Thursday, February 8, 2024

Schenectady's Other Workplace Novelist

This post was written by library volunteer George Wise.

Recent celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurt Vonnegut confirmed his high place on the list of 20th century American novelists. His early novel Player Piano, published in 1952, has a special place in local history. It is a thinly fictionalized picture of the General Electric Company and its Schenectady Works, drawn from Vonnegut's own experience at that Works as a writer in the GE Public Relations Department.

Though it remains one of the most authentic fictional depictions of a company and its workplace, it is not alone in this regard -- even for Schenectady. Nearly half a century before Vonnegut, another future novelist spent a few years as an employee at the GE Schenectady Works. He later captured that experience in a novel. The author, once worthy of reviews in the New York Times, but today totally forgotten, is named Idwal Jones. The novel, published in 1929, is entitled Steel Chips.

Cover of Steel Chips by Idwal Jones, 1929.

As literature, Steel Chips is deservedly forgotten. Its plot is clunky; its ending rushed and unsatisfying. As a historical document, however, it deserves attention. It is the story of a young man's experience as an apprentice and then journeyman machinist at a large machinery manufacturing plant just after 1900. Idwal Jones began his working career as an apprentice machinist at the GE Schenectady Works in 1902. He worked there until some time between 1905 and 1910, when he left for California and a literary career.
In the mid 1920s, Jones was living in Provence, France. There, in warmth and comfort, he began describing the bitterly cold winter morning on which Steel Chips begins. The protagonist, Bram Dartnell, gets out of bed to prepare to begin his apprenticeship at the Atlas Works. "He threw a dressing gown over his shoulders and went to the window," the description begins, “which the frost had rimmed with white fur. He thawed a spot with his breath, gave it a rub and peered out. Opposite was the yard of the gas works, and under the arc-lamp above the gate figures as rigid as icicles and with coat collars turned up moved past in hurrying silhouettes, then vanished into darkness like spectres. The carbon sputtered and threw capricious gleams and shadows upon the discolored snow. It was an hour before dawn, and Veeder Street was stirring to a realization of coffee and fried bacon and impending duty.”
Are these memories of anticipating the frigid walk down Veeder Avenue and then along the Erie Canal to the main gate of the GE Works? Or are they mere literary imagination?

Hamilton St. looking from Veeder Ave. toward S. Centre St. (Broadway), circa 1900. Many workers traversed this road on their way to GE Schenectady Works. Perhaps an inspiration for Jones? (Grems-Doolittle Library Photographs Collection)

The answer matters to historians interested in a series of events significant not just in Schenectady history, but in the history of U.S. organized labor and corporate labor relations. In 1886, the company that was to become GE had moved to Schenectady. That same year saw the birth of a national labor union still prominent today, the American Federation of Labor (the AFL in AFL-CIO). In the year 1905, GE Schenectady Works saw the arrival of a more recently created union, the International Workers of the World (IWW), known colloquially as the "Wobblies." On that cold morning when, perhaps not Bram Dartnell but Idwal Jones himself rose to begin his apprenticeship, those three entities were headed toward an epochal collision at Schenectady.

IWW Union Charter at Schenectady, N.Y., 1906 (Grems-Doolittle Library, Documents Collection)

The actual collision is highlighted in the works of major labor historians such as David Montgomery and Philip Foner. Local historians have explored details and dimensions of the story that even those distinguished scholars missed. What the historians cannot provide is how it looked from the inside, to the people directly involved. Idwal Jones was one of those people. 

The history he saw matters. The issues of labor relations, worker representation, and industrial democracy raised just after 1900 at Schenectady resonated down through the 20th century and continue to echo today. They echo when one of today's giant corporations, such as Amazon, faces the same kind of challenge from young upstart unions that the earlier corporate giant, GE, faced from the upstart unions of 1905. The old issues echo today as the IWW, long extinct as a labor union, continues to inspire today's radicals as they protest economic inequality, occupy Wall Street, or take direct action in defense of the environment. 

There are clues that in writing his book, Jones was indeed documenting that 1903-1906 episode. In Steel Chips, as in actual Schenectady, the rise of socialism in city politics mixes with the rise of union organization at the city's main manufacturing works. In Steel Chips, as in actual Schenectady, the radical IWW-like union, like the actual Schenectady IWW, has a leadership drawn more from recent immigrants than does the more WASP-dominated, more conservative AFL-like union. In Steel Chips, the unnamed fictional city is visited, during the labor crisis, by a fictional nationally-known radical socialist named Daniel De Tiger, who gives a fiery speech in favor of the radical cause. Real life Schenectady was visited, during that 1903-1906 labor crisis, by an actual nationally-known radical Socialist named Daniel De Leon, who gave a fiery speech in favor of the radical IWW.

In Steel Chips, one main character is a brilliant German immigrant and socialist revered for both his intellect and his character. Readers may be reminded of Schenectady's own Charles Proteus Steinmetz. In one real life biographical sketch, Idwal Jones is described as having been, during his GE days, mechanical assistant to the great engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz. This is perhaps a later embellishment, but Jones most likely did meet and perhaps talked significantly with Steinmetz.

Charles Steinmetz and a group of GE Schenectady Works employees, circa 1900. (Steinmetz Photograph Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library)

The challenge in using fictional works as historical sources is determining whether the author actually is deliberately trying to inform readers about life as he experienced it, or simply trying to tell a good story. The author of this article had the privilege, many years ago, of asking Kurt Vonnegut himself if Player Piano was intended to depict his actual experience. His answer was, yes, he did write to convey what he experienced at GE, though as a futurist precautionary tale rather than a memoir.

In the case of Idwal Jones, no such direct testimony has yet been found. Certainly many details of the story are not historically accurate. The Steinmetz-like figure is a craftsman, rather than an engineer. The Works Manager of the Atlas Works in Steel Chips is much more abrasive and dictatorial than the actual 1903-1906 GE Schenectady Works manager, the soft spoken and deviously diplomatic George Emmons. The climactic strike described in the book lasts much longer than the actual climactic strike.

Jones' descriptions and character depictions however, have a compelling complexity that transcends the book's clunky plotting and uneven pace. Jones' workers face a convincingly demanding and dangerous work environment, and respond with a credible mixture of grudging acceptance, pride in manual skills, frequent resentment of the foreman's tyranny, and only occasional spontaneous -- and not always heroic -- rebellion. The labor union leaders show solidarity, but not forever. Those fictional union leaders balance their ideals against their family needs. They sometimes reject, but also sometimes accept, job offers that will see them abandoning their coworkers and serving the company as foremen and inspectors. So did such actual GE union leaders of 1900-1910 as Charles Noonan, Harvey Simmons and William Turnbull.

Of course, the fact that details seem convincing does not mean that they are historically authentic. A good writer might just have made them up. The best argument that the details and characters in Steel Chips are historically authentic, an argument made not only by the writer of this article but by a 1920s newspaper reviewer of Steel Chips, is that Idwal Jones does not elsewhere seem to be that good a writer.

Jones himself had a life story. His early writings gained favorable notices from prominent reviewers, such as the famous journalist and literary critic H.L. Mencken. Unlike such literary contemporaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis, however, Jones's literary star quickly flamed out. He did find a moderately successful West Coast literary niche; producing non fiction works on travel, and pioneering the then new genre of books for wine enthusiasts and foodies. So his writing life turned out satisfying, if not wildly successful. 

What about Steel Chips? How did it turn out? Who wins, the radicals, the conservative unionists, or the company? Does the Steinmetz-like character fade away or, like the actual Steinmetz, ascend to urban legend? Does Bram Dartnell go down fighting, head off to California, or settle down and sell out? Sorry, but to find out, you'll have to read the book.

Steel Chips is available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library:$b242788      



Friday, December 29, 2023

Projects and partnerships - looking back on 2023

It’s important to take time to reflect on the work we do at SCHS, particularly the ways we’ve carried out our mission, the projects we’ve completed, and the relationships we’ve built. On this blog, we periodically talk about the work that goes into running the Grems-Doolittle Library. Some of these posts focus on big projects and changes such as the African American Historical Records Project and last year’s archival shelving upgrade. Looking back on 2023, we have a couple of special projects and partnerships that we’d like to highlight. While some of these are single, stand-alone activities, most of them represent relationships that will generate collaborations and projects in 2024 and beyond.

Union Street between Ferry Street and Church Street, 1892 (photo from the Stockade 1892 Photo Album, Grems-Doolittle Library). This is one of the properties students researched during the Siena Service Learning Project.

Siena College Service Learning Project- During March of this year, the Siena students worked with Marietta and the library volunteers to transcribe 19th century legal documents, create metadata for early 20th century photos, create condition reports for archival materials in the Grems-Doolittle Library, and compose descriptions for our small manuscript collections. Their work will be incorporated into future NY Heritage and Consider the Source NY digital collections, enable greater access to our archival collections, and improve the information available in our online catalog and resources. In April, the students researched buildings on State and Union Streets and composed narratives that Mike will utilize in developing future walking tours and programs.

Goose Hill Neighborhood History Project - Led by the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association, this is an ongoing project to record the history of the Goose Hill neighborhood through oral histories, conversations with long-time residents, research, and preservation of photos, documents and other personal items related to the area’s history.

View of the Goose Hill neighborhood from the top of the Seneca St. tower, circa 1950. Photo from the Larry Hart Photograph Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.

City and Town Historians scanning and consultations - SCHS has always built and maintained relationships with the county and municipal historians in our area. Our collections often support their research and they’ve regularly contributed to our programming and publications. In the past few years, we’ve expanded our work with the municipal historians to include digitizing and preserving at-risk items in their collections, consulting on preservation and archival processing, and providing guidance on collection development and record-keeping.

Jazz collection with Susan Brink - We often work with individuals, families, and organizations to add their archival collections to the SCHS Library, and we’re always excited to talk to them about how their materials connect to broader Schenectady County history. Occasionally, an individual contacts us about collaborating on a collection that is broader and more varied in scope. This is an example of such an undertaking: Susan Brink, journalist and producer, has been active in the jazz community for years and recently started collecting Schenectady’s jazz history, focusing on the musicians and organizers who kept jazz alive in our area. The collection is now part of the SCHS Library and we’re excited to continue working with Susan and other jazz aficionados to build the collection.

Poster for the 16th Annual Accordion Center Band Concert, 1960, from the Jazz Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library.

Collaborative Knowledge Center and Digitization Hub - Two years ago, SCHS was invited to serve as the Capital Region’s Diversity and Collaborative Knowledge Center by the NYS Archives Partnership Trust. This was part of a grant project to expand access to historical materials related to underrepresented people and events in NY state history, train K-12 teachers on how to access and use these materials in their classrooms, and develop relationships between educators, historians, archivists, and institutions in our area. We’ve continued serving in this capacity this year and supporting institutions in our area who are working to digitize and describe materials in their collections and increase access to those resources. One example from this year: Historic Cherry Hill used our scanning equipment to digitize a set of diaries which document race, class, gender relations, household management and economy, and family structure in one Gilded Age Albany household. The diaries will soon be available on NY Heritage.

It’s also important to talk about the day-to-day, continuous work like processing collections, digitizing materials, transcribing documents, preserving items and collections, cataloging, and creating guides and other discovery tools. Thanks to our fantastic volunteers, we make steady, significant progress on our preserving priorities, make our collections discoverable and available for researchers, and use the materials for exhibits and education. In 2024, I plan to spend more time posting about the day-to-day, behind the scenes operations of the library. I hope you're able to take time to reflect on this past year, rest and recharge, and look to new year with excitement!

Thursday, November 2, 2023

HistoryForge Mapping Project for Schenectady County

An exciting new project is underway at the Grems-Doolittle Library! As many of our researchers and members know, the library’s collections include an impressive number of maps, photographs, deeds, and survey documents from around the county. These materials and the information they contain are vital to a variety of research topics, but many researchers struggle to use them effectively. One of the most frequent questions we receive is “where is this place today?” Reading maps and matching textual or photographic data to geographic data can be difficult, and researchers often ask for assistance in deciphering the information. Trying to match a historic document to a physical place in our modern world can be frustrating! The SCHS librarian and library volunteers are working on a new tool that will greatly improve this kind of research: HistoryForge! 


1892 Schenectady City atlas map showing part of the Stockade neighborhood (Grems-Doolitle Library Map Collection)

HistoryForge is an open-source platform that integrates the historic demographic data in census records, directories, and other sources, allowing for its visual representation on historic maps layered over a Google Map. The result is a powerful tool for any community in the United States to explore its past. It was first designed by Bob Kibbee, the former Map and Geospatial Librarian at Cornell University, and David Furber, a software engineer. The project was launched by The History Center in Tompkins County, New York, in 2016. After several years of refining the software, the project is now an open-source, online environment available to any community to adopt and adapt to engage with their local historic maps, censuses, and documents. Last year, the HistoryForge project received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a part of the NEH's "A More Perfect Union" initiative, the grant allows The History Center in Tompkins County to continue to improve the open-source software, add more data, and engage more partners. The SCHS Library was invited to partner with the HistoryForge team to test new features, refine user manuals, and suggest improvements to the project. We’re joining partners from around the country to help build a full-featured web environment that will provide a new way of exploring local history!

HistoryForge layers historic maps, photos, census data, and directory data onto a live Google Map. This allows users to see the geographic connections between people, buildings, and historic materials. HistoryForge users can review records connected to individual people, buildings, and businesses to see detailed information, documents, and photos. Searching the census and directory data, researchers can create map visualizations which will help them discover patterns, track how neighborhoods and demographics changed over time, and explore unfamiliar locations.


State Street, Schenectady, NY (Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection)

To bring this valuable tool to life, we need your help! HistoryForge is powered by volunteers. Community members build the project by transcribing census records, entering building information, connecting digitized documents and photos to people and building records, and constructing historic map layers. Volunteers can work on this project in person at the SCHS Library or at home on their own computer. Volunteers need patience, attention to detail, a commitment to accuracy, and experience typing. We’ll provide all of the training and instructions volunteers need to successfully build the database and connect records to the map. If you’re interested in volunteering, please complete our HistoryForge Volunteer Interest Form or contact Marietta Carr, SCHS Librarian, at

As we add information, data, and maps to the HistoryForge, researchers will be able to see our progress at

1905 City of Schenectady and Village of Scotia Atlas (Grems-Doolittle Library Map Collection)


Thursday, September 14, 2023

Schenectady in the Green Book

 This post was written by Elijahjison Powell, Sankofa Youth Collective Ambassador

Not that long ago African Americans did not have the same safety as others traveling this country. There was not GPS or Google Maps to help navigate or tell them about the places they were going. They did however have something called “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide for African Americans to use that informed them about everything they needed to know about their destination and the best way to get there. From the Black-friendly businesses to people who could help you around town to the gas stations that would serve you on the way there. We looked through the New York Public Library’s digital collection of Green Books for places related to Schenectady. There were about five people listed in the Green Book under Schenectady County but unfortunately, we were only able to find further information on three.

1947 Green Book Cover

One couple, Rose and Charles Rhinehart, who stayed at 125 Church Street was marked in the Green Book as a “tourist home,” people in the town that were friendly toward Blacks and could help them around town and get settled, or would be nice enough to open their doors to tourists. The 1915 New York Census shows they did just that. 38-year-old Charles and 29-year-old Rose with their 11-year-old son Paul opened their home to a 20-year-old lodger named Thursten Taster.

Another Schenectady resident who lived up to the reputation in the Green Book was Ernest L Claiborn. The 1930 New York state census shows him living at 1808 Campbell Ave with a number of people: his 39-year-old wife Alberta Claiborne, his 20-year-old niece Mary C Williams, his 24-year-old nephew James Williams, and his 50-year-old brother-in-law Thomas Burrus. On top of his big family he let Shirley Jones board at his house and may have gotten her a job. shows Ernest as head porter at the Hotel Van Curler (now known as Ernst Hall or SCCC; the city of Schenectady bought the building at an open auction for $700,000 and converted the hotel to a college). Shirley’s occupation is documented as a porter in the hotel industry so it is possible Ernest could have gotten a job for her working with him.

1948 Sanborn Maps of 1808 Campbell Ave. and 125 Church St.

Another location in the Green Book was the Clefton Hotel, a popular spot within the Schenectady Black community. The hotel was originally operated by Sylvestor Thomas. Around 1945, McDonald Lewis, a Black entrepreneur, purchased the property and renamed it the Lewis Hotel. The hotel’s address was 516 Broadway, an area where most of the local Black community lived. Near the hotel was Detroy’s Chicken Shack, a popular Black-owned restaurant (owned by McDonald’s brother) that featured Black entertainers, music, dancing, and food. As the locals would say, ‘’Good times were had at the Chicken Shack and it’s a jumping place.” The hotel frequently hosted players from the Mohawk Giants, an all-Black Schenectady baseball team. While the Lewis brothers’ personal lives included some troubling episodes, their businesses contributed a positive impact on Schenectady’s Black community.

1948 Sanborn map of 516 Broadway


Victor Hugo Green, New York City postal worker, started the Green Book in 1936 with the sole purpose to help African Americans avoid humiliation and danger. With each update to the book, they covered more and more areas, eventually covering all of the United States and some international locations. The last Green Book was published in 1967, renamed “The Travelers Green Book 67 International Edition: For Vacation without Aggravation.” It was the last one published after the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 making segregation illegal in public places, hence making the travel guide obsolete.


Victor Hugo Green in 1956. Photo from The New York Age, 23 August 1958, Saturday, page 32.