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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter V: 1800 — 1846: Fire, Change and Growth

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[This information is from pp. 50-64 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

Things looked promising for Schenectady, too. The Academy had been revived, primarily as a training ground for Union College. Actually, it was divided into three departments: one for those college-bound, one for those not college-bound, and one for females. The college and the community were playing pitch-and-catch with their school buildings again. The college had climbed the hill, arid the county, selling the Academy building on Union and Ferry Streets back to the college, had for three thousand acres of land in various parts of the county, bought the Hooker building on the northeast corner of Union and College streets, which the college had just vacated. This building was to be used as the new Court House, Jail and City Hall, and, in a very limited sense, as a community building.

Growth Into Ashes

The expandinq activities of all four demanded larger quarters. Population and prosperity were blossoming. The wharves were lined with boats; the streets were filled with stagecoaches and cargo-wagons. The city was enthusiastically cashing in on the headlong rush to the West. Then, overnight — devastation.A fire started in a tannery on Water Street one night in early February, 1819. Fanned by a strong wind, it raged wildly through the northwestern part of town. Mercilessly, it destroyed everything in its path — the tannery, houses, outbuildings, barns, taverns, stores, law offices, a shoe store, bakery, the Schenectady Female Academy, fruit trees, produce and personal belongings. Schenectady, staring numbly at the smoldering ashes after it was all over, realized that it had lost even more than just material items. It had lost prosperity, optimism, and self-confidence.

The Erie Canal — A Threat Becomes a Blessing

Compounding the wretched little town's agony was the echo of pick and shovel digging out the Erie Canal bed. The depressed city-folk were certain the sound had the ring of a funeral bell. "The Canal will surely make Schenectady useless," they mourned. "Passengers and freight will both bypass the city. They'll come directly from New York up the Hudson to Cohoes, and then straight across the Mohawk to the West." Desolation hovered over the city like an impatient vulture. Many of the well-to-do found it expedient to move their families, their businesses and their money to a healthier climate.

Still, there were others in the city who displayed the same stubborn refusal to surrender that the early Dutch had exhibited after the massacre. Rather unexpectedly, the canal itself came to their rescue. The demand for laborers to work on the canal was constantly increasing. Scores of Irish immigrants poured into town to satisfy that demand, and Schenectady's economy began to revive. Furthermore, people were even then becoming time-conscious. They were quick to discover that by traveling overland from Albany by stage, and then taking passage on the packet boats from here, they were able to save the full day that it took to go through the locks from Cohoes to Schenectady.

Financially and psychologically, the city was staging a comeback. Even its physical appearance was different. The Washington Avenue section, former heart of the city, had been doomed by the ruinous fire of 1819, but the vicinity of the Canal was holding out economic promise. Eagerly, the city's business district moved several blocks up, away from the river. New homes as well as new businesses padded out Schenectady's frame as far east as Maiden Lane (Broadway). Population was almost double what it had been during the Revolution. Washington Avenue, Church Street, Ferry Street, Union Street, and State Street west of Ferry Street sported new cobblestone paving — bumpy, but far better than mud ruts, nonetheless. Sidewalks, too, were cobblestoned or, as directed by the Common Council, were covered by the property owner with a two-inch layer of slate gravel. New lamps graced the main streets, and a new roof protected the bridge to Scotia. Idleness, what little there was of it, was the result of personal choice, not economic climate, and enterprising businessmen were building huge warehouses, merchandising establishments, and fortunes.

Coming of the 'Iron Horse'

Unfortunately, this economic heyday came to an untimely end. A mere six years after the completion of the Erie Canal, waterways surrendered to railways. The machine age was ready to take over. In 1831, the first steam locomotive, "The DeWitt Clinton," ancestor of the iron horse, triumphantly hauled a string of specially mounted stagecoaches across the pine plains from Lydius Street in the outskirts of Albany to the top of the Crane Street hill in Schenectady (later Engine Hill). With wooden wheels scraping against iron-rimmed rails, grey mushrooms of woodsmoke spurting spasmodically from the tall stack, fugitive sparks, indiscriminately attacking coaches and customers alike, the awesome contrivance tore over the twelve and one-half miles of track in the incredible space of one hour and forty-five minutes! Passengers and spectators, delirious with excitement, sensed in the event a prediction of momentous things to come.

But neither the wildest hopes nor the most unrestrained imagination could have foreseen what effect this contraption was to have upon Schenectady's economy. The Mchawk and Hudson (from which root the New York Central was to grow) almost immediately started passenger service. (At first, in an attempt to protect the canal business, the railroad was not permitted to carry freight.) So successful was the company that within a short time a second rail line — to Saratoga — was added in 1832, and then a third — to Utica — in 1836. In scarcely half a dozen years, Schenectady looked about in pleased surprise, and discovered it had become one of the main railroad centers in America.

Growth of Democracy…

This industrial expansion had a terrific impact upon the city's size. Gravitating, as was customary with most immigrants, to back-breaking, unskilled labor, many had come here to work on the railroad. Within ten years of the "DeWitt Clinton's" maiden run, twenty new streets had been laid out. The shape of the town was spreading up and out — south of State Street into the Bowery (the Smith Street section), north of Union Street, and well beyond Maiden Lane.

The very prosperity which so invigorated the city created its own breed of problems. Again the city felt the need for more adequate quarters in which to solve its problems and conduct its business. And again the school building on the corner of Union and College streets changed hands. This time the County sold it back to the College for $10,000, and in 1831, bought land and erected its own imposing building in which to house the Court House, Jail, and City Hall. This was the present Education building at 108 Union Street.

Not all the changes in the city that occurred during the second quarter of the 19th century were physical changes. Some were the reflection of national development. Property, politics, and power had always been considered an inseparable triumvirate. If a man owned no property, he had no vote, and if he had no vote, he had no power. National, state, and even local power, from earliest days, had remained in the tightly clenched fists of the few.

In 1828, during Andrew Jackson's campaign for the presidency, time-honored voting restrictions collapsed. In rushed the waiting masses! Never before in the history of the country had so many men been allowed to vote. And keeping pace with this political development there was, throughout the second quarter of the century, an almost incredible acceleration in the country's economy. The build-up was due in large measure to the fantastic development in the whole field of transportation — in waterways, highways, railways, in steam and machinery. Within a relatively short time the American common man discovered that he held the power of the vote in one hand, and economic opportunity in the other. A man with a vote and a job tends to develop confidence, pride, and aspirations; in the American of that day, it developed a love of country, a desire for self-improvement, and a compulsion to better his fellow-man. His missionary zeal erupted into uplifting causes and reforms, into the Temperance Movement, the Feminist Movement, and revival meetings. His newly awakened nationalism and his desire for self-improvement exerted a profound influence upon the schools.

…And Education

Education had become available to ever-increasing numbers. During this period, opportunities for learning stretched up, down, and across, from previously accepted age and sex limitations. A new educational venture upon which Schenectady embarked at about this time demonstrated the downward trend. The Infant School had been founded in England some years earlier. Its student body sometimes in uniforms, was composed of youngsters from eighteen months to seven years of age. Children were not generally admitted to common school until they were seven or eight years old. Furthermore, they were expected to have learned their letters and how to read and write before they started school. The whole idea of working with pre-schoolers was quite revolutionary. Initially, the school had been founded to combat the evils of the orphan apprentice system. Its originator believed that education was the most potent weapon against social ills, and that it was never too early to instill a respect for cleanliness, beauty, order and other people. He, too, stressed military precision, but shunned both books and beatings, his level of aspiration being closer to a large nursery than to a school. A follower in this movement added a little learning to the system, but this learning so depended upon formalism and memory that it earned for the movement the label, "Drill Shed." Nevertheless, the system spread rapidly throughout the country, and in 1829 Schenectady founded its own Infant School Society.

Local newspapers carried reports of exhibitions held here and in neighboring cities. One such report marveled:

Nothing excited more surprize (sic) than the almost universal taste of these children for music; and the power of singing they seemed to possess. It would seem to evince that by early and careful cultivation almost every child may be taught to sing… (1)

Another enthused:

You cannot conceive how much a child is capable of learning before he is three years old… The examination commenced by a hymn composed for the occasion, and sung by twenty of the smallest children… not one over four years old… They then read: some of the smallest could only read letters printed on cards; but most of them could read in the Testament. They all read together, and spake in so much unison, that it seemed like one voice… After having attended closely for some minutes, to a lesson, they were allowed to clap their hands, and shuffle their feet, for a minute's amusement, then all were silent… They were examined in the rudiments of the Spelling-Book, English, Grammar, Geography, Sacred History, and the simple rules of Arithmetic… These answers were not given by rote; any stranger was requested to ask questions in any of the branches… The examination lasted three hours; yet the interest of children or spectators was not for a moment lost. (2)

The move was initiated with some caution because even though Infant Schools had "excited a deep public interest, wherever they have been established," Schenectadians hadn't had much chance to judge them. After the first public examination was held in the Dutch Church on October 7, following only a few weeks of school, all remnants of skepticism disappeared. Proudly, the Schenectady Cabinet reported one week later:

The exercises of the children were highly satisfactory, and tended much to satisfy the public that the infantile mind is susceptible of improvement. Indeed, many who heretofore doubted, have become satisfied of the utility of Infant Schools… the children answered the various questions put to them, with promptness and in a manner which would have done credit to those of riper years…

There was, of course, a not unfamiliar gap between approval and support. The Trustees took the townsfolk to task. "An impression had gone about," they said, "that the Infant School lately commenced in this city, is to be principally supported by subscriptions and donations. This has caused an unwillingness in many, to pay for tuition what is reasonable, and in fact necessary to support the school." After reminding the public that the Infant School entailed considerable expense, including the employment of assistants to take charge of the children, "many of whom require almost constant attention," they pointed out that there were about one hundred children enrolled, that tuition was $1.25 or $1.50 for each scholar, and that "if those who send their children to this school, would fairly meet this sum according to their respective abilities, the School can be maintained, and its benefits extended to those who have it not in their power to pay much if anything…" (3)

Shortly after, the school changed its name nationally, from Infant to Primary School The other elementary grades were already answering to the name English Grammar, or simply, Grammar School. But not until the middle of the century did these two — the Primary and the Grammar School — become aware of their kinship and move into the same building. By that time Infant schools, however imperfect, had made some significant contributions to educational thinking. They had disclosed that very young children can be taught, they had verified the preference for women as primary grade teachers, and by emphasizing the need for trained teachers, they had also raised the status of the teaching profession.

Female Education

The status of females in general was on the upswing. The growing desire to uplift the less fortunate undoubtedly projected the benefits of education crosswise into the female department. Although schools for girls had existed here early, they became so popular during the second quarter of the century that for a time it seemed as though a new one was being opened almost every year. They appeared under various names — Female Academy, Female Seminary, Young Ladies Seminary — and at various locations — Washington Avenue, Liberty Street, State Street, Front Street. They accepted no pupils under the age of seven, preferred that all applicants had already passed through a good primary school, expected those living at the school to provide themselves with towels, bed, bedding, dictionary and Bible, restricted their young charges as to clothing, jewelry and gentlemen callers, and built up a sizable following from Schenectady, Albany, Troy, Washington County, Hudson, Oswego, Massachusetts, Vermont and elsewhere.

Their curriculum stressed such "polite" refinements as sewing, needlework, drawing, painting in water colors, velvet painting, Chinese painting, penmaking, French and music. Manners and morals, too, came under close scrutiny. A letter to the Editor signed, "Several Spectators" and referring to a public examination held at the "recently" opened Schenectady Female Seminary, expressed the appreciation of the community at large: "The modesty and decorum of the young Ladies while under examination, afforded the highest pleasure to the audience; and evinced that propriety of manners had been as carefully attended to as the different branches of science…" (4)

Concerning the "different branches of science" it is noteworthy that more than 125 years ago girls' schools in Schenectady offered such academic solids as Euclid, astronomy, chemistry, botany, philosophy of the mind and elements of criticism. Perhaps even more unexpected is the statement in the 1835 catalogue of the Schenectady Female Seminary which described the course of instruction as being "designed to be of a strictly practical nature, and calculated… to induce habits of reflection and expand and invigorate the intellectual powers by leading the pupils to think for themselves." (5)

In spite of amazing progress in certain areas, the wisdom of universal education, when not being attacked, was still being openly questioned. Said a local newspaper account of that day: "Nor are the advantages of a common and uniform system of education for every scholar admitted, any more than the propriety of having a common property, a common table and common domestic establishments." (6)

This was the type of thinking which faced the Lyceum movement when it was organized in 1826. The society was another manifestation of the widespread desire for self-improvement. Aimed at adults, it offered an introduction to the understanding of arts and sciences. One of its most far-reaching legacies however, is that it stimulated the public into thinking aloud about education and its problems.

The Lyceum and Other Schools

Schenectady's introduction to the Lyceum Society came in 1834, when an eight-sided building, called the Lyceum and Academy Building, was erected on the corner of Yates and Union streets. Its attractive, yet unconventional appearance was perhaps symbolic of the movement's simultaneous search for beauty and progress. On the second floor the Society presented free lectures on political, literary and scientific subjects to which the public was invited. Few subjects were taboo, and the schools often came under discussion. "Should misbehaving children be whipped or expelled from school?" "Should all students be given the same textbook?" "What about school time for religion? for music? for drawing?" Indeed, it is fair to assume that an article in the Reflector and Schenectady Democrat which rang out in 1838, like the proverbial "voice in the wilderness," was an echo of Lyceum discussions. Well ahead of its time, it observed that -

As a foundation of a good system of popular instruction, the calling and the compensation of the teacher must be raised. — We must pay better, and treat better, the men charged with forming the minds of youth, before we can obtain the right sort of instructors. In the social scale, their position should be looked upon as the highest, and in the pecuniary scale, they must be paid liberally, or at least as well as men of other professions — or the right men cannot be obtained… (7)

On the main floor of the Lyceum Building there was a private "Classical" school for boys from well-to-do families and in the basement there was the junior department of the school where elementary subjects were taught. As in the Lancaster system, the teacher's desk was on a raised platform in the center of the room. But here, radiating from the center were separate "stalls," each one big enough for only one desk, one seat and one boy. Partitions opened only at the center, and almost as high as the ceiling, hid each boy from his neighbor, but left him mercilessly exposed to the ubiquitous eye of the master. To eliminate distraction and discourage shenanigans, the boys were seated with their backs to the teacher, so that while the teacher could keep a sharp watch on the student, the advantage was not mutual. However, the effectiveness of even this ingenious seating arrangement is disputed by early descriptions of the system in action. They tell of Lyceum students cutting holes in the partitions through which they could talk to, or blow spitballs at their schoolmates.

The number of men who attended the Lyceum School in Schenectady, and who later occupied outstanding positions, is ample testimony that both the goals and attainments of the school were high. Such men include, among others, Judge Austin A. Yates of Schenectady; Henry C. Potter, Bishop of New York; Eliphalet Nott Potter, President of Union College; and Chester A. Arthur, the twenty-first President of the United States. The building stood until 1911.

Another distinctive example of the "select" private schools for boys which flourished here during this period was the "Commercial and Classical Institute" on Franklin Street. This school, opened in 1848, lasted only about seven years. It, too, drew its students from Schenectady's leading families. The aim of the school was preparation for college and conduct was regulated by strict military discipline. Students of the Institute were known as "Schenectady Cadets."

Notes for Chapter V

  1. Schenectady Cabinet, June 17, 1829.
  2. Ibid., August 26, 1829.
  3. Ibid., September 16, 1829.
  4. Ibid., October 28, 1829.
  5. Schenectady Female Seminary Catalogue, 1835. On file at the Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady, N. Y.
  6. Schenectady Cabinet, April 20, 1841.
  7. Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, February 9, 1838.

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