You might think day care is a relatively recent part of American culture — something that sprang to life during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
Diane Fisher, however, and her staff at the Schenectady Day Nursery in downtown Schenectady will tell you it goes back much further.
“It was a group of church women back in 1902 that got us started,” said Fisher, director of the Schenectady Day Nursery, which is celebrating 111 years of existence and 100 years in its current home at 25 Lafayette St.
“Evidently, there were children running in the streets back then, and these church women felt the need to do something about it. All these years later, we still have the same issues we’re dealing with. Day care is certainly still a major concern for American women and American families.”
On Feb. 3, 1902, the Schenectady Day Nursery opened in a small rented flat on Dakota Street, near present-day Proctors. Miss Ida M. Schram, who had been working at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Albany, was in charge and had just two customers. Things, however, got busy very quickly.
Later that year in August, when Miss Schram was working with 27 children, the “board of managers” moved the facility to the “old Hathaway House” on Hamilton Street. In September of 1905, the board purchased a building and property at 25 Lafayette St., which had been the home of the Rindfleisch Dye Works. The group seemed happy with their purchase, mentioning in its yearly report that “the house is a commodious one, in good repair, well fitted for the needs of a day nursery.”
By 1912, however, plans for a new building were in the works, and the nursery moved into temporary quarters at 726 Eastern Ave. By Jan. 1, 1913, the building at the current site was complete and an open house was held. Two years later, the board purchased the lot next door at 23 Lafayette St., where they added a playground.
Miss Schram served 31 years as the head of Schenectady Day Nursery, and her dedication and enthusiasm have been mirrored by the group’s board of directors ever since. A private, not-for-profit business, the Schenectady Day Nursery has served the city on a continuous basis since its inception and is expected to continue doing so well into the 21st century and beyond.
“I was very fortunate because I was able to stay home with my children,” said Karen Dascoli, board president. “But in today’s world that’s hard. Women in today’s society have to work, so how do you do that and also make sure that your children are well taken care of? How do you make sure they’re spending the day in a safe environment? That’s what we do. I’ve been involved in the community for a long time, and when a friend of mine shared with me some information about the nursery, I felt like it was a very worthwhile cause and something I wanted to be involved in.”
Today, most American families of all income levels deal with day care issues as fewer than one in three U.S. children have a full-time stay-at-home parent, according to the Center for American Progress. Unlike 1902, however, day care today is considered a well-respected and viable practice.
“The period between 1890 and 1910 was known as the Progressive Era, and during this time you started seeing these institutions becoming more widespread,” said Andrew Morris, Union College history professor, of day care centers.
“But they were targeted at poor, working families, and there was a stigma attached to it. It was seen as charity and not socially acceptable. That’s why many of the women who were involved in these movements were a bit conflicted. It made it easier for women to get out of the home, and the idea of a married woman getting a job during that period was very controversial.”
But for many women, and children as well, staying home in the first decade of the 20th century was not an option.
“In places where you saw industrialization really accelerating and immigration peaking, you also saw day care becoming more common,” said Morris.
“Schenectady’s population was expanding rapidly, and in many ways what was happening here mirrored the national time line. Women needed to work, and in many families, the children also had to contribute to the family economy. The middle class and elite reformers were troubled by the sights of these immigrant neighborhoods, and what they were hoping to do was to take the rough edges off the process of industrialization. There were various social ills that these people were concerned about, and taking care of children was very important to them.”
Almost from its inception up until 1932, the Schenectady Day Nursery also operated a dispensary. Dr. Frank Van Der Bogart and a handful of other physicians all donated their time, dealing with 1,355 cases in 1914 alone. In 1961, another feature of the facility — live-in staff members — was also discontinued. And in 1997, when the nursery seemed to be overflowing with children, the board decided to build some major additions to the 1913 structure.
“We did some very major renovations back in 1997,” said Fisher, who has been with the nursery since 1990. “Previously we just accommodated children from 3 years of age up to school age. But we changed the building so we could handle infants and toddlers. Now we can take care of 96 children ranging from 6 weeks old to 12 [years].”
The building has three stories, beginning with a classroom for infants and another for toddlers on the first floor. On the second floor is a kitchen and two classrooms for preschool children, and the third floor consists of another preschool classroom and two school-age classrooms.
“The older part of the building is brick, and the newer part is like stucco,” said Fisher. “It serves us pretty well.”
Outside of a short gap back in the late 1970s, Chris Knapp has been a teacher at the nursery since 1971. She remembers the old building very well.
“The building was very cut up, and there was a space that had been used for the teachers’ apartments,” she said. “So, we really needed some renovation. I can remember on one floor there were three separate little rooms, and that made it hard to supervise the children. I think not having the teachers live here and the additions in 1997 really helped the place.”
For Knapp, working with young children and watching them mature has been a wonderful experience.
“I love seeing the change in the kids, from the time they’re first here to when they’re 4, and then they’re 5 and they’re going off to kindergarten as independent little people,” said Knapp, one of 16 employees at the nursery. “A women stopped me the other day and told me how she and her brothers had gone here in the 1970s, and she remembered me. It’s become multigenerational. We have kids that are now coming back and bringing their kids.”
The costs of dropping off children at the Schenectady Day Nursery depends upon what the family can afford.
“I think a good selling point for us is that we have a sliding fee schedule based on income,” said Fisher, “and what we try to do is to make sure every child is provided with everything they need. We like to get to them early so they’re on a level playing field with all the other children when they finally go to school.”