Category Archives: Schenectady

Walker’s – for everything

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In the 19th century, Schenectady’s main business district was all concentrated west of the canal. And it would seem that most things that were for sale were concentrated in James Walker & Co., wholesale and retail dealers in groceries, agricultural implements, house furnishing goods, wood and willow ware, rope, twine and cordage, coal oils and lamps, bird cages, fishing tackle, brushes, &c., &c.

In 1862, he was located on the main business block on State Street between South Church and South Ferry. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the downtown we know, between the filled-in canal at Erie Boulevard and Crescent Park, began to form.

At the time of this ad, James Walker was near the end of his run. In the 1870 census, he was listed as a 61-year-old retired merchant, living with wife Mary, with real estate worth $40,000, and another $40,000 in personal estate. (Depending on how you calculate it, that might be a comfortable $8 million to $18 million today.)

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The Carl Company

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Well of course I couldn’t talk about Wallace’s without mentioning its across-the-street complement, The Carl Company. One of Schenectady’s home-grown department stores, it opened in 1906 and was owned by the Carl family until 1984. Defying the trend of amalgamations and consolidations, it managed to survive into the early ’90s with a number of suburban locations adding to its downtown flagship store, immediately adjacent to Proctor’s Theatre. When the company decided to close down, it was done with typical class and many of us were sad to see the last of the local department stores disappear.

This ad was from 1914, when Carl’s already had another location in Troy – people didn’t travel very far to do their shopping in those days. Carl’s was also one of the stores that had a stamp-collecting premium program, Gold Bond Stamps, which were given with every purchase. Every now and then my mother would pull out all the Gold Bond Stamps she had collected and we would paste them into the redemption books, which could then be turned in for discounts against purchases. This was what entertained kids when there were only three channels. I only wish there were a picture of the Uncle Sam hats they were giving away this August Saturday, and can’t help but wonder if their supplier had missed the Fourth of July rush.

Today, its space has been taken over the Proctor’s, which uses it for its iWerks theatre and coffee shop, the 8th Step performance space, and Underground at Proctor’s.

In some sense, the Carl Company is still doing good things for Schenectady – its Carlilian Foundation supports grants to promote child health and welfare in Schenectady County, and is a major supporter of the Central Park Rose Garden.

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Where to go for Bosoms of Superior Quality?

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Why, Ketchum’s Gentlemen’s Furnishing Store, of course. In case you thought he was going to up and quit the business at any minute, A.M. Ketchum “would respectfully inform the citizens of Schenectady and vicinity that he will continue the manufacture of shirts, collars, bosoms of superior quality, and keep constantly on hand a general assortment of gentlemen’s furnishing goods.” From the age when collars and cuffs were detachable and replaceable (much to the benefit of our own Collar City, Troy), I’ve always heard the term “shirt waist.” But apparently “shirt bosom” was also in use and did not provide the kind of grade-school tittering that such a phrase would occasion today (and Google and Zemanta are essentially fifth-grade boys, because it’s being suggested that a related article to this would be “Chest Vibrator Increases Breast Size.” That’s quantity, not quality, Zemanta).

Ketchum was located on State Street just below South Ferry. He was also an agent for Wheeler & Wilson, one of the earliest sewing machine companies, at a time when that domestic miracle was still relatively new.

Wallace Company Department Store

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Wallace department store postcard.jpgWallace Company was a downtown Schenectady mainstay from 1892 until 1973, when all the great downtown department stores (H.S. Barney, W.T. Grant, S.S. Kresge) seemed to collapse within a few years of each other, leaving only Woolworth’s and the venerable Carl Company behind. Wallace’s was owned by Forbes & Wallace of Springfield, Massachusetts, and also had branches in Poughkeepsie and Kingston. It loomed large in my childhood, not only because I spent endless hours as a bored little boy stuck waiting for my mother in the fabric department (remember when there were fabric departments?), but because Wallace’s may have been the reason I exist in the first place. My grandmother was a waitress in the luncheonette (every department store of any kind of class had a luncheonette), and she noticed a young man who was working in the parking lot – they parked your car for you in those days, in the lot that opened onto Liberty Street – and somehow thought that her daughter should meet this young man. I can’t imagine why she thought that a young man who had never been to high school and was parking cars for a living, two years older than her possibly college-bound daughter, should be a good catch; maybe the only explanation is that it was the ’50s. My father graduated to delivering furniture for Wallace’s, and my mother worked there, too, making clothes for the mannequins (I know that makes no sense in the modern age, but back when people made their own clothes and pattern sales were huge, the stores would have someone make sample clothes and put them on the mannequins). Eventually (or about two months after she graduated high school), they married, and a couple of years later, both working at Wallace’s, they had me. My mother stopped working full-time because that’s what was done then, though she still sewed on the side and sometimes waitressed at the drugstore a few blocks from our home (yes, drugstores had waitresses then). My father went on working for Wallace’s until maybe 1967 or ’68, when he went to work for Central Markets as a local delivery truck driver. (Later on, Central Markets would change their name to Price Chopper.)

The Wallace Co. building, constructed in 1892 and expanded in 1910, still stands on Schenectady’s main commercial block.

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Steam Planing!

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Steam was all the rage in the 1860s. Like electricity would be in just a few decades, “steam” became a symbol of modern industry, a sign of a business that could produce a lot and quickly. In this time we see ads for steam printing presses (the first in the country was in Albany), mills, and even cracker production. Van Vorst and Vedder, just a block or so from the Erie Canal, were justifiably proud of their steam planing mill.
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O Oysters, come and walk with us!

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Albany Frosted Foods receipt.jpgSometime in the late 1950s, for a very brief time, my grandfather ran a drive-in restaurant on Aqueduct Road in Schenectady, not far from the Aqueduct (Route 146) bridge, and now the site of an auto junkyard. A lot of his receipts from that business were saved. In this age when everything is computer-inventoried and printed out in tremendous detail, it’s refreshing to remember a time when receipts were handwritten, had varying levels of detail and legibility, and had a little bit of personality of their own. This receipt was for a bushel of oysters from the Albany Frosted Foods Company, and fans of giant warehouse fires will recognize the address of Colonie and Montgomery Streets. The business was long since bought by gargantuan food supplier Sysco; the building is just an empty shell, lined with cork to keep things cool and waiting for redevelopment.

(And we can’t talk about oysters without mentioning Lewis Carroll.)

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Francis Calo begs leave to inform you

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1862 Schenectady Directory City Baggage Wagon.pngIn case you wondered, Schenectady residents of 1862, yes, Francis Calo is still running a baggage wagon to every part of the city. And he continues the business of carman (which under one definition would be the same as running a baggage wagon). And he hangs out across the street from Lyon’s. (Imagine a modern advertiser begging leave to inform you of anything.)

Francis Calo emigrated as a boy in 1838 from Saxony, then part of the German Confederation. He became a naturalized citizen, married, and had a son and three daughters. His wife died within a couple of years after this ad.  His baggage wagon must have done well enough that within a few years, in 1870, he had established himself as a fruit and confectionery merchant. He lived past the age of 80: in 1910,  he was living at 1009 Union Street, near Park Avenue, with two of his daughters, who never married.

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