Thursday, August 29, 2013

Labor Day in Schenectady

A man lifts a banner championing the eight-hour movement in this drawing from the Salt Lake Herald dated September 3, 1906. A caption below the drawing simply reads, "His Day and His Flag." Image from

"Labor Day is about the most correctly named holiday we have, as most people work harder when taking a holiday than they do at their every day occupations."
- Quaker Street Review, Thursday, September 16, 1897.

The residents of Schenectady County have celebrated Labor Day for more than 125 years. Although the holiday has its origin in the struggles that labor unions undertook on behalf of American workers, for many of us, it's simply a nice long weekend -- a last chance to enjoy the summer before fall settles in. Such a conception of Labor Day is certainly not new; it seems to have been a part of the holiday's celebrations from the beginning.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City, and was planned by the city's Central Labor Union. In 1884, the Central Labor Union urged unions in other locales to celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on the first Monday in September. New York was among the first few states to adopt Labor Day as an official state holiday in 1887. Many states followed suit over the course of the next few years, and in 1894, the United States designated Labor Day a national holiday.

Newspaper rendering of first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882. Image from

Another labor holiday that has largely failed to take hold in the United States -- although the origins of the holiday are American -- is May Day (now also known as International Workers' Day), celebrated on May 1. In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously decided at a convention to set May 1, 1886, as the date by which an eight-hour work day would become standard. On May 1, 1886, a general strike and demonstrations were held in support of the eight-hour day movement, which championed eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for recreation for workers. An international meeting of Socialists in 1889 decided to encourage solidarity with the struggle for the eight-hour day by making May 1 an international labor day. As May Day developed as a holiday associated with radical labor unions, anarchists, and socialists -- as well as with the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Tragedy in Chicago -- trade unions advocated the September date for Labor Day perhaps in part to distance themselves from the radical political associations of May Day.

On New York State's first official Labor Day in 1887, the Albany Evening Journal reported, "the celebration has been taken in charge by the various labor organizations of respective localities and while the primary ideas of the day, recreation and rest, are emphasized, at the same time the occasion will be taken to show the numerical strength of organized labor throughout the state."

The organizers of the 1911 Labor Day celebration in Schenectady, as they appeared in the Schenectady Gazette. Left to right: J.T. McConville, Alexander Golden, E. Dwelly, P.J. Hemmerling, Fred LaCrosse, A.W. Slover, L.J. Humpf, Michael Kennedy.  All were members of the Schenectady Labor Temple Association. Image from

In Schenectady, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Labor Day celebrations were organized by the Schenectady Labor Temple Association and the Schenectady Trades Assembly. These celebrations often featured a parade, followed by picnics and other festivities. A number of groups marched in the 1900 parade, including the Schenectady Police, the Citizens Corps Band, and numerous trade unions such as the Blacksmith Helpers, the Iron and Brass Moulders, the Journeyman Tailors, the Musicians Protective Union, and the Tip and Sheet Metal Workers. In 1911, the Labor Temple Association organized a parade that marched from the Trades Assembly Hall on State Street, up State Street, around Crescent Park (now Veterans Park), to Washington Avenue and across the dike to Glenotia Park in Scotia for a general celebration, picnic, and field day.

Other organizations, including fraternal organizations and churches, also sponsored Labor Day commemorations or celebrations in Schenectady. Some were explicitly connected with the concept of labor, such as a special sermon on "The Dignity of Labor" delivered at the Second Reformed Church in 1911. Others celebrated with relaxation, sports, and coming together as a community. In Schenectady during the late 19th and early 20 century, Labor Day celebrations included baseball, basketball, and croquet games, picnics, hot-air balloon rides, wrestling matches, track meets and field days, golf and bowling tournaments, clambakes, fireworks, concerts and dances, and other amusements. Newspaper notices on the society pages of area newspapers show that many Schenectadians used the Labor Day holiday as an opportunity to visit family and friends, go on camping trips or pleasure trips, or to host visiting relatives.

In the early years of the twentieth century, as now, businesses used the Labor Day holiday as a focus for advertisements, sales, and promotions. This 1911 advertisement for the New York Central railroad promoted Labor Day excursions to Niagara Falls, and appeared in the Schenectady Gazette. Image from

For some local people, Labor Day remains a celebration of the laborer and the contributions of labor unions. Louis Altieri of Schenectady was quoted in a 2001 Daily Gazette article as saying, "Labor Day is very important to me. It gives me a chance to reflect on all the sacrifices people had to go through in the labor movement to achieve benefits. I hope people look at Labor Day as a day of thanksgiving for what people have done."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Xanadu of Funny-Sounding Places:" Schenectady in Popular Culture

Photocopy of cover of sheet music for "I Can't Spell Schenectady." From Schenectady Songs clipping file. 

Schenectady has often shown up in American popular culture - usually as a nod to the sound of the name or the difficulty in spelling it correctly. The classic example is a song written in 1948 entitled "I Can't Spell Schenectady." Here's some of the lyrics to the song:

Reading, writing and geography;
But when it comes to spelling, I'm confessin'
There's just one word that stumps me constantly.
I can spell Dakota, can handle Minnesota, but I can't spell Schenectady,
I can spell Havana and figure out Savannah, but I can't spell Schenectady.
Why, one time at a spelling bee
Said teacher all at once,
"Now, Willie, spell 'Schenectady',"
I felt just like a dunce!
I spelled Anaconda and even Tonawanda,
So what does she expect of me?
I just can't spell Schenectady.
I can spell Pomona, Seattle and Tacoma, but I can't spell Schenectady,
I mastered Ypsilanti and Agua Caliente, but I can't spell Schenectady.

The difficult-to-spell quality also shows up in a Schenectady joke (stop me if you've heard this one): A businessman was rapidly dictating a letter to his secretary, telling a business associate he would meet him in Schenectady. The secretary interrupted, "Excuse me, please. How do you spell Schenectady?" The businessman fumbled and struggled, red-faced, to spell the name of the city before sputtering angrily "Oh hell! Forget it! Tell him I'll meet him in Albany!"

Why does "Schenectady" work so well for a punch line? Humor and television writer Bill Scheft referred to Schenectady as "the Xanadu of funny-sounding places" in an interview with the Daily Gazette. "Four syllables, good rhythm and that hard comedy 'K' right in the middle. It scans perfectly. Of course, it's no Cohoes, but what is?" Like Rancho Cucamonga, Sheboygan, and Walla Walla, Schenectady can pop up in a reference just to sound kooky or comical. In one episode of the television show Everybody Loves Raymond, "Schenectady" was used as a near-rhyme with "vasectomy," and on The Dick Van Dyke Show, "Schenectady" slipped out of a character's mouth as part of a sneezing attack.

Aside from references that play on the sound of the city's name, Schenectady has also been used as a popular culture reference as a bit of a dig at how the city is conceived. Rob Edelman, a professor of film history at the University at Albany, was quoted in a 2004 as saying, "In the movies, Schenectady is like Brooklyn. It's been stereotyped as a place for losers, a place to be avoided by any forward-thinking person." Thus, the oafish nouveau riche couples in the 1934 movie Fashions of 1934 hailed from Schenectady. Likewise, a character in the 1955 film It's Always Fair Weather who aspired to owning a high-class restaurant in a sophisticated locale instead winds up running a diner in Schenectady.

In contrast to its being portrayed as a behind-the-times backwater burg, Schenectady was at the forefront of the development of radio and early television. The General Electric Company first started experimenting with radio in 1912, and radio station WGY first went on the air in 1922. WGY was an early leader in radio drama. The Masque theater troupe from Troy performed on the weekly show "WGY Players," with the WGY Orchestra performing music between acts of the plays. The dramatic performances also featured the first radio sound effect, when two pieces of lumber were slapped together to sound like a slamming door.  WRGB in Schenectady claims to be the world's first television station. It traces its roots to early in 1928, when Dr. Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, a General Electric scientist, made the first successful television broadcast from his home to the homes of four G.E. executives in Schenectady. Regular television broadcasts were de rigeur in Schenectady long before the popularization of television mushroomed in the 1950s. Schenectady was also home to the first independent commercial FM station, W47A, established in 1941.

Dr. Ernst Alexanderson with an early television set in 1928. The early TV is shown in this photograph – the screen is the small square near the top of the large console. General Electric began broadcasting occasional newscasts, musical performances, dramatic performances, and other programming in 1928.  Chuck Everson, who traced the history of WRGB writes that in the early days, “the signal that was broadcast [by WRGB] could be picked up all over the country . . . it would be blasted all over the world because there were no other stations to interfere with it.” Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Schenectady also has a brush with showbiz fame through the people in the film, television, and music industry who were born or raised in Schenectady, including: Ann B. Davis, best known as housekeeper Alice on the television show The Brady Bunch; film actor and screenwriter Mickey Rourke; director, screenwriter, and author John Sayles, for whom the John Sayles School of Fine Arts at Schenectady High School is named; and legendary disco record producer Tom Moulton. Schenectady is also the "birthplace" of a number of fictional characters in film, TV, and fiction, from comic book villain Dr. Octopus to the character of Grace Adler on television's Will and Grace.

John Sayles is a director, screenwriter, and author born in Schenectady in 1950. He has worked as a director for over 30 years, and has directed many movies, including Honeydripper, Sunshine State, and Matewan. This photograph of Sayles is his senior picture, which appears in the 1968 Mont Pleasant High School yearbook. 

Schenectady has also been the site of filming of Hollywood movies, including 1973's The Way We Were, 2009's Winter of Frozen Dreams, and most recently, The Place Beyond the Pines, which quite clearly features Schenectady as the setting for its gritty crime drama.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Celebrating the End of World War II: V-J Day in Schenectady

GE workers piled onto the back of a company truck to join a parade down State Street on the evening of August 14, 1945. The banner behind the workers reads "Ring the victory bell! Three down and none to go." Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

On the evening of Tuesday, August 14, at 7:00 p.m., the news of Japan's surrender and the end of World War II hit Schenectady. Immediately following the announcement, the General Electric plant was closed. Schenectadians flooded into the streets, cheering, laughing, crying, and celebrating the end of the war. That evening, and the following day on August 15, would later be known as Victory Over Japan Day (or V-J Day). Local residents commemorated the end of the war in many ways -- from solemn prayer in local religious institutions to swinging from light poles to kissing in the streets. Below are a few photographs that illustrate the city's celebration of the end of the war.

Servicemen scoop up young women on the streets in celebration of the end of the war. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

When informed of the end of the war, GE worker A.W. Kernaghan let out a celebratory shout while sitting astride a turbine component. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Local residents thronged to State Street for a parade on the evening of August 14, 1945. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Schenectadians at the First Methodist Church's service of thanks. These services began the evening of August 14, 1945, and were held the following day on the hour every hour from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Thanksgiving services in honor of the war's end were held at a number of local religious institutions, including St. John the Evangelist Church, St. George's Church, All Souls Unitarian Church, Congregation Agudat Achim, and Cavalry Bapist Church. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Three Chinese-born residents of Schenectady, (left to right) Hong Chang, Fred Wong, and Paul Wong, smile and give the Victory salute. One of the men was quoted by the Gazette as saying, "We feel very happy, for this means so much to the Chinese people." Both Hong Chang and Fred Wong had wives and children in occupied China during the war. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

"We Too Have Served," reads the banner on the Army Depot float in the State Street parade on August 14, 1945. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Celebrating servicemen participate in an impromptu parade on State Street on the evening of August 14, 1945. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Look Back at Brandywine Park

A man stands at the entrance to Brandywine Park around the turn of the century. The park's entrance was located across from the intersection of Albany Street and Elm Street in Schenectady. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

In the days before automobiles, public transit companies offered their patrons more than simply transportation from point A to point B. They also provided opportunities for entertainment and recreation. The Schenectady Railway Company, which ran the city's trolley lines, offered moonlight pleasure tours in open trolley cars, taking passengers on one-and-one-half-hour tours from downtown Schenectady, up through Latham, and back again. The Schenectady Railway Company also invested funds to establish parks along its trolley lines as an attraction. One of those parks was Brandywine Park. The trolley company opened the park in 1896. It was located south of State Street on what was then the city's western edge, with an entrance opposite the intersection of Albany Street and Elm Street.

Image from 1905 Schenectady city atlas showing the location of Brandywine Park. 

The one-acre park was to serve as "a family pleasure resort and picnic ground;" it was host to a variety of activities, including clambakes, shooting exhibitions, dog shows, picnics, music, dancing, moonlight cakewalks, political rallies, carnivals, bingo parties, garden parties, daredevil motorcyclist exhibitions, hot-air balloon launchings, and track meets. The Schenectady Elks put on an annual Independence Day celebration there for several years.

A 1910 issue of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder featured this advertisement for an Independence Day celebration at Brandywine Park. The Schenectady Elks Lodge put together 4th of July celebrations for several years at the park. Image obtained via

The park also served as a place for ethnic communities and ethnic organizations to gather for celebrations. Members of Schenectady's African-American community used the park grounds in celebration of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1912 and for John Brown's Day in 1913. German immigrants held their German Day there in 1905.  The Italian-American organization Società Unione Fratellanza held an annual picnic there. Political groups held open-air meetings, rallies, and speeches in the park. In 1906, labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn gave her first public speech in Brandywine Park.

The dance pavilion in Brandywine park, soon after it was built in 1896. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

As the years progressed and the city's growth intensified through the remainder of the 1890s and the early 1900s, the park was no longer on the outskirts of the city, but within it. As early as 1903, the Schenectady Railway Company expressed interest in selling the grounds, and eventually did sell the property to St. Luke's Church in the early 1920s. The church continued to operate the grounds as a park until it began to develop the property and build a school and other buildings there in 1928.

Portion of an advertisement for a boxing exhibition featuring Jack Dempsey at Brandywine Park in 1923, after it became the property of St. Luke's Church. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.