Monday, March 30, 2020

COVID-19 Archive Project

We are all making history right now, as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. It's an emergency of historic proportions, and has been compared to the Black Plague, or the 1918 Spanish Flu. Like those past crises, COVID-19 will be a major topic of study for future historians. Years from now, Schenectadians will look back and wonder: “How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect Schenectady County? How did our ancestors respond to the crisis?” "What was life like for people quarantined?"

You can help future researchers understand for themselves what life right now is like. You can help future historians understand the pandemic's immense impact on our community, and on ourselves, and on our way of life. You can help future historians understand how this international emergency changed your life, and changed our world, forever.

Consider recording your unique perspective for inclusion in the SCHS archives. Diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, songs, poems, short stories, and other works of art are all important sources for future historians. Be creative: there are infinite ways you can express yourself, and document the impact of COVID-19 on you, your loved ones, and your neighbors. Help us, by:

--Contributing to a global collection of stories:
--Sharing your story using our form:
--Creating a personal diary, scrapbook, or photo album (analog/physically or digitally)
--Collecting the letters, emails, and notes that you’ve created or received to stay in touch or communicate with others during this difficult time of isolation

--Creating art, poetry, music, and other creative expressions related to the current crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact is an on-going, changing situation. It will take time to document how we are all affected, so we encourage you to contact us when you are ready to donate your materials whether that's today, or in the next few weeks, or several years from now. We're open to collecting materials of any format, digital or analog. If you have questions about ways you can contribute to the SCHS archive collection, or about documenting your experiences, contact the SCHS librarian, Marietta Carr, at

Pages from Sadie Levi's diary 1886. Learn more about this diary:

Tips for creating journals, diaries, and scrapbooks:
  • Pick your format. You can jot notes in a calendar, doodle and write in a blank notebook, or record yourself in a video log. It doesn't matter if you choose an analog format or a digital one as long as it works for you.
  • Schedule time for writing and/or construction. Set aside 10-15 minutes a day or whatever works for you for time and frequency. As long as you are regularly adding to your creation, you're creating historical value.
  • There is no wrong way to keep a journal or scrapbook. Add content that is meaningful to you in whatever way works best for you.
  • If you need inspiration, try answering the following questions:
    • What did you do today? How was today different from yesterday or a typical day in your life?
    • Who did you talk to today? What did you talk about? How did you feel during and after the conversation?
    • What new piece of information did you learn today? How do you think you will use this information? Where did this information come from? Why do you trust the source of this information?
    • Why did you decide to keep this journal or scrapbook?
    • When did you first become aware of the COVID-19 pandemic? What were your first thoughts or feelings?
    • Have you ever experienced an outbreak or similar situation before? How have you prepared or responded to this situation? How have the people around responded?
    • What brings you joy or comfort right now? What are your biggest concerns right now?
    • Think about what your 'normal' life entails and then describe how the current situation differs from your 'normal.' Talk about yourself: where you work, what activities you do, where you live, and who is in your family.
Tips for collecting letters, documents, art, and other creative expressions:
  • Designate a single location for your collection, whether that's a box or a digital folder
  • Don't worry about collecting every single possible item. Focus on making a habit of saving a copy of your documents in that single location.
  • Write or record information about your collection such as who participated in creating it, when you started and finished collecting, and what formats (e.g. email, JPGs, photos, letters) are present in the collection.
  • Find an organization that makes sense to you and record a few notes about that organization. Did you sort items by type (e.g. all of the photos are together in one folder) or by creator (e.g. everything your spouse created is its own folder)? Did you do something else like alphabetize or organize by date?
  • Contact the SCHS librarian if you have questions about formats, organization, or preservation.
Letter from Charles Snell, sent while he was stationed in the South Pacific during WWII.

The SCHS COVID-19 Archive Project is one of many similar projects that archives around the world have started to document this historic period. Our project is informed by and modeled after the Society of American Archivists Documenting in Times of Crisis Resource Kit, History Colorado COVID-19 Experiences Project, and the Mass Observation Archive.

We wish you and your loved ones the very best. Be in touch and be safe.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Elizabeth Gillette, Schenectady's First Woman Surgeon

This blog was written by Grems Doolittle Library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Even as a child, Bessie Gillette didn’t conform to the norm. When other girls were making clothes for their dolls, she was making furniture. While their dolls were the mother or daughter of the dollhouse, Bessie’s was a doctor. When they played girls' games, she ran a drugstore from the family woodshed using tapioca from the kitchen as pills and colored water as potions. This wasn’t surprising considering almost all of her mother’s family were doctors and surgeons. They were also men.

Born in Granby, Connecticut on October 21, 1874, Elizabeth “Bessie” Van Rensselaer Gillette was the daughter of Albert Henry Gillette, a carpenter, and Mary Pinney Jewett Gillette. Her mother’s family were early settlers in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and her father’s family stretched back to the settlers of Gramby and Simsbury, Connecticut. Her family boasts several well-known ancestors, including Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers and Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut.  Her middle name comes from her mother’s uncle, Van Rensselaer Pinney, who died at the beginning of the Civil War. She had two older sisters, Angie Emma, who was born in 1869, and Lura Mary, who died two days after her birth in 1872.

In 1882, when Bessie was eight years old, a typhoid epidemic swept through their town. Bessie, her sister, and several cousins were victims. Bessie was sick for months, but her sister Angie and some cousins did not survive. After her recovery, she was a nervous and weak child. To build up strength, she spent much of her time outdoors riding horses, skating, climbing trees, and participating in sports.

After attending local district schools, Bessie was sent to a boarding school in Simsbury at the age of ten, and three years later to the Misses Booth Private School in Hartford. After graduation she attended Woodside College for Girls in Hartford. As a young woman with a mind of her own, Elizabeth wanted to follow in the footsteps of family members and become a physician. Her family and friends advised against it, thinking she was too delicate. She persisted and entered the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in 1894. She graduated in 1898, losing only 3 days during that time to illness.

Elizabeth Gillette, circa 1890s. Photo from Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Now Dr. Gillette, she interned at Women’s Hospital in New York City, receiving her medical license in 1899. She continued working there as a staff physician and also worked in several of the city’s clinics. Additionally, she volunteered time in Mission Schools where she even taught stenography, keeping two lessons ahead of her students.

In 1900, at the age of 25, Elizabeth moved to Schenectady where she had an uncle, watchmaker and jeweler Charles Bickelmann. She opened a private practice on June 1st of that year in a home she purchased at 254 (now 252) Union Street, at the corner of College Street. Although not the first female physician in Schenectady (that distinction goes to Dr. Janet Murray who opened a practice on Jay Street in 1893), Elizabeth was the first licensed female surgeon in Schenectady County. While quite unusual for the time, she was warmly welcomed by her male counterparts and later invited to join the Medical Society of Schenectady County.
Dr. Gillette's house at 252 Union Street. Photo by G. Denisoff, 2020.

Elizabeth was a familiar figure around Schenectady. She often made house calls, first by horse and carriage and soon after by automobile. In 1904, she bought a 14 horse power Maxwell and was often asked by local car dealers to be photographed in her car to inspire other women to purchase one.

Dr. Gillette in her 1904 Maxwell. Photo from the Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

After encountering several cases of cruelty to children in her practice, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to create a Humane Society in Schenectady which later included a home and shelter. In addition to being a founder, she also served as secretary of the society for many years. During World War I, she became involved in home front efforts and taught first aid classes and home care to soldiers’ families.

Elizabeth continued to study medicine all her life to keep up to date on new methods and procedures, especially in surgery, bacteriology and general medicine. She became a certified examiner for mental illnesses and a member of the surgical group of Ellis Hospital. Upon her 50th year of practice, she was honored by the Schenectady Medical Society for her meritorious service.

Dr. Gillette in her office, circa 1950. Photo published in the Daily Gazette.
With several lawmaker ancestors, it was no surprise that Elizabeth had a keen interested in politics. In 1919, a year before women obtained the vote, she was encouraged by Mayor George Lunn to run as a Democrat for the New York State Assembly from Schenectady District 2 and won by only 247 votes, becoming the first woman in upstate New York to be elected to the legislature and the last Democrat from Schenectady County to win until 1964. Her focus was on healthcare, regulation of drugs and mandating physicals for children working in factories. She also worked on local projects such as the construction of a well and pumping station to increase water supply and for funding to continue bridge and canal construction in her district all while maintaining her practice. At that time, terms lasted only one year and in 1920 she was defeated by Republican William Campbell who later became Mayor of Schenectady. She always encouraged women to become involved in politics, and in 1957, advised, “Vote in every election, go to every political meeting possible, learn all you can about political affairs – and always be a lady.”

Dr. Gillette, Legislative Portrait. Photo from New York Red Book, 1920.
She shared her large home with several boarders over the years. Around 1910 her parents came to live with her until their deaths in the 1920s. She was also interested in travel and in the 1930s took several prolonged ocean voyages. In 1931 she sailed to England and France, in 1933 from New York to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal and to Italy in 1935.

Elizabeth Gillette practiced medicine in Schenectady for six decades and was once nominated for the New York State “Doctor of the Year” award. By the mid 1950s she had slowed down a bit but still described herself as “one of those hard-core Connecticut Yankees.” She stopped making night calls and delivering babies, but declared, “I’m not in the operating room much anymore but I still set broken bones, something I love to do,” and planned to keep working “as long as my body will let me, I want to die in harness.”

Elizabeth Gillette and Agnes Haren. Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

Dr. Gillette retired in 1959 at the age of 85, but stayed involved with civic organizations including the Schenectady Humane Society, the Schenectady Historical Society (a life member), and as life member and vice president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Gillette died at the age of 90 on June 26th, 1965, in her home. She never married and was survived by several cousins and her longtime live-in housekeeper and friend Agnes Haren. After private services locally, she was buried in her family plot at Granby Cemetery in her birthplace of Granby, Connecticut.

Elizabeth Gillette's gravestone. Photo by M. Cooley, 2015. Posted on

She has been honored posthumously over the years for her contributions to the medical field. In 2000, Dr. Gillette was a recipient of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce Women of Excellence Award. She earned recognition in 2017 as an inductee to the New York Historic Women of Distinction list by the New York State Senate.

Elizabeth’s Union Street home changed hands several times over the years, eventually falling into disrepair. Efforts were undertaken in the early 2000s by Schenectady County to restore it. The home is unique because it is one of the only Italianate style homes in the Stockade and serves as a gateway to the historic district. The exterior now looks similar to when she lived there and it still carries on a medical tradition with a woman chiropractor practicing on the first floor.

"Biography of Elizabeth Van R. Gillette," The Medical Society of the County of Schenectady Capital Region Scrapbook: Pioneers in Medicine, Daily Gazette, by Jeff Wilkin, 7/13/2009
"Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer “Bessie” Gillette," Find a Grave database and images
"Dr. Elizabeth Gillette," Schenectady Daily Gazette Obituary, June 28, 1965 
New York Red Book, An Illustrated State Manual, 1920
New York State Census 1905, 1915, 1925.
Schenectady County buys Gillette House, Spotlight News, by Jessica Harding, 9/14/2009.
United States Federal Census, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
Women of Distinction, NYS Senate, 2017 Historical Inductees Honoring Women’s History Month

Saturday, March 14, 2020

What's in the box? Opening the County Home Time Capsules

Time capsules have been a popular way of commemorating and documenting occasions like anniversaries, business openings, significant calendar years, and completed construction. Creating a time capsule is a way to engage the community, reflect on the occasion or current moment, and communicate with future generations. Setting a time capsule can be a celebratory event, but unsealing one is often a delicate process. It's often difficult to know what kind of deterioration has happened to the materials inside. Unfortunately, capsules are often lost or damaged. Sometimes, we get lucky and everything goes well, the contents are undamaged, and the capsule completes its purpose.

A few weeks ago, County Historian Bill Buell arrived at the Grems-Doolittle Library with two copper boxes. They had been found in a closet in the County Office building and nobody was sure where they came from. We decided to open them up and take a look.
What's in the box? This sealed copper box was found in a closet without any accompanying documentation.

One of the boxes was unsealed, so we lifted the lid and discovered a cache of newspapers, documents, and books. There was also a milk bottle cap. One of the documents revealed the box's purpose: commemorating the completed construction of the Schenectady County Home in 1934.
Program in Connection with Laying of the Cornerstone of the Schenectady County Home, July 14, 1934.

The Schenectady County Home is now called the Glendale Home. We decided that the time capsule was likely unearthed during the 2015 demolition of the Glendale Home facilities. We speculated that other box was a time capsule from a later addition to the County Home, but the box was sealed and we couldn't confirm until we opened it.
John, our facilities manager and blacksmith, checked the capsule for weaknesses and determined the best approach for opening it without harming the contents.

The capsule was sealed by folding a lip over the edge of the lid and reinforcing it with adhesive. John pried up the edge of the lip and forced a weak spot.

We're in! Once the lip was breached, John could grab the lid and prise it up.

Copper is a soft metal, so we could roll the top back like a sardine can lid. Time capsules usually are designed to be carefully destroyed when opened. If they were easier to open, they would be less effective in preserving their contents.

The first item emerges! The contents of this capsule are in good condition which shows how well the capsule did its job.

Like the previous capsule, this one contained newspapers, documents, and books. It did not contain a program explaining the occasion, but one of the documents was a speech titled "Remarks by Harold F. Lews, Chairman, Board of Supervisors. Dedication of Infirmary Building - October 30, 1960." One of the newspapers contained an article describing the addition of the Infirmary to the County Home.
Time capsules often include newspapers from the day the capsule is interred.
The 1960 time capsule included 31 cents and a Certs mint. Coins are often included in time capsules. We decided not to eat the mint, though it seemed to be in excellent condition.

For more information on the history of the County Home, check out the following sources:

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Schenectady in the election of 1860

This post was written by library volunteer George Wise.

This election year of 2020 seems unprecedented in its turmoil and polarization, but there was at least one more turbulent and polarized precedent: the election year of 1860. How did that one play out in Schenectady?

Slavery was the main polarizing national issue, but what did that mean locally in the city? Slavery had been abolished in New York decades previously, and the Schenectady's African American population had fallen from nearly 10% of the city's population, almost all slaves, in 1800, to less than 2% of the population, all free, in 1860.

In the Schenectady of 1860 that central national theme of slavery was overshadowed by a list of issues surprisingly similar to a list for 2020: the impact of new information technologies, immigration, race, and the power of corporations.

The new information technologies included the engine-powered high-speed printing press. By 1860, Schenectady, like other cities, used this new type of printing press to turn out daily newspapers in place of the previous weeklies. This greatly shortened a citizen's political response time.

Schenectady had helped pioneer this new technology. The city's Clute Brothers Machine Works was a principal manufacturer of a low cost competitor to the steam engine that was used for running those new high speed printing presses. This was the hot air engine invented by the Swedish American engineer John Ericson. Though important in 1860, its use would soon fade. However, the connection between the Clute Brothers and Ericson would have a more important sequel a few years later when the Clute Brothers supplied an important mechanism for Ericson's most famous invention, the ironclad warship Monitor.

Advertisement for Clute Brothers, circa 1868. Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.

Schenectady's Democrats, the city's party of wealth and prestige at the time, got the technological  jump on rivals by controlling the city's first daily newspaper, the Daily News. This enabled an 1860s version of a flash mob, sending the Democrats' political young men's club, the "Little Giants" (a reference to the nickname of Democratic Presidential candidate Stephen Douglas), on impromptu torchlight processions through the city, in numbers reported (probably with some exaggeration) as in the "thousands." Republicans responded with their own marchers, the "Wide Awakes." They were, however, at a disadvantage due to the lower frequency of their newspaper, the Weekly Republican.

In Schenectady, in the 1850s, both of those familiar parties lagged behind a competitor that made opposition to immigration its main issue. This was the American or "Know Nothing" party. In Schenectady that party's anti-Catholic message was largely directed at the rapidly growing Irish-born  population. Their nativist message succeeded. The Know Nothings won almost all of Schenectady's local elections from 1854 until 1860.

Nationally, the Know Nothings peaked in 1854, and were in serious decline by 1860. Schenectady, however, bucked that trend. It served as the site of the 1860 New York State Convention of the Know Nothing Party. The Weekly Republican reported on 31 Aug 1860 that “the political waters of the state were troubled yesterday, and the vilest maddest eddy of all seemed to center and whirl its political filth in our city.” The Know Nothing Party's chairman, General Gustavus Scroggs of Buffalo, opened proceedings protected by what the paper described as his “motley gang” of thugs. Suspecting a plot by Scruggs to turn the convention to support of the Republicans, members of the audience charged the stage, routed Scruggs' bodyguards, and tried to turn the party's support to the Democratic candidate, Douglas.

Some of the convention, however, led by Schenectady's most prominent Know Nothing, ex-mayor  Abel Smith, retreated to a local hotel where they nominated Tennessee's John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party for president. Meanwhile, another Know Nothing faction retired to another hotel and nominated Texas war hero and ex-governor Sam Houston.

This splintering of parties in the city mirrored party politics across the nation. Among Schenectady Democrats, the most recently elected Democrat mayor (and first Jewish mayor), Mordecai Myers, supported the Southern Rights Democrat nominee, John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The city's venerable Democrat leader, former state senator and current State Supreme Court Justice Alonzo Paige, supported the organization Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas. Paige was, in turn ambushed by his own brother-in-law Platt Potter, who switched to the Republican party and then defeated Paige for his elective Supreme Court post.

Meanwhile, a third prominent Democrat, former U.S.Representative Peter Rowe, successfully urged Democrats to fuse locally with the Know Nothings. Four parties took part in the April 1860 local elections: Republican, Citizens, Democratic-Know Nothing Fusion, and Independent Know Nothings. The Democratic-Know Nothing Fusion Party swept all the local offices except mayor. The Republicans won that post when the Citizens Party withdrew its own candidate and endorsed the then victorious Republican.
Arthur W. Hunter, mayor of Schenectady 1861-1863. Hunter Family Photos, Grems-Doolittle Library.
Further adding to the partisan confusion, while foreshadowing today, was the issue of big money and corporate influence. In those days that money and influence was wielded by the Democrats. The Weekly Republican condemned  the Democratic Party’s "New York Central candidates." Chauncey Vibbard of Schenectady, Superintendent of the New York Central railroad, was running for U.S. Congress in Schenectady County. His boss, New York Central chairman Erastus Corning, was the Democrats' Congressional candidate in Albany County. The Weekly Republican described them as “running while they hold in their hands the immense patronage and power of our state’s greatest and richest corporation.”

Amid all these issues, splits, and fusions, the national issue of slavery was, locally, subdued. The Democrats did not defend slavery, but instead accused the Republicans of promoting racial equality.

A local Democratic newspaper urged voters to “ask your neighbor if he is in favor of aiding unprincipled politicians in their ambitious designing for office and power by continuing the agitation on the slavery question either in reference to the states or territories when there is in fact no practical open issue remaining on the subject, short of insurrectionary abolition toward the slaveholding states.”

The territorial question, the article continued, “is substantially settled in favor of freedom.” Republicans were accused of the “placing of the black population upon a political and social level with the white descendants of the men who achieved our National Independence” and of “negro diffusing doctrines.”

Lincoln was denounced as  a radical abolitionist: “How can a man supporting such views take the oath to support the constitution  .... he hates what that instrument upholds... it is a wonder that he was not in the expedition of John Brown against Virginia” Continuing this theme, Schenectady's Daily News accused the local Republican candidate for Congress of favoring the giving “to every negro in New York the right to vote, the right to sit as a juror, the right to hold office.”

In response, the Republicans did not so much attack slavery or defend African American rights as position themselves as the party of moderation. “The Republican party is the only truly conservative and national party of the country, standing between the ultraists of the slave extending Democracy on the one hand, and the abolitionists on the other.”

Schenectady's Weekly Republican  dismissed abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker as “lunatics” and described female abolitionists as “strong minded women whose platform has sunk lower and lower until it is almost under the mire of vice and sensuality.” The presidential election, the Weekly Republican said, was "an uprising of Northern freemen against the tyranny of southern domination," not a contest for “negro rights." Republicans were here responding to a general lack of sympathy in Schenectady County for the political rights of New York's free African Americans. An 1860 state wide referendum aimed at removing property requirements from New York's African- American voters lost in Schenectady County by the landslide margin of 2215 to 552. This was even  higher than the 2-to-1 margin by which the measure lost statewide.

After all the chaos, accusations and enthusiasm of the campaign, the local presidential balloting in November was anticlimactic. By then, Lincoln's nationwide victory was assured.  The city of Schenectady, however, remained contrarian, with the Democrat and Union Party candidate Stephen Douglas edging Republican Abraham Lincoln 998 to 965. This reversed the Schenectady County result, a victory by a 5% margin for Lincoln, and the 2-to-1 statewide  Lincoln victory. Democrat-plutocrats Vibbard and Corning won their races for Congress.

The Democrats would retain their city edge throughout the Civil War, winning again in 1864 for Democratic candidate George McClellan. The Know Nothings in contrast, would disappear after 1860, leaving the Republicans as the city's second party.

In conclusion, in Schenectady the election of 1860 was far from a referendum on the subject of slavery, or even of slavery in the territories. Instead it was a chaotic mixture of political realignment, negative stereotypes of immigrants, abolitionists, and African Americans, and hinted at the emerging importance of communications technologies and corporate power in politics.