Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Schenectady Progress Exposition of 1924

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Schenectady had a lot to be proud of in 1924. An intensive street lighting system had just been installed, the new Great Western Gateway Bridge was under construction, both the American Locomotive and General Electric Companies had expanded their works, Union College had built a new chapel, Erie Boulevard was being developed, the new Hotel Van Curler was set to open, the Community Chest had been established and the population of the city had passed the 100,000 mark. To celebrate these and other accomplishments, the Chamber of Commerce decided to hold an exposition to showcase Schenectady's progress in industry, education, mercantile, electricity and many other areas. The purpose of the exposition was “To inspire Schenectady with a perception of its growth in resources and ability and to prompt it to go forward to still further accomplishments in every field.

Rows of tents lined the streets of Erie Boulevard for the Schenectady Progress Exposition held from September 19-27, 1924. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
Local businesses, stores, civic organizations, manufacturers, schools, churches, hospitals, music, art and theater groups, and public health and service organizations were quick to jump on board to promise booths and activities for the exposition. The Women's Club of Schenectady was to oversee the exposition restaurant for special meals and “lunch at all times”. The food concession would benefit their organization and provide food service “consistent with the high quality of the exposition”. A parade would kick off the festivities and there would be fireworks, concerts, shows and competitions in addition to display booths by participants. Businesses advertised sales and special events to coincide with the exposition and the Schenectady Gazette followed the preparations with numerous articles. Requests for booth space far exceeded expectations and it was reported that thousands of people took part in decorating the booths and turning the exhibition tents into a "little city of interests and surprises". Cranes were used to bring in massive machinery to display in the large General Electric space.

View of Erie Boulevard during the Exposition. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
After a year of planning, the exposition opened to great fanfare on Friday night, September 19th, preceded by a huge parade. The Schenectady Gazette reported that the crowd lining State Street and Erie Boulevard was the largest to ever assemble in the city. State Street's new intensive ornamental street lighting system was turned on for the first time immediately prior to the start of the parade and two powerful search lights, mounted on top of GE's Building 31, swept Erie Boulevard. The parade kicked off at 7:30 from the Armory and proceeded down State street led and escorted by mounted police. Fireworks exploded above Erie Boulevard as the parade turned onto the street. Nearly 5000 people marched in the parade including 1600 members of the combined GE and ALCO Quarter Century Clubs. Led by parade organizers, three units of Schenectady's Militia marched in the first Division behind the 105th Regimental Band. Division two was comprised of Schenectady Police and Fire Department members. Boy Scouts marched in Division three followed by the Quarter Century Club members in Division four. Marching bands led each division.

The crowd was so large at the end of the parade that dignitaries had trouble getting through the gates of the exposition. When they finally got in, they proceeded through the mammoth 1400 foot-long exposition tent into the automobile tent where a speakers platform was set up. John F. Horman, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and William Dalton, the chairman of the Exposition Committee gave welcoming speeches followed by a lengthy speech by Schenectady Mayor William W. Campbell all which were broadcast by radio station WGY.

Photo of construction of the "million dollar Hotel Van Curler" and major point of pride for Schenectady mayor William W. Campbell. The hotel was constructed in 1924 and would be opened the following year in 1925. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
“The exposition is being held in celebration of an unprecedented era of growth and achievement that the city now finds itself”, the Mayor declared. He went on to expound on major areas of pride: Erie Boulevard development in which community enterprises took advantage of the abandoned canal to create the finest cross street in the city and the best lighted thoroughfare in the world; the new million dollar Hotel Van Curler which would open the following spring; the Union College Chapel, built with community contributions to honor the fallen of World War I; the American Locomotive Company which had completed the second of two new buildings; General Electric had also added new buildings to their works and purchased 260 acres on River Road to expand its operation; the creation of a community chest to handle welfare projects in a progressive fashion; widening and straightening of Washington Avenue to give the city a beautiful riverfront boulevard; and surpassing the 100,000 mark in population.

Due to the unprecedented crowd watching the parade, thousands of people had to be turned away from the exposition the first night. Every night for the following week, fireworks exploded over Erie Boulevard. Two concerts were held each day with many local bands and choral groups performing. Visitors enjoyed browsing the many booths and viewing the latest car models in the automotive tent. Several “style shows” were held with fashions from local department stores H.S. Barney Company, Carl Company and Wallace Company as well as smaller specialty shops. A dahlia show featuring rare varieties and creative arrangements was a highlight of week as well as a pet show, an amateur radio show and a perfect child health contest.

Two of the entrants in the Perfect Child Health Contest held at the Schenectady Progress Exposition. Courtesy of
The “Perfect Child Health Contest” was promoted in the Schenectady Gazette during the week of the exposition. Photos of some of the children who were entered in the contest were featured each day. The contest was advertised not as a beauty or popularity contest but a contest to find the city's healthiest child. More than 230 children participated and were examined by a committee headed by Dr. John Collins, Commissioner of Health. This group was narrowed to 45 who were reexamined by a committee consisting of five medical doctors, one eye specialist, one dentist, two nurses and two artists. That group was narrowed to 9 children from whom the top three winners were chosen. Major consideration in the contest was given to “physical form and physique”. Elizabeth Draisey was judged to be Schenectady's most perfect child with Jeanne Bonnar coming in second and Thomas Corrigan, the only boy to make it into the final round, earning third place.  All three children were four years old.

Many other awards were given at the conclusion of the exposition. Prizes were awarded in several categories of the Dahlia exhibition, a black and white pony won the first-place medal in the pet contest, an award of $5.00 in gold was given to the best homemade radio set and medals were awarded in a typewriting contest. Booth displays were also judged in various categories. General Electric removed itself from consideration due to their displays being "an exposition in itself and the greatest display ever put on by the company". Among the winners were the Mica Insulating Company, Ellis Hospital, the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, Jay Jewelry Company, White Studios, Photo-Lab, the Maqua Company and Standard Oil Company. Special mention was given to the Boy Scout, Girl Scout and public school booths.  Individual booths also had raffles for prizes.  Over 50,000 people registered to win ten tons of coal in the booth sponsored by the Association of Coal Retailers.  James Beverley of Marshall Ave. was the lucky winner.

Installing the lights for the "best lighted street in the world." Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
In addition to the Chamber of Commerce committee, two well-known men were instrumental in the overall success of the exposition.  World renowned General Electric lighting engineer, Walter D'Arcy Ryan, planned the lighting design which included much of the ornamental street lighting that became a permanent installation on Erie Boulevard and State Street as well as the floodlights that swept over Erie Boulevard during the week of the exposition. His lighting design for Erie Boulevard made it the best lighted street in the world, a distinction it held for many years.  William A. Hart, was the director of the event.  He had directed numerous expositions throughout the country and proclaimed Schenectady's was the best event of its kind he ever had the privilege of conducting. Hart also directed a successful campaign the year before to fund the building of the new Hotel Van Curler.

Although this photo was taken a bit later in 1947, it gives a good idea of what Erie Boulevard might have looked like at night during the Exposition. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library's photo collection.
In the week following the close of the exposition, the tents, booths and displays were dismantled and removed. The streets were swept clean, nails were picked up by hand and the streets washed by fire hose at the expense of the exposition committee. Due to the success of the exposition, civic groups were refunded expenses they incurred for their booths and $100 was donated to both the police and fire department pension funds in thanks for "the excellent protection provided". When the accounting was completed it was announced there were over 76,000 paid admissions in addition to almost two thousand people entering with free passes. The Chamber of Commerce was pleased with their $10,000 profit after expenses which they planned to use to promote Schenectady in the future. In an editorial, the Gazette noted "From the standpoint of the city, the exposition has done more than any one thing in Schenectady's history to 'sell' the city to its own people. It has shown them in compact form what Schenectady is, and has actually resulted in arousing civic pride."  Schenectady has hosted other expositions, trade shows and Metrofairs over the years but none could match the Progress Exposition of 1924.


  1. Beautifully written and illustrated. I came to Schenectady in the 50s, but a lot still looks the same!

    1. Thank you Kathie, I'll pass your comments on to the author.