Wednesday, December 26, 2012

History in Pen and Ink: Prints of Drawings from the H.S. Barney Collection

The H.S. Barney Company, also known as Barney's department store, was an institution in the downtown Schenectady shopping area for nearly 140 years. In addition to conducting business, the store also helped to tell the story of Schenectady's history through a series of attractive and interesting prints. The prints are roughly chronological, and depict different aspects of the city's history from 1833 through 1929.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding the origin of the prints. Some of the prints were reproduced in local newspapers in advertisements for the Barney's department store. The earliest such advertisement we were able to find was in a 1955 advertisement in a special 100-year anniversary edition of the Schenectady Union-Star. There appears to be a total of 10 drawings in the collection, each bearing the notation "From the H.S. Barney Collection of Original Pen Drawings." The first two are not signed, but all appear to have been drawn by the same artist, and the drawings numbered 3 through 10 are signed with the initials "F. B. R." We have been unable to determine who the artist is, exactly when the prints were made, how many were made, or how they were distributed. Anyone who has additional information about these prints is encouraged to contact Librarian Melissa Tacke by phone at 518-374-0263, option 3, or send an email to

Below are images of some of these compelling prints.

This is the first drawing in the series. A 1955 Barney's advertisement in the Union-Star describes this drawing as depicting "H.S. Barney's arrival by mulecart in Schenectady in 1833." In this scene looking east up State Street, viewers can see the Erie Canal, the railroad, and the area that is now Veterans' Park. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

The local fraternal organization Mystic Order of the True Blues was a short-lived organization, being in existence roughly from 1867 to 1870. Joel Henry Monroe in his book Schenectady Ancient and Modern describes platform of the True Blues as being "to awaken Schenectady by carnivals and burlesque shows and characterizations of certain institutions and incidents." According to newspaper reports of the time, upwards of 30,000 out-of-towners visited Schenectady for the 1870 carnival and parade organized by the True Blues. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

A street scene in front of the H.S. Barney Company on State Street around the turn of the twentieth century. The H.S. Barney Company, later known as Barney's, was a fixture in downtown Schenectady until the store closed its doors in 1973.  Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

This drawing seems to have been inspired by Schenectady's 1914 flood, described as the worst flood in the city's history. The Mohawk River's level was raised by 25 feet. The flooding forced hundreds of people from their homes, and many people had to be evacuated from their homes in boats. Notice the rats who have commandeered a plank of wood as a raft. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

Although Schenectady was no Chicago in the 1920s, the effect of crime during Prohibition was present in the city. This depiction of Prohibition-era crime may have been been influenced by a story on file in the city police department which was also shared by Larry Hart in his book Schenectady's Golden Era, 1880-1930. A bootlegger transporting liquor smuggled from Canada was traveling near Amsterdam on November 7, 1924 when "a high-powered car pulled alongside and another man jumped onto the running board, held a revolver against the driver's heart and ordered him to stop. They took over his cargo, valued at about $3,000, and drove him to the Rotterdam hills and told him to 'start walking.'" The car was later found abandoned near the intersection of State Street and Ferry Street in Schenectady. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

The last in the series of drawings shows a local connection to the stock market crash in 1929 that led to the Great Depression. Two concerned men are shown inside the office of the Edward B. Smith & Co. stocks and investment securities company at 212 State Street in Schenectady. The two men might be the men listed in the 1929 city directory as proprietor and manager -- Edward Smith and Theodore Lydgate. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Collections.

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