The Daily Gazette is reprinting excerpts of the late Larry Hart's long-running column, “Tales of Old Dorp.” Hart believed everyone could be a star in local history, and makes his case in this column excerpt originally published Aug. 28, 1984.
Every family that has lived in Schenectady has some bearing on this city’s history — some more than others, of course.
How often has a mere picture or document led to an intriguing story of a person or family residing here many years ago?
It doesn’t necessarily entail momentous developments, merely an account of an association with an early industry, fraternal or religious organization, and just enough details on social aspects to add to our knowledge and appreciation of family life in another century.
Old Dorp frequently mentions people such as Arendt Van Curler, a Dutch merchant who first planned a settlement here, or John Ellis, founder of the Schenectady Locomotive Works, or Charles P. Steinmetz, the GE Engineering genius, or Dr. Elizabeth Van R. Gillette, the city’s first female physician.
Theirs are names that are linked to Schenectady’s formal history, which is the story of this city’s development and growth. However, lesser-known individuals or families also make up an important part of that total picture — how the people lived, what sort of homes made up neighborhoods, the kinds of work and wages then existent, what they did for amusement and recreation, etc.
For example, letters, diaries and other documents of the past tell us about life in these parts in the early to mid-1800s when electricity, automobiles and central heating were unheard of. Rarely did the “average” homestead have plumbing facilities. Water for drinking and cooking was brought into the kitchen by buckets from nearby wells, sometimes private but often public.
Each house had outdoor toilets in the backyard and night commodes under the beds. In the dead of winter, ice sometimes formed on the water buckets indoors by morning, it was that cold.
Naturally, the homes of the affluent offered conveniences far beyond the means of working-class families.
Some of these big, luxurious houses are with us yet today — such as the Henry DeForest house (now Schenectady Veterans of World War II) on Union Street opposite Seward Place, the Frederick Fuller (now Knights of Columbus) at Union and Church or the Charles Ellis house (now Amity Hall) at 217 Union St.
Picture, if you will, the families of those multi-roomed dwellings having the comforts that come with servants, fireplaces in bedrooms, plumbing which permitted indoor toilets and ablution, stables in the yards that housed riding conveyances, animals and driver on call at a moment’s notice and magnificent drawing rooms with ornate furnishings that included a grand piano, a marble-manteled fireplace and fancy gaslight fixtures.
This is an isolated portion of what can be gleaned from writings or memories of the past, a contrast in styles of family life in Schenectady. We can piece together some other fascinating bits to yesteryear from these sources which help us reconstruct a picture of another era.
In some ways, the “good old days” must have been really terrific. On the other hand, it is difficult for us to imagine people actually enduring without our modern conveniences.