were notified of her whereabouts. The newspaper reported, “Never in the history of the city have so many precautions been taken and never has there been so much mystery surrounding the housing and movements of any of the world’s celebrities who have visited the big plant of General Electric Company…” Dr. Coolidge was her primary guide. She returned to her secret lodgings and presumably spent a quiet evening with her hosts and her traveling companion, Mrs. William B. Meloney. The next day, Owen Young, chairman of the GE’s board of directors, drove Curie to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

To learn more about Mme. Curie’s visit to St. Lawrence University, read the Adirondack Almanack blog: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2018/02/science-royalty-once-visited-the-north-country.html


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Fall Photos

Despite the warm weather this past week, the fall season is officially upon us. Enjoy this selection of historic autumn photos from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection!

 

Group of men, women, and children posing for a family portrait
Simon Dawson and Family - October 1892. Back row left to right: Lucille (married to Grant) - Luther E Gray - Grant S Dawson - Olive M (married to Earl) - Earl Dawson - Charles Emerson Dawson - Cora Ellen Comp (married to Charles). Front row left to right: Inez Dawson Gray - Gladis Gray - Fanny J Belles Dawson - Jesse G (son of Earl) - Hazel (daughter of Grant) - Simon Dawson

Bicyclists rounding the corner of a designated street race course
Bicycle race in Schenectady on Sept 5,1988 as cyclists turn from State St. onto North Broadway

Four women posing behind a table which is decorated with fall ornaments and pumpkins
GE Wives Club Fall Event

Group of men standing around a trench on the side of the road with shovels
Laying the trolley track, possibly on Eastern Ave., fall 1886

Waterfall in woods
Plotterkill Falls, lower falls

Street scene with buildings decorated with patriotic bunting
Board of Trade Carnival Sept. 27 - Oct. 2, 1909

Group of children in white dresses wearing white, pointed hats. Seated in a living room with fireplace in background
Hotchkiss Family Photo of children in costume: (Back row) Harriet Smith, Jane Tritlr, Jane Elsworth, Marjorie Jackson (Front row) Helen Miller, Florence Nicklas, Stirling Finch, Doris Tritle, Catherine Tritle - Oct. 20, 1920

Charles Steinmetz seated in a wagon that is pulled by an ostrich
One of the last pictures of Dr. Steinmetz, made in California about six weeks before he died, Oct. 26,1923

Display of produce on a raised platform with posters on the wall behind
1st Annual Victory Garden Exhibit operated by General Electric employees Sept. 2-5, 1919

 


Thursday, July 2, 2020

SCHS Reopening: Changes to Library Operations

As NYS enters Phase IV of New York Forward, SCHS is excited to once again welcome visitors and researchers to our sites! Beginning Monday, July 6, the doors of our Library, Museum, and the Mabee Farm Historic Site will be open. However, as we prioritize our community's health and safety, and follow NYS guidelines, we have a few changes to our operating policies. All visits to our sites must be scheduled in advance.

Photo of bilboard nex to a road. Bilboard reads "Schenectady Lights and Hauls the World. Population 100,000. Welcome"
We're excited to welcome you back to our sites!

This post details the changes to library operations that will be in effect for the foreseeable future. Please contact the librarian if you have any questions.

Research Appointments
  • Researchers must contact the librarian at least one day in advance to schedule an appointment to visit the library. Contact the librarian at librarian@schenectadyhistorical.org or 518-374-0263 x3
  • When scheduling an appointment, please specify which materials you plan to view and the desired length of the appointment.
  • SCHS members may visit the library for free as a benefit of their membership; non-members pay $6 per person, per visit to use the library.
  • Admission fees can be paid online, over the phone, or in person. Read the "Payment Options" section on our Research Resources page for more details: https://schenectadyhistorical.org/research/
  • Appointments will be available Monday-Friday, 9am-12pm and 1pm-5pm, and Saturday, 10am-2pm. No research appointments will be scheduled from 12-1pm Monday-Friday.
Visiting the Library
  • Everyone using the library will be required to wear masks that cover their noses and mouths at all times.
  • Researchers should bring their own masks.
  • Everyone using the library must maintain 6 ft. social distancing whenever possible.
  • The number of people in the library at any time will be limited to comply with NYS guidelines on capacity.
  • Signs will be posted around the lobby and library to remind visitors and researchers of the current protocols.
  • Researchers are encouraged to bring their own laptops and devices. Use of the library's computers will be restricted to library staff and volunteers.
  • The library staff will sanitize commonly touched surfaces, including shared work-spaces, frequently throughout the day.
Access to Materials
  • Researchers must specify which materials they plan to use during their research appointment. Peruse the Collections & Catalog page for finding aids, guides, indexes, and descriptions of materials in the library collections
  • All materials will be retrieved by library staff and volunteers.
  • Materials will be quarantined for up to 72 hours after use, in accordance with current expert recommendations.
Handling Materials
  • Researchers should wash their hands before entering the library. Frequent handwashing is encouraged.
  • Use of hand sanitizer will not be allowed while handling materials. Studies have shown that hand sanitizer can damage historic materials.
  • Researchers must not reshelve or refile any materials. Library staff will move materials to quarantine areas after use.
Visit the Research Resources page on the SCHS website for more information such as library services, research room rules, and fee payment options.

Photo of a library volunteer waving her hands in excitement while sitting at a desk with a computer.
We look forward to working with you again!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

GE Engineer Catches the Influenza in 1918

Photo of West Dollar Island, Lake George, circa 1910
West Dollar Island, circa 1910. Photo from John Apperson's collection, provided by Ellen Apperson Brown.

This post was written by guest writer, Ellen Apperson Brown.

In the Apperson family, we’ve passed down a story about our Uncle John who came down with the dreaded influenza, went to the hospital, but decided to leave after just a few days. He hated being cooped up, and figured, if he had to die, it wouldn’t be in a hospital!  As the story goes, he sneaked past the nurses, caught a streetcar home, collected his camping gear, and headed into the north woods, as far from civilization as possible. 

I have just completed a project, transcribing more than a thousand of my great uncle’s letters and other documents, and arranging them in chronological order, so it is easy to look back to the documents from 1918, and see what he was doing in that year.

In 1918, John Apperson worked as an engineer at General Electric, second in charge of GE's Power and Mining Department. He also was responsible for protecting and preserving about fifty islands at Lake George. In August, one of Apperson's friends from G.E., Robert H. Doherty, wrote a tribute to Apperson, comparing him to the valiant knights in King Arthur's Court and listing all their accomplishments in removing squatters, rip-rapping island shores, making a survey of all the islands, and cleaning them up, ready to have the state start welcoming overnight campers.

Within a month, however, the vigorous, enthusiastic engineer (age 40) was caught up short by the so-called Spanish influenza. His friends, probably overriding his objections, called an ambulance, and he was taken away to Ellis Hospital. According to a receipt, found in a trunk of old letters, he was admitted on September 25th, and stayed until September 30th, with fees that covered nursing care and ambulance, making a total of $36.00.

One interesting document, from September 21st, is letter from the management at G.E., stating: “You are a highly trained and specialized engineer who cannot be replaced at the present moment.” Having already reached the age of forty, he probably wasn’t thinking about enlisting. He knew full well that he was doing important work in the Power and Mining Engineering Department.

On October 2nd, there is a letter from a friend, Jim Cawley, saying he was sorry to have missed Apperson during his visit to Schenectady, and that he had heard John was sick. Then, a week or two later, Jim wrote again, saying he had come back to Schenectady, couldn’t see him, but enjoyed being put up at the Mohawk Club. These clues still left a big gap in my knowledge. What was Jim Cawley doing in Schenectady? Where was John? At Lake George? Staying with a friend? 

Well, a little further research suggests that his destination must indeed have been Lake George, although it is uncertain where exactly he camped – whether on Dollar Island or perhaps on Commissioner’s Island. I wonder if he had he strength to paddle over in his canoe, or whether he had to catch a ride. 

Jim Cawley had made friends with Apperson a few years earlier, having heard about him through his club, the American Canoe Association. By 1918, Jim was an officer of the ACA, and heard about Apperson’s projects, rip-rapping shores and generally protecting the islands of Lake George. He wanted to write an article for an A.C.A. publication, using Apperson’s photos. He wrote: 

Dear Apperson:
As I told you when I saw you last on Phantom Island, I would drop in to see you on the day that I hit Schenectady. But unfortunately I was unable to get in touch with you. I spent three hours with the Advertising Department and called your department, but found that you were home ill. After I left the plant I looked up your name in the telephone directory, but failed to find it; so was unable to have a talk with you.

I do not know when I will get to Schenectady again, but I should like to have a talk with you regarding the article on the work that has been done on the Islands. In other words, to come right out with it, I want to borrow some of your excellent photographs to tone up the article, to make up for my lack of ability to write. Perhaps some time when you do have time, you could get together what you think I would need and let me know, but I think that within a month or so I may get around your way again and I shall certainly look you up, as I will have more time than I had on my last trip.

Hoping to see you sometime again – and asking you to give my kindest regards to Mr. Rushmore, I am

Yours for the Fourth Liberty Loan,
James S. Cawley 

Warwick S. Carpenter, the Secretary of the Conservation Commission, had also become one of Apperson’s (nick-named Appy) closest friends and allies. Carpenter was responsible for editing and publishing issues of The Conservationist, and when he came to Schenectady in October, he was hoping to get Appy’s permission to run some of his photographs in an upcoming article about Lake George. Not being able to reach him, Carpenter sent this letter:

Dear Apperson:
At the request of Mr. Houghton I am enclosing herewith two prints of some very excellent collections of tin cans.
 
I have been trying to get over to see you ever since one evening when I called at Mr. Rushmore’s house and found that you had retired. Every minute of my time has been taken up or I would have made another attempt. 

Hoping that you are getting along all right now and with kindest regards, I am

Sincerely yours
Warwick S. Carpenter (October 17, 1918)

Returning to work in late October, Apperson was swamped by all the work he’d missed. Apperson wrote several thank you letters to Jay Taylor, the State Forester at Lake George, and to his wife, thanking them for their hospitality during his illness, thus establishing that he had, indeed, fled to Lake George to rest and recuperate after his illness. Surprisingly, he refers to the possibility that Taylor himself may have come down with the flu:

Dear Taylor:
My work has piled up during my absence and it seems necessary for me to stay here this week-end. I hope your sickness is not serious and if I can do anything to assist you or send you anything please let us know.

My progress is still rather slow but I am nevertheless making progress.

With best regards to you and your family, I remain

Very truly yours,
J. S. Apperson (October 31, 1918)

On November 8th, he wrote again:
 
I do hope you have recovered and all members of your Tongue Mountain Village are well. You are no doubt pleased with the war news. However, the celebration was somewhat premature. I will agree with you now that your boy should be back in a short time.

In my letter last week I think I failed to again express my appreciation of the good attention you and Mrs. Taylor gave me during my sickness, and I can assure you that I cannot forget this kind attention, which I never before needed.

And on November 14, he wrote to Mrs. Taylor, saying:

I have your note of the 11th and I am glad to find that Jay is much better. I am sorry to hear that you have deserted your village, but probably it was the wisest thing to do….

Again allow me to thank you for the very kind attention, which you and Jay gave me during my illness.