Monday, April 5, 2021

Book Review: America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights by Jerry Mikorenda

This post was written by volunteer Martin Strosberg.

One hundred years before Rosa Parks ignited the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Elizabeth Jennings refused to leave a segregated New York City horse-drawn streetcar. She was thrown off and roughed up by the conductor and driver. She sued. Arguing on her behalf was 24 year-old Chester Alan Arthur, future President of the United States. As a result of the landmark 1854 case, Elizabeth Jennings vs. The Third Avenue Railroad, the New York City public transit system was desegregated. Jerry Mikorenda tells this story of this momentous court decision. But it is only a small part of his book: an account of the epic struggle for civil rights and dignity among the African-American population of New York City in the 19th century.

Elizabeth Jennings (1827-1901), 27 years old at the time, was a member of a prominent New York African American family long active in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Her forcible removal from the streetcar received wide-spread attention in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. Given the publicity and the prominence of the family, it is not that surprising that her father, Thomas Jennings, filed a lawsuit. What is more surprising is how Chester Arthur became the attorney arguing his very first case.

Chester Arthur (1829-1886), a genteel but impoverished 1848 graduate of Union College, chose the law as his profession. He started at the State and National Law School in Ballston Spa but left because of financial difficulties. Through connections of his father, an ardent abolitionist minister, he received an apprenticeship clerking at the New York law offices of Culver and Parker, a firm specializing in defending African Americans from the Fugitive Slave Act. When Culver, the partner who originally took the Jennings’s case, was elected to a judgeship, young Arthur was thrust into the role as trial attorney before the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

The Third Avenue Railroad argued that it was not responsible for the actions of its employees (i.e., the conductor and driver) albeit they were carrying out racist company policy. The neophyte Arthur won the case by citing an 1824 law that showed that common carriers like the Third Avenue Railroad were in fact responsible for heinous actions of their employees. The court awarded damages to Elizabeth Jennings for her pain and suffering. With that outcome, the Third Avenue Railroad decided to desegregate its line. For years afterward, in the African American community, February 22, 1855 was celebrated as “Elizabeth Jennings Day.” Arthur became a hero to the African American community.

The account of the trial is mostly based on newspaper reports. Unfortunately, two days before his death in 1886, Arthur burned his voluminous collection of private papers. These papers might have given us greater insight into the case. Although his presidential administration was whistle-clean, apparently he did not want his Tammany Hall activities to see the light of day. But that loss to the historical record could only delay but not stop the Elizabeth Jennings story from being told.

In 2007 New York City named a block of Park Row "Elizabeth Jennings Place" because of her many achievements on behalf of the African American Community, as ably documented in Mikorenda’s book. As for President Chester Arthur (1881-1885), a statue of him was erected in 1899 in New York’s Madison Square Park. And, of course, we know of the statue of Arthur on the Union College campus in Schenectady.

Jerry Mikorenda, America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights, Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2020, 241 pages.

Statue of Chester A. Arthur on Union College campus. Union College File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Mary Daly -- Radical Feminist Philosopher

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

A fierce “radical feminist” and one of the most influential feminist thinkers of the 20th century who battled Boston College, challenged organized religion, the global oppression of women and patriarchal societies, Mary Daly grew up much more conventionally in Schenectady NY. 

Image from Mary Daly's personal collection, published in Waterwheel, Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.

Born on October 16, 1928, Mary was the only child of Frank X. Daly and his wife, Anna C. Morse. Frank, born in 1888, was an ice cream freezer salesman for Daly Brothers Ice Cream on Eastern Avenue while Anna, born in 1890, was a homemaker. Raised in a devout Irish Catholic home on Grosvenor Square, Mary attended local parochial schools including St. John the Evangelist, where she developed an interest in philosophy and theology. At the age of 9 or 10, she was taunted by a boy in her class that he was going to be an altar boy but she could never serve mass because she was only a girl. This encounter sparked a rage that continued throughout her life against the gender caste system, which she later called “patriarchy”, in the Catholic Church as well as all organized religion.

The limits placed on girls were evident throughout her childhood. She recalled an incident when a saleswoman selling children’s books visited her home. One of the books that interested Mary was about ships. When her mother tried to order it, she was dissuaded by the saleswoman who said it was silly to order a book about ships for a girl. This only increased Mary’s interest in ships, especially pirate ships, which she imagined could sail among the stars where there would be no such restrictions. In high school she noticed the “intellectual shortcomings” of boys which she felt obstructed her educational progress because teachers were forced to move more slowly, thus concluding that the concept of male intellectual superiority was only a myth.

Mary’s mother nurtured her interests and educational aspirations. Anna had loved school but was forced to leave during her sophomore year to help out her family. Because of this, she wanted Mary to have the educational opportunities she didn’t have.

Her father was also pulled out of school at a young age. As a child, Mary was always impressed that even though he didn’t go past eighth grade he had written a book, published in 1914, titled “What Every Ice Cream Dealer Should Know.” Seeing a box of these books in her home inspired her desire to be a writer, although she didn’t yet know what she would write about.

Throughout her life, Mary felt she was particularly receptive to visions or messages from nature. She wrote about an incident at the age 14 when she had an extraordinary communication from a clover blossom. She recalled: “It said, with utmost simplicity, ‘I am’. It was an experience I would later call ‘an intuition of Be-ing, the Verb in which we all participate’. Such invitations to my adolescent spirit were somehow intimately connected with the call of books. It was this encounter that launched me on my quest to become a Radical Feminist philosopher.”

Image from Mary Daly's personal collection, published in Waterwheel, Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.

Encouraged by her parents, she initially realized her academic goals in a Catholic system of higher education, which she felt limited the rise of women, receiving a BA from the College of St. Rose in 1950, and a MA from Catholic University in Washington, DC in 1952. It was while she was studying for a Masters in English she had a dream that she should study philosophy followed by a vision of herself teaching theology, a subject she had never considered before.  Soon after, she saw an ad for The School of Sacred Theology for Women at St. Mary’s College, in Notre Dame, Indiana. It was a new program and when Mary contacted the school about it, she was offered a scholarship and a part time teaching position. She felt challenged at St. Mary’s and after obtaining her Ph.D in Religion in 1954, she hoped to continue her studies in philosophy. Since no universities in the US would allow women in their Ph.D programs for philosophy, she ended up teaching at a small Massachusetts college for five years. Not giving up her aspirations, she was granted a scholarship to the University of Freiburg in Switzerland where she spent seven years and obtained four additional degrees including Ph.Ds in both Philosophy and Theology.

While Mary was in Switzerland, living on a shoestring budget, she managed to travel around Europe a bit. In 1965 she visited Rome for the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. While there, she sat in on sessions where she took note of the contrast between the cardinals and bishops, resplendent in their crimson robes and the few women in attendance as "auditors", nuns sitting docilely in their black habits. She found the contrast appalling and compared the sight of the veiled nuns shuffling to the altar to receive communion from a priest, to a string of lowly ants at a bizarre picnic. This solidified her theory that all of the major religions as well as secular offshoots were just the framework of the concept of patriarchy, created to shield men against unpredictability and disorder – that disorder being the presence of women.

When she returned to the United State in 1966, Mary was ready to “throw my life as far as it would go.” She accepted a position teaching theology at the then all-male Boston College.  She proved to be a popular professor with her radical ideas and Irish humor. In 1968 her first book, The Church and the Second Sex, was published in which she exposed the misogynism of the Catholic Church. The book proved to be popular as well as controversial with Mary making several television appearances promoting it. It was not as well received at the Jesuit-run Boston College - her tenure was not granted and she was given a “terminal contract.”  Although the college didn’t cite her book as a reason for her firing, the students made the connection and over 1500 demonstrated on her behalf and over 2500 signed a petition protesting her dismissal, resulting in national and international publicity. The college backed down and reluctantly granted her tenure and a promotion. A second book published in 1973, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, became one of the most widely read books in the field of feminist studies.

Image from Mary Daly's personal collection, published in Waterwheel, Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.

On November 17, 1971, Mary became the first woman in 336 years to preach at Harvard’s  Memorial Church. When she was invited, she felt it was tokenism rather than an honor and thought of declining. She decided to accept “with the intention of giving an anti-sermon that would be a clarion call to all to abandon patriarchal religion” where women and children were marginalized. Urging a mass exodus, hundreds of women as well as some men marched out of the church with Mary.

In 1975, she was denied a full professorship at Boston College on the grounds that she had not produced “substantive work” despite her books and many papers. She was granted a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities grant and took a year off from teaching to write. In the resulting book published in 1978, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Mary shone a light on what she considered injustices and atrocities against women. Boston College administration did not take kindly to the book and made her academic life difficult despite the fact that her presence on campus attracted new students, visiting professors, and prestigious speakers.

During the 1980s Mary continued to write. In 1984 she published Pure Lust:  Elemental Feminist Philosophy, a follow-up to Gyn/Ecology, urging women to have the courage to sin. Realizing the need for a new language to express women's realities, she wrote Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the  English Language, with Jane Caputi in 1987, a dictionary offering strong feminist definitions of words for "Wicked Women." Both were well received.

In 1989, Mary again applied for a promotion to full professor. Despite her publications and influence, she was rejected once more. Fellow faculty and colleagues from around the country, Canada, and Europe sent letters of protest. Students and some faculty protested on her behalf without success. Boston College’s committee wrote, “the Committee recognized the contrast between your works and the more typical demonstrations of scholarly methodology in publications by which candidates for promotion to Professor are judged.”

Undaunted, Mary continued her career at Boston College, writing and accepting speaking engagements around the world. In 1992 she published Outercourse: the Bedazzling Voyage, a philosophical autobiography. Quintessence: Realizing the Archaic Future - a Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto followed in 1998.

In 1999 she refused to allow two male students to enroll in her feminist ethics class. Although she had taught men until the college became coed, she began to teach women-only classes after that, stating the presence of men often intimidated women and prevented them from speaking freely. She taught feminism classes to men separately for years and offered to do so for these two students. Instead they chose to sue Boston College with backing from the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative advocacy group. Boston College revoked her tenure and announced that she had agreed to retire. Mary sued them for violation of tenure. In 2001 they settled out of court, the college still maintaining she retired, Mary stating she “was disappeared."

Image from Mary Daly's personal collection, published in Waterwheel, Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.

After leaving Boston College, Mary continued lecturing, mentoring graduate students, and writing.  Her last book, Amazon Grace: Recalling the Courage to Sin Big was published in 2006. In her late 70s, Mary's health began to fail. She was faithfully cared for at home by a group of her former students and friends, calling themselves Team Mary, until she became too ill and entered a nursing home. Mary died at the age of 81 on January 3, 2010, and her ashes were buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. She bequeathed her papers to Smith College which are available to researchers.

Although her methods were far from conventional, Mary was one of the foremost feminist thinkers of the 20th century. Often referring to herself as a "positively revolting hag," Mary Daly had the courage to speak boldly and “sin big.” She continues to be an important influence in the field of feminist theology and philosophy.

Image from Mary Daly's personal collection, published in Waterwheel, Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.

Bindel, Julie. "Mary Daly Obituary." The Guardian. January 27, 2010.
Daly, Mary. "Sin Big." The New Yorker. February 26 and March 4, 1996.
Fox, Margalit. "Mary Daly, a Leader in Feminist Theology, Dies at 81." New York Times. January 6, 2010.
Hunt, Mary. "Mary Daly - 1928 to 2010 - A Biographical Sketch." Waterwheel. Volume 21. Number 1. 2010.
Mary Daly. Philosophy Now. Issue 33.
United States Federal Census. 1930, 1940.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

African American Historical Records Project - Phase 1

A new public history project focused on Schenectady’s African American history will preserve primary sources and enable future generations to engage with the community’s historical records. Primary sources are the keys to understanding history, and access to those materials helps communities to connect to their past. The African American Historical Records Project, a collaboration coordinated by the Schenectady County Historical Society, will create a catalog of historical records created by the African American community in Schenectady. 

Two African American men standing in front of a building.
Mr. Jackson Barber and unidentified man. Barber Family Photos, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

The primary goal is to identify where those records are, what condition they are in, and how researchers can access them. The project is coordinated by SCHS librarian, Marietta Carr, and guided by an advisory committee of prominent community members. Committee members include Walter Simpkins, William Rivas, Johan Matthews, Sophia Delamar, and Miki Conn. "We hope the catalog and the records uncovered during the project will become a foundation for future research, preservation, and education," explains Carr. "African Americans have been part of Schenectady since colonial times, but their presence, activities, and experiences are significantly underrepresented in the collections available to the public in repositories like SCHS. Churches, community organizations, black-owned businesses, and individuals have their own historical collections. The catalog will connect those isolated collections and make them visible and available to the public.”

Portrait of a young African American woman in a white dress.
Nannie Jackson. Putnam Family Photos, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

The project has received a grant award from the Documentary Heritage Program, an initiative of the New York State Archives. Working with an advisory committee of prominent community members, SCHS will conduct a survey of historical collections and records. Record is a pretty broad term in this context. Carr adds, “There are a lot of different ways that people record their lives and experiences. We’re looking for church records, organization or business records, diaries, oral histories, letters and correspondence, photographs, videos, music, and art. We’re open to all of sorts of items created by African Americans in Schenectady and connected to the community’s history.”
Nameplate - Marble slab depicting African Church. Both sides inscribed. Side showing to public said "African Church built by Rev. Isaac G Duryee D.D. 1837 Rebuilt by Rev. Walter Grayson 1886".

Anyone looking for information on the African American Historical Records Project or wishing to participate in the survey should contact Marietta Carr at the Schenectady County Historical Society at 518-374-0263, option 3, or email her at

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Samuel Hayden Sexton, Schenectady’s Artist

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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

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, 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:

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:

-Preserving Family Recipes by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler:

 -Two Experts Explain How to Care for Your Vintage Cookbooks by Megan Gordon:

-Feeding America: Cookbook Collection from Michigan State University:

-The Sifter: Search the World of Food, a Tool for Food History Research by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton:

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: