Friday, May 31, 2013

Caricatures of Prominent Schenectadians

Real estate and insurance man A. Vedder Magee circles the planet in Just For Fun. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Some time around 1908 or 1909, a cartoonist created scores of caricatures of men prominent in the local community. Those depicted were businessmen and merchants, doctors and dentists, lawyers and judges, political figures, police officers and sheriffs, artists and musicians. The heads of the men are all rendered realistically, as in a photograph, while the men's bodies and surroundings are drawn in a more cartoonish style. The artist also inserted little jokes into the the drawings -- men's clothing store owner Henry Stern is shown being approached by a man wearing a barrel, the general manager of the Schenectady Railway Company skis along on trolleys, and the sun mutters "I am jealous of him" as as it shines behind L. O. Ripley, manager of the Schenectady Illuminating Company. Many of the men in the book are shown with symbols of their hobbies -- such as bowling, fishing, or singing -- in addition to symbols of their vocations. In the excitement of the early age of automobiles, the cars of a select few men are also depicted in loving detail.

The drawings were reproduced and printed in the format of a book, bound between leather covers embossed with the words "Just For Fun." The book's origins are somewhat mysterious. According to a 1953 Union-Star article, the men were all drawn by an itinerant caricaturist: "the name of the artist and his whereabouts are not known. In the book he bound nothing but the caricatures and the names of the men he drew." Although the drawings all appear to be in the same hand, in flipping through the book, we came across two drawings that appear to be signed. One bears the name "Berryman," while another is signed "Thomson." Given the approximate year and the focus on the professional, business, and civic leaders of the city, it's possible that the drawings could have been produced for the Schenectady's Board of Trade's week-long "Skedaddle to Schenectady" fair in 1909. Or perhaps it was indeed produced "just for fun." A few of the images from the book are included below.

Builder William F. Hanrahan overlooks his Schenectady building empire in Just For Fun. Hanrahan was one of many builders depicted in the books, as Schenectady grew in leaps and bounds during the era. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Caricature of Dr. George W. Bates from Just For Fun. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Alderman Harry G. Ellis outlines his plans for public baths in Just For Fun. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Bad guys tremble before Sheriff William H. Hathaway in Just For Fun. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

George William Slaght, manager of the Saul Clothing Store in the Lorraine Building in Schenectady.  In addition to his work, Slaght also had music as a hobby. Many of the men in the book are shown with symbols of their hobbies in addition to symbols of their vocations. From collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Early Educational Television: The Role of the Schenectady City School District

Anne Slack, modern language coordinator for the Schenectady City School District and host of the educational television program "Fun With French," on set with students from Schenectady public schools in 1955. Photograph from Schenectady City School District Records. 

Schenectady has served as a site for innovation in television since the origins of the medium. The first ever successful television broadcast was made by Dr. Ernst Alexanderson to the homes of four General Electric executives in Schenectady in 1928, and Schenectady's WRGB is one of the oldest television stations in the country. As the popularity of television soared during the early 1950s, both nationally and locally, it seems natural that educators would be drawn to the possibilities of this medium.

The origins of educational television in Schenectady began during the 1952-1953 school year. Robert Hanna, manager of broadcasting for all GE projects, including WRGB, offered the city's school district one hour of TV time per week for educational programming. Regional interest was building in educational television. By May 1953, 120 organizations had organized the Mohawk-Hudson Council for Educational Television. The Schenectady City School District became a member. The Council employed a producer, Angela McDermott, to handle programming. By 1954, all Schenectady schools had television sets.

Third-graders at Lincoln School sit down for TV Schooltime. Photograph from Schenectady City School District Records. 

In the beginning, Mohawk-Hudson produced educational programs on WRGB, many under the series TV Schooltime. Several local schools and universities, libraries, museums, and other organizations created programming, and educational TV programs were shown in classrooms as part of the curriculum. Schenectady's schools didn't just receive educational TV programming in classrooms -- the district also had a hand in creating programming, and students from Schenectady schools often participated. The Schenectady City School District was responsible for a number of programs aimed at students, including "Science Adventures," "Conservation Road," "Our Friends," "Copy Desk," and "Teen Talk." The district also created programming aimed at adults, such as "It's Worth Knowing," a program aimed at homemakers, and "Let's Talk It Over," a program based on the discussion of public issues. After several years of broadcasting educational television on WRGB, the Mohawk-Hudson Council decided to form a non-commercial educational television station of its own. The station, WMHT, went on the air in 1962, becoming the second educational television station in New York State.

Alfred Hulstrunk during a taping of the educational TV program "Science Adventures." Hulstrunk served as coordinator of the Schenectady school district's elementary science resource program. In addition to his work on "Science Adventures," he worked with schools in the district to enrich their science curriculum, bringing animals such as iguanas, flying squirrels, and bats into the classroom for visits, and helping to set up science programming in elementary schools, and creating a weekly "Elementary Science Topics" bulletin. Photo from Schenectady City School District Records.    

The district's most successful program -- and the one that received the most media attention -- was "Fun With French." The TV program was the first in the United States to provide foreign language instruction to children. The series was hosted by Anne Slack, modern language coordinator for the Schenectady City School District. The program debuted in September 1953. The first studio class consisted of six third-graders from Euclid School and an estimated TV audience of 200,000, including students tuning in at 16 local elementary schools. After viewing "Fun With French," teachers carried on the information learned through activities and by using conversational French as part of the regular school-day routine. To facilitate this process, 32 elementary-school teachers in the district took night courses at Union College in French and in the teaching of foreign language. Teachers reported that the TV programming helped to engage the students, as it used a means of entertainment the students were all familiar with. The students themselves were also enthusiastic; 9-year-old Muriel Furbeck claimed that "Fun With French" was "much more fun than the cartoons on television." Some children carried the language experience out of the classroom, counting in French while playing hide-and-seek in their neighborhoods or wanting to speak the language at the dinner table.

Euclid School principal Virginia Day observes first-grade students participating in a French-language classroom activity after watching the educational TV program "Fun With French." Photo from Schenectady City School District Records. 

Slack's enthusiasm and gift for engaging students was an immediate hit. Voice of America, impressed by the quality of the program, requested transcripts of the program for overseas broadcasting. "Fun With French" was also featured in a 1956 issue of Parade magazine. Parade reported that Slack "squeeze[d] the agony" out of learning a foreign language, noting "students have no grammar drills, conjugate no verbs, practice pronunciation not letter by letter but only as they meet it in words . . . they do not see a French word until late in fourth grade, often not until fifth. By that time, French accent is embedded so deeply that few trip over English accents." Taking notice of the success of "Fun With French," the Massachusetts Modern Language Project recruited Slack to relocate to the Boston area to present and help to direct "Parlons Fran├žais," a new television program for Boston's WGBH-TV, in 1959. The program went national. Following her television work, Slack taught advanced French courses at Boston University and Harvard University, served as president of the American Association of Teachers of French, and presented workshops throughout the country.

Cover of "Television: An Instructional Tool," produced for teachers by the Schenectady City School District.  The guide discusses the benefits and limitations of TV instruction, and provides tips for teachers in using TV in the classroom, from readiness and follow-up activities to the physical arrangement in the room when showing a TV program in class. From Schenectady City School District Records. 

In addition to the educational television programming on WRGB, the district also experimented with closed-circuit television (CCTV). under a $10,000 Ford grant, the district experimented with closed-circuit television programs at Mont Pleasant High School in 1956. The pilot program was the first of its kind in New York State. The system used a communication system so that students in the remote classrooms could ask questions of the teacher in the "studio" classroom. "We have the students to teach - in science we need more of them," said teacher Joseph F. Collins. "Is it better to have inexperienced, perhaps uncertified teachers, or to accept CCTV problems and have an experienced teacher keep the students on their toes and really learning?" CCTV courses were offered in mathematics, science, English, and French. Non-certified teachers, such as college students pursuing degrees in education, could serve as proctors in the remote classrooms.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Three Decades of Niska-Day

A glimpse of Niska-Day activities at Craig Elementary School in 2009.
Photo from the Daily Gazette ( 

This Saturday is the 32nd annual Niska-Day in Niskayuna. Organized by the Niskayuna Community Action Program (N-CAP), the event serves to celebrate and foster a feeling of community in the town.

In the fall of 1981, N-CAP began planning the first Niskayuna Community Day (the name was soon changed to Niska-Day), sending a letter encouraging community organizations, schools, businesses, churches, and neighborhood associations to participate. The first Niska-Day was held on May 29, 1982. Organizer J. Daniel Tearno said that "people were skeptical" about Niska-Day initially, since the "bedroom community" had never before demonstrated community pride. However, the first Niska-Day proved to be a success. Rainy weather did not keep crowds away from the day-long festivities, which included a parade, a magic show, a "celebrity softball" game of television station WTEN versus radio stations WTRY and WPYX, tug-of-war, musical performances, craft and game booths, an art show, chess competition, a fun run, a tennis tournament, soccer scrimmages, and a dance contest. More than 70 groups participated in the first parade.

The crowd at the first Niska-Day in 1982 gather around Niskayuna High School students in tug-of-war. From Niska-Day clipping file.  

Cover of program for the first Niska-Day. From Niska-Day clipping file. 

Many of the features of Niska-Day have remained the same over the past 32 years, such as the parade, musical performances, craft and game booths, fireworks display, etc. Each year's celebration has had a theme, ranging from education and volunteerism to Mardi Gras and "going country" (this year's glitzy Las Vegas theme even features an Elvis impersonator as grand marshal). Festivities were generally held on the grounds of Niskayuna High School. In 2008, due to construction at the high school, events were held at Craig Elementary School. The decision was made to continue festivities at Craig due to the proximity to the Niskayuna Soccer Club Fields for extra picnic and family space. In addition to the standard Niska-Day activities, there have been a few highlights that stand out over the years. In 1987, students at Niskayuna Middle School constructed a float that operated as a working kazoo. Billed as the "World's Largest Kazoo," it was over 8 feet long. A snare drum head served as its resonator. In 1990, the Hometown Sprits, a basketball team made up of local politicians, teachers, and coaches, played against the Harlem Wizards. Niska-Day featured a Civil War encampment in 1991 and a re-enactment in 2003. The 1991 Niska-Day was reported to have drawn more than 20,000 people -- more than the population of the entire town at that time. Estimates of attendance for other years during the 1990s tended to range around 7,000-10,000.

Refreshment booth at Niska-Day in 2010. Photo from

Niska-Day has also faced some challenges through its history. The 1986 Niska-Day was thought at the time to be possibly the last, due to liability insurance costs. A few years later, in response to reported cases of measles at Rosendale Elementary School, organizers encouraged pupils from that school not to attend (those who did attend Niska-Day would be required to present proof of immunization). Niska-Day has often fallen on rainy days, but, as Niska-Day Committee Co-Chair Denise Leader said in 2008, "we've come to realize that if you put the tents up, they will come." Only one Niska-Day has been cancelled due to inclement weather -- a snowstorm in May 2002. Niska-Day could not be rescheduled, but organizers created a Niska-Night on the Green celebration in July of that year on the grounds of Niskayuna Town Hall.

The annual Niska-Day celebration is the largest of its kind in the region. "This kind of thing is really essential to a community," said Elizabeth Kiffney, Niska-Day chair, in 1987. "It's a day for families and neighbors to be friends and neighbors - together." Niska-Day Committee Co-Chair Bill Leader said in 2011, "This event has been going on for 30 years. Kids that grew up with Niska-Day are now parents bringing their kids."

For more information about this year's Niska-Day activities, visit

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Mother's Day Treat

Photographs of a Scotia mother and child: Nellie Reynolds and her baby, Neil Bailey Reynolds, 1903. Photographs from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Turn-of-the-century family photographs in our collections tend to be posed portraits. The people shown in them may look stern; even if they are smiling, they tend to capture the family as it wished to be presented to the world -- dressed in their finest clothes, all assembled together, giving the appearance of unity, abundance, and vitality. It is rare to see photographs of this era that capture the spontaneous moments of everyday life.

That is what makes the above photographs such a special treat in celebration of Mother's Day. The love, tenderness, and sense of playfulness between the mother and her baby are palpable. We see the mother's smile spread into a delighted grin as the baby rolls and kicks on her lap, and can almost hear the gurgling and babbling of the infant. The photographs are a rare glimpse of the connection between mother and child.