Monday, March 30, 2020

COVID-19 Archive Project

We are all making history right now, as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. It's an emergency of historic proportions, and has been compared to the Black Plague, or the 1918 Spanish Flu. Like those past crises, COVID-19 will be a major topic of study for future historians. Years from now, Schenectadians will look back and wonder: “How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect Schenectady County? How did our ancestors respond to the crisis?” "What was life like for people quarantined?"

You can help future researchers understand for themselves what life right now is like. You can help future historians understand the pandemic's immense impact on our community, and on ourselves, and on our way of life. You can help future historians understand how this international emergency changed your life, and changed our world, forever.

Consider recording your unique perspective for inclusion in the SCHS archives. Diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, songs, poems, short stories, and other works of art are all important sources for future historians. Be creative: there are infinite ways you can express yourself, and document the impact of COVID-19 on you, your loved ones, and your neighbors. Help us, by:

--Contributing to a global collection of stories:
--Sharing your story using our form:
--Creating a personal diary, scrapbook, or photo album (analog/physically or digitally)
--Collecting the letters, emails, and notes that you’ve created or received to stay in touch or communicate with others during this difficult time of isolation

--Creating art, poetry, music, and other creative expressions related to the current crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact is an on-going, changing situation. It will take time to document how we are all affected, so we encourage you to contact us when you are ready to donate your materials whether that's today, or in the next few weeks, or several years from now. We're open to collecting materials of any format, digital or analog. If you have questions about ways you can contribute to the SCHS archive collection, or about documenting your experiences, contact the SCHS librarian, Marietta Carr, at

Pages from Sadie Levi's diary 1886. Learn more about this diary:

Tips for creating journals, diaries, and scrapbooks:
  • Pick your format. You can jot notes in a calendar, doodle and write in a blank notebook, or record yourself in a video log. It doesn't matter if you choose an analog format or a digital one as long as it works for you.
  • Schedule time for writing and/or construction. Set aside 10-15 minutes a day or whatever works for you for time and frequency. As long as you are regularly adding to your creation, you're creating historical value.
  • There is no wrong way to keep a journal or scrapbook. Add content that is meaningful to you in whatever way works best for you.
  • If you need inspiration, try answering the following questions:
    • What did you do today? How was today different from yesterday or a typical day in your life?
    • Who did you talk to today? What did you talk about? How did you feel during and after the conversation?
    • What new piece of information did you learn today? How do you think you will use this information? Where did this information come from? Why do you trust the source of this information?
    • Why did you decide to keep this journal or scrapbook?
    • When did you first become aware of the COVID-19 pandemic? What were your first thoughts or feelings?
    • Have you ever experienced an outbreak or similar situation before? How have you prepared or responded to this situation? How have the people around responded?
    • What brings you joy or comfort right now? What are your biggest concerns right now?
    • Think about what your 'normal' life entails and then describe how the current situation differs from your 'normal.' Talk about yourself: where you work, what activities you do, where you live, and who is in your family.
Tips for collecting letters, documents, art, and other creative expressions:
  • Designate a single location for your collection, whether that's a box or a digital folder
  • Don't worry about collecting every single possible item. Focus on making a habit of saving a copy of your documents in that single location.
  • Write or record information about your collection such as who participated in creating it, when you started and finished collecting, and what formats (e.g. email, JPGs, photos, letters) are present in the collection.
  • Find an organization that makes sense to you and record a few notes about that organization. Did you sort items by type (e.g. all of the photos are together in one folder) or by creator (e.g. everything your spouse created is its own folder)? Did you do something else like alphabetize or organize by date?
  • Contact the SCHS librarian if you have questions about formats, organization, or preservation.
Letter from Charles Snell, sent while he was stationed in the South Pacific during WWII.

The SCHS COVID-19 Archive Project is one of many similar projects that archives around the world have started to document this historic period. Our project is informed by and modeled after the Society of American Archivists Documenting in Times of Crisis Resource Kit, History Colorado COVID-19 Experiences Project, and the Mass Observation Archive.

We wish you and your loved ones the very best. Be in touch and be safe.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Elizabeth Gillette, Schenectady's First Woman Surgeon

This blog was written by Grems Doolittle Library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Even as a child, Bessie Gillette didn’t conform to the norm. When other girls were making clothes for their dolls, she was making furniture. While their dolls were the mother or daughter of the dollhouse, Bessie’s was a doctor. When they played girls' games, she ran a drugstore from the family woodshed using tapioca from the kitchen as pills and colored water as potions. This wasn’t surprising considering almost all of her mother’s family were doctors and surgeons. They were also men.

Born in Granby, Connecticut on October 21, 1874, Elizabeth “Bessie” Van Rensselaer Gillette was the daughter of Albert Henry Gillette, a carpenter, and Mary Pinney Jewett Gillette. Her mother’s family were early settlers in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and her father’s family stretched back to the settlers of Gramby and Simsbury, Connecticut. Her family boasts several well-known ancestors, including Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers and Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut.  Her middle name comes from her mother’s uncle, Van Rensselaer Pinney, who died at the beginning of the Civil War. She had two older sisters, Angie Emma, who was born in 1869, and Lura Mary, who died two days after her birth in 1872.

In 1882, when Bessie was eight years old, a typhoid epidemic swept through their town. Bessie, her sister, and several cousins were victims. Bessie was sick for months, but her sister Angie and some cousins did not survive. After her recovery, she was a nervous and weak child. To build up strength, she spent much of her time outdoors riding horses, skating, climbing trees, and participating in sports.

After attending local district schools, Bessie was sent to a boarding school in Simsbury at the age of ten, and three years later to the Misses Booth Private School in Hartford. After graduation she attended Woodside College for Girls in Hartford. As a young woman with a mind of her own, Elizabeth wanted to follow in the footsteps of family members and become a physician. Her family and friends advised against it, thinking she was too delicate. She persisted and entered the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in 1894. She graduated in 1898, losing only 3 days during that time to illness.

Elizabeth Gillette, circa 1890s. Photo from Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Now Dr. Gillette, she interned at Women’s Hospital in New York City, receiving her medical license in 1899. She continued working there as a staff physician and also worked in several of the city’s clinics. Additionally, she volunteered time in Mission Schools where she even taught stenography, keeping two lessons ahead of her students.

In 1900, at the age of 25, Elizabeth moved to Schenectady where she had an uncle, watchmaker and jeweler Charles Bickelmann. She opened a private practice on June 1st of that year in a home she purchased at 254 (now 252) Union Street, at the corner of College Street. Although not the first female physician in Schenectady (that distinction goes to Dr. Janet Murray who opened a practice on Jay Street in 1893), Elizabeth was the first licensed female surgeon in Schenectady County. While quite unusual for the time, she was warmly welcomed by her male counterparts and later invited to join the Medical Society of Schenectady County.
Dr. Gillette's house at 252 Union Street. Photo by G. Denisoff, 2020.

Elizabeth was a familiar figure around Schenectady. She often made house calls, first by horse and carriage and soon after by automobile. In 1904, she bought a 14 horse power Maxwell and was often asked by local car dealers to be photographed in her car to inspire other women to purchase one.

Dr. Gillette in her 1904 Maxwell. Photo from the Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

After encountering several cases of cruelty to children in her practice, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to create a Humane Society in Schenectady which later included a home and shelter. In addition to being a founder, she also served as secretary of the society for many years. During World War I, she became involved in home front efforts and taught first aid classes and home care to soldiers’ families.

Elizabeth continued to study medicine all her life to keep up to date on new methods and procedures, especially in surgery, bacteriology and general medicine. She became a certified examiner for mental illnesses and a member of the surgical group of Ellis Hospital. Upon her 50th year of practice, she was honored by the Schenectady Medical Society for her meritorious service.

Dr. Gillette in her office, circa 1950. Photo published in the Daily Gazette.
With several lawmaker ancestors, it was no surprise that Elizabeth had a keen interested in politics. In 1919, a year before women obtained the vote, she was encouraged by Mayor George Lunn to run as a Democrat for the New York State Assembly from Schenectady District 2 and won by only 247 votes, becoming the first woman in upstate New York to be elected to the legislature and the last Democrat from Schenectady County to win until 1964. Her focus was on healthcare, regulation of drugs and mandating physicals for children working in factories. She also worked on local projects such as the construction of a well and pumping station to increase water supply and for funding to continue bridge and canal construction in her district all while maintaining her practice. At that time, terms lasted only one year and in 1920 she was defeated by Republican William Campbell who later became Mayor of Schenectady. She always encouraged women to become involved in politics, and in 1957, advised, “Vote in every election, go to every political meeting possible, learn all you can about political affairs – and always be a lady.”

Dr. Gillette, Legislative Portrait. Photo from New York Red Book, 1920.
She shared her large home with several boarders over the years. Around 1910 her parents came to live with her until their deaths in the 1920s. She was also interested in travel and in the 1930s took several prolonged ocean voyages. In 1931 she sailed to England and France, in 1933 from New York to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal and to Italy in 1935.

Elizabeth Gillette practiced medicine in Schenectady for six decades and was once nominated for the New York State “Doctor of the Year” award. By the mid 1950s she had slowed down a bit but still described herself as “one of those hard-core Connecticut Yankees.” She stopped making night calls and delivering babies, but declared, “I’m not in the operating room much anymore but I still set broken bones, something I love to do,” and planned to keep working “as long as my body will let me, I want to die in harness.”

Elizabeth Gillette and Agnes Haren. Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

Dr. Gillette retired in 1959 at the age of 85, but stayed involved with civic organizations including the Schenectady Humane Society, the Schenectady Historical Society (a life member), and as life member and vice president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Gillette died at the age of 90 on June 26th, 1965, in her home. She never married and was survived by several cousins and her longtime live-in housekeeper and friend Agnes Haren. After private services locally, she was buried in her family plot at Granby Cemetery in her birthplace of Granby, Connecticut.

Elizabeth Gillette's gravestone. Photo by M. Cooley, 2015. Posted on

She has been honored posthumously over the years for her contributions to the medical field. In 2000, Dr. Gillette was a recipient of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce Women of Excellence Award. She earned recognition in 2017 as an inductee to the New York Historic Women of Distinction list by the New York State Senate.

Elizabeth’s Union Street home changed hands several times over the years, eventually falling into disrepair. Efforts were undertaken in the early 2000s by Schenectady County to restore it. The home is unique because it is one of the only Italianate style homes in the Stockade and serves as a gateway to the historic district. The exterior now looks similar to when she lived there and it still carries on a medical tradition with a woman chiropractor practicing on the first floor.

"Biography of Elizabeth Van R. Gillette," The Medical Society of the County of Schenectady Capital Region Scrapbook: Pioneers in Medicine, Daily Gazette, by Jeff Wilkin, 7/13/2009
"Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer “Bessie” Gillette," Find a Grave database and images
"Dr. Elizabeth Gillette," Schenectady Daily Gazette Obituary, June 28, 1965 
New York Red Book, An Illustrated State Manual, 1920
New York State Census 1905, 1915, 1925.
Schenectady County buys Gillette House, Spotlight News, by Jessica Harding, 9/14/2009.
United States Federal Census, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
Women of Distinction, NYS Senate, 2017 Historical Inductees Honoring Women’s History Month

Saturday, March 14, 2020

What's in the box? Opening the County Home Time Capsules

Time capsules have been a popular way of commemorating and documenting occasions like anniversaries, business openings, significant calendar years, and completed construction. Creating a time capsule is a way to engage the community, reflect on the occasion or current moment, and communicate with future generations. Setting a time capsule can be a celebratory event, but unsealing one is often a delicate process. It's often difficult to know what kind of deterioration has happened to the materials inside. Unfortunately, capsules are often lost or damaged. Sometimes, we get lucky and everything goes well, the contents are undamaged, and the capsule completes its purpose.

A few weeks ago, County Historian Bill Buell arrived at the Grems-Doolittle Library with two copper boxes. They had been found in a closet in the County Office building and nobody was sure where they came from. We decided to open them up and take a look.
What's in the box? This sealed copper box was found in a closet without any accompanying documentation.

One of the boxes was unsealed, so we lifted the lid and discovered a cache of newspapers, documents, and books. There was also a milk bottle cap. One of the documents revealed the box's purpose: commemorating the completed construction of the Schenectady County Home in 1934.
Program in Connection with Laying of the Cornerstone of the Schenectady County Home, July 14, 1934.

The Schenectady County Home is now called the Glendale Home. We decided that the time capsule was likely unearthed during the 2015 demolition of the Glendale Home facilities. We speculated that other box was a time capsule from a later addition to the County Home, but the box was sealed and we couldn't confirm until we opened it.
John, our facilities manager and blacksmith, checked the capsule for weaknesses and determined the best approach for opening it without harming the contents.

The capsule was sealed by folding a lip over the edge of the lid and reinforcing it with adhesive. John pried up the edge of the lip and forced a weak spot.

We're in! Once the lip was breached, John could grab the lid and prise it up.

Copper is a soft metal, so we could roll the top back like a sardine can lid. Time capsules usually are designed to be carefully destroyed when opened. If they were easier to open, they would be less effective in preserving their contents.

The first item emerges! The contents of this capsule are in good condition which shows how well the capsule did its job.

Like the previous capsule, this one contained newspapers, documents, and books. It did not contain a program explaining the occasion, but one of the documents was a speech titled "Remarks by Harold F. Lews, Chairman, Board of Supervisors. Dedication of Infirmary Building - October 30, 1960." One of the newspapers contained an article describing the addition of the Infirmary to the County Home.
Time capsules often include newspapers from the day the capsule is interred.
The 1960 time capsule included 31 cents and a Certs mint. Coins are often included in time capsules. We decided not to eat the mint, though it seemed to be in excellent condition.

For more information on the history of the County Home, check out the following sources: