Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Legacy of the Mystic Order of the True Blues

Illustration of the Second Annual Carnival of the True Blues published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. This illustration features King Neptune's float, the human steam engine, a giraffe, along with other attractions in the parade. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library photograph collection.
Schenectady has historically been the recipient of some less than favorable reviews. Dating back to 1810, Dewitt Clinton wrote in his diary that “Schenectady, although dignified with the name of a city, does little business…it does not appear pleasing.” While he was still a student at Union College, Jonathan Pearson wrote that Schenectady was a city “only fit for hogs and Dutchmen.” Apparently Pearson’s opinion on both Schenectady and the Dutch would soon change. He learned to read Dutch, wrote extensively about Schenectady’s history, and lived in Schenectady until his death in 1887, so he must have found something about Schenectady that he liked. Along with the disparaging of Schenectady comes a history of people willing promote the city. Similar to the website The Schenectady Project or @schenectadydoesn’tsuck on Instagram, The Mystic Order of the True Blues was established to promote business and civic pride in Schenectady.

Flier for the first chartered meeting of the True Blues. President William J. Van Horne would be elected mayor of Schenectady in 1871 and was the first person in Schenectady to own a telephone. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.
Formed in 1867, the True Blues promoted Schenectady through grand, lavish parades. The second parade of the True Blues took place on September 3, 1868 and it attracted 20,000 visitors to Schenectady. Newspaper reports described knights in period garb, people dressed as King Lear, Hamlet and Ophelia, a division of Zouaves from the War of 1812 who “won continued applause by their precise military movements,” and an animal section which contained a baby elephant named Ho-Olah, bears and other beasts. The True Blues also lampooned many Schenectady institutions. There were caricatures of Postmaster John Veeder, and one of the Schenectady Daily Union Editor Welton Stanford who was caricatured as “one who tried to rid two horses at one time, - one horse marked ‘Republican’ and the other ‘Democrat’.” The music was a highlight of the parade, especially Sullivan’s marching band from Troy. According to former Schenectady County Historian Larry Hart, Sullivan’s band was “regally uniformed and led by a giant drum major, which got the greatest applause along the route.”
Model of King Neptune's float from the second True Blues parade. From the Schenectady History Museum. 
A fictitious history and an illustration of the True Blues was published in an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper after the parade. It states that “Sixteen thousand years ago, according to the tradition of Munchausen, the valley of the Mohawk was an extensive and magnificent lake. The hills which enclose the vast level, now luxuriant with the toil of the honest husbandman, were dotted with castles, palaces, and prisons, the former inhabited by the founders of the True Blues and the latter by degenerate and unworthy Sons of Malta.” This account goes on to say that the lake dried up leaving nothing but a few seeds of broomcorn. The ancestors of the True Blues cultivated this crop in order to send brooms around the world, but an “unworthy scion of a noble sire” made whisky from the harvest and emigrated to Ireland to form the Free Masons while.
Ticket to the Grand Carnival of the Mysterious True Blues. Image from the Grems-Doolittle Library Collection.
 In 1869 the True Blues decided to hold a carnival at the Schenectady’s first armory. The armory had been completed in 1868 and the True Blues organized the “Grand Carnival and Bazaar” in order to celebrate its opening. To promote the week-long bazaar, the True Blues circulated a newsletter called The True Blue Bazaar. The newsletter contained humorous poems, jokes, cartoons, lists of contributors to the bazaar and advertisements for local businesses. One of my favorite jokes comes from the January 30th issue, “When are skipping lambs like library volumes? When they are boundin’ sheep.”
Advertisements of attractions at the
Grand Carnival and Bazaar
from the February 8, 1869 issue
 of the "True Blue Bazaar."
Image from the Grems-Doolittle
Library Collection. 
The list of contributors in these newsletters feature some prominent residents of New York and Schenectady including, former New York State Governor John T. Hoffman, several members of the 83rd Regiment of Volunteers, H.S. Barney of Barney’s department store fame and former Albany Mayor Michael Nolan. The bazaar boasted a wide variety of activities, music, portraits, poultry shows, a five foot cucumber and a velocipede. I could list more, but as the Albany Express newspaper wrote, “no description could do it justice.” The carnival cost $4,000 to run, a considerable amount in 1869, but the True Blues managed to raise $1,000 for charity.

A final parade took place on September 8, 1870 and according to the Daily Star it drew 30,000 visitors to Schenectady from. Special trains ran from major cities in New York and thirteen coaches ran from Albany loaded with people wanting to see the parade. Bands from Schenectady, New York, Troy and Poughkeepsie were invited to march alongside horse-drawn floats, armored knights and a model of the Cardiff Giant.

The last meeting of the True Blues occurred on October 2nd 1871 and King’s Cornet Band played “lively music to salute a job well done.” In addition to promoting the city, the parades and bazaars of the True Blues provided a much needed distraction from the horrors of the  Civil War and  Lincoln's assassination for the residents of Schenectady.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Band of Brothers: The Correspondence of Charles and Douglas Snell

Envelope of a letter from Charles Snell to his parents.
The envelopes in this collection have a variety of different stamps. 
The 71st anniversary of D-Day was on Saturday, June 6th 2015. Although I’m a little late writing this blog post I would like to highlight a part of our collection that commemorates World War II, the Charles and Douglas Snell Collection. This collection comprises letters that were written by Charles and Douglas to family and friends during the last two years of World War II.

Diagram of Charles' living quarters in the South Pacific which he calls his "home".

Charles and Douglas Snell were the sons of William A. and Kathryn Snell of 418 Plymouth Avenue, Schenectady, NY.  Both Charles and Douglas enlisted in the Army in 1943, but they were sent to different theaters. Charles was sent to California and fought in the South Pacific while Douglas was sent to England. While the bulk of this collection is correspondence, there are also a few political cartoons, newspaper articles, postcards, and pictures.
The letters are usually short on specific combat information as they were heavily censored by the government. Some of the letters have pieces cut out of them due to this censorship or words redacted. The brothers often “self-censor” their letters and an example of this can be seen in Charles’ correspondence. In the heading of his letters he will describe his location as “Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean Area.” Both brothers were vague in saying exactly where they were located as this information would definitely be censored. There is some general information about what the brothers are working on, they mention classes or lectures that they go to and in the letter displayed below Charles states that he “heard his first radar today.”

Letter from Charles Snell to his parents.
The letters also contain a lot of information about military life. They talk about training routines, food, entertainment, inspections, life on the home front and items they might need from their family. Charles goes into great detail about his time spent in the California before he was deployed. He gives descriptions of national parks, talks about his love of gardening and classical music and his work with the Chaplain. Douglas describes his time in England and discusses the people, places and things he encountered there. Douglas’ sense of humor is also on display in the correspondence. Accompanying the newspaper clipping below was a note from Douglas stating that he “wasn’t as bald as the picture made him out to be.” He also calls notice to a particularly painful pun that he uses in one of his letters by saying he was “short on shorts (ouch).”

Clipping from the Schenectady Union-Star showing Douglas Snell in the jeep
 that he drove for the chaplains in his unit.
There is also some discussion about political views and the 1944 presidential election between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey. Charles, a Roosevelt supporter writes to his parent that “I suppose you heard about the election by now Ha! The Dewey men on ship made a lot of noise but won’t bet a cent on the election.” Douglas also mentions that he supports Roosevelt and was happy when he was elected.

Many of the letters in this collection were written using “V-Mail”. These letters were written on small sheets of paper and after going through the mail censors they would be photographed onto microfilm and transported. When the microfilm arrived, the letters would be blown up and printed.
Example of a V-Mail letter sent by Douglas.
These letters give us a very personal connection to the authors as the brothers write about their family and friends in Schenectady. After returning from his tour in the Pacific, Charles married Julie Kamerer and moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. Douglas enrolled in Union College and eventually moved to Norristown, Pennsylvania. Both brothers died in 1997 and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A finding aid for the Charles and Douglas Snell Collection can be found here.