Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What was a flapper, anyway?

by Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill Mansion

The Geneva Daily Times of the early 1920s suggested a few possible origins for the term flapper. 

Why is a flapper? [sic]  Who knows?  Well, why is she called a flapper? Now, that's different.   In . . . a story published 12 years ago, Harry Leon Wilson . . . called the little dumpling girl to whom ‘Our Hero, Bunker Bean,’ found himself married, the ‘flapper.’   . . . When asked recently why he called his . . . girl a flapper, Mr. Wilson said he didn't exactly know.  ‘I heard the term first in England, l believe," he said.  "Over 18 years ago the little, plump chorus girl was called a flapper . . . flapper originated . . . in the English chorus” (December 21, 1921).
 Or,
Yes, many times we've wondered, why they call the young ladies flappers.  In the spring time, summer time, and fall there does not seem much reason for giving them this cognomen.  . . . Then we saw how they wore their galoshes [unbuckled and flapping]” (January 21, 1922).  
Or,

Flappers Resembled Ducklings
The term "flapper," as applied to young girls of a certain type, is not modern, as most people suppose, but is really close on two centuries old.  Early in the seventeen hundreds growing-up girls were first called "flappers" from a fancied resemblance to the young ducks, neither fledging nor grown-up, but dashing about with a good deal of noise and flapping of wings” (July 28, 1922).

Singer and dancer Josephine Baker in a very flapper-ish ensemble.

Wikipedia, however, suggests that these theories were actually mistaken.  According to the article on Wikipedia, flapper was actually a slang word in England for prostitute that dates to the 1600s.  As early as 1631 ”flap” referred to a young prostitute.  By the 1890s flapper was popular slang for both a very young prostitute and any lively mid-teenage girl.   Based on early 20th century college and theatrical slang in England and the United States, flapper came to mean a lively and flirtatious young woman by the early 20th century (Wikipedia article on the flapper). 

By 1920, the term had taken on the meaning we associate with it today.  As one critic put it,  "the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations” (Wikipedia article on the flapper).    Clearly, not all women in the 1920s were flappers.  The flapper followed the extremes of fashion and flouted convention.  For example, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby was a flapper.

The flapper emerged after the cataclysm of World War I, and seems to have become a symbol of everything people disliked about the modern world.  She wore makeup, and applied it publicly, which conservatives found scandalous.  She wore less clothing than western women had for centuries.  If she was corseted at all, she wore elastic undergarments instead of heavy cotton and whalebone.  Her legs were more visible than ever.  When hem lines were their highest in 1926, they hit just below the knee, and stockings were sheer and flesh-colored.  She rejected old standards of female beauty and behavior.  Instead of exaggerating her female curves, she wanted to look boyish.  Her hair was cut short.   She smoked, drank, and swore, which had been male prerogatives.     She was widely assumed to be sexually aggressive and promiscuous.  Some clothing historians speculate that young women were, in a sense, trying to replace the young men who never came home from the war.  Flappers certainly seemed to lay claim to male freedom.  At the time, many people found all of this appalling.

Boyshform elastic undergarment ad.  

The Daily Times talked a lot about flappers - most of the time, disparagingly.  The paper recounts a story from Indianapolis, expressing surprise when a flapper demonstrated that she had a kind heart.   “THE FLAPPER IS PASSING,” claimed the Times hopefully, in May 1922:   ”She Doesn't Make a Good Wife, Therefore Her Day Is Done. “  When Bishop Edwin H. Hughes of Boston spoke to the First Methodist Church in Geneva, he stated “I have . . . not much [patience] with the super-flapper.  If she should walk the streets of Jerusalem with her face spotted red and white, the people would cry, as they did for the leper - unclean! unclean!   . . . In God’s name get back to God, lest some awful thing overtake America.” 

In June 1922, the Times reported:

Barbershop, Once Haven for Man, Now Catering to Flapper Patrons

. . . investigation by a Times reporter has disclosed that . . . the modern flapper has invaded what was once  . . . a sanctuary for the male of the species alone – the barbershop.  And the shops are cleaning house and installing fancy window curtains in her honor.   She walks right in, so Geneva barbers state, hangs her hat on the brass hooks, gives a preliminary look in the mirror, and waits for the call “next.”     . . . The worst of the whole matter, according to one prehistoric customer, is the gradual decline of the old cuspidors.  They have been moved clear back to the rear wall  . . . Local flappers haven't gone so far as to adopt the general custom of smoking in public yet  . . .   Business is picking up, but the old timers cannot help but feel twinges of regret.”

The Times sometimes, though, tried to be even-handed:  “THE POOR FLAPPER . . . gets credit—or is it dis-credit—-for a lot of things for which she really is not to blame.  To be true [sic] she allows only the lower buckle of her galoshes to have any responsibility, but she didn't originate the style.  It originated at Cornell” [February 28, 1922].

Cartoon by John Held, Jr. of a woman getting her hair bobbed.  Held always drew flapper skirts exaggeratedly short.


And sometimes, the paper reported other voices in the debate:

“Bishop Thomas F. Gailor  . . . Says Woman of Today Is No Different from the Woman of Grandmother’s Day

New York March 4 [1922].  Bishop Thomas F. Gailor, head of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, today took up the cudgel for the flapper.   . . .   According to Bishop Gailor, women had reformers "het up" over the things they did to their faces and the way they wore their skirts, even in the days when Methusaleh was a boy.   . . . Speaking of the flapper, the church leader said:  ‘It is silly to charge mere kids with deep, dark immoral emotions and motives.  There is nothing wicked about a girl who bobs her hair.  If she wants to do it, why shouldn't she?  Perhaps it is more becoming to her than long hair.  . . .  I never worry about the foibles of the young.  Girls rouge and wear short skirts because it is fashion.  People are like sheep about following fashion.  Young people are particularly so.  When I was in college it was a fad for a time for the boys to wear mustaches and we all wore them.  Then some one cut his off and we all followed suit.    . . . The world is not any worse now than it used to be.  Its morals are not degenerating.   . . . We couldn’t come out of four years of war without feeling upset.  The whole world is nervous and restless, but there's no danger of its going to ruin.   I always plead with the Christians of today to exercise more tolerance, more charity in judging their fellow men.   . . .’”

Though the debate continued, by the mid-1930s flapper was outmoded slang.  It may be that in the depths of the Great Depression, other worries took precedence. 


Do you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to www.genevahistoricalsociety.com. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

History of Christmas

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Roman Feast, by Roberto Bompiani. Image courtesy the Getty.

Although Christmas marks an event that occurred 2000 years ago, Christmas as Americans celebrate it today is a relatively recent invention. The origins of the modern Christmas celebration are not found in the Bible, so much as in pagan religious traditions and 19th-century American middle class values. Midwinter celebrations have been part of many cultures around the world and portions of these celebrations have been incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, in honor of the god of agriculture and the harvest, in December. The celebration included the reversal of the social order, with masters waiting on servants, and eating, drinking and raucous behavior. The Christian church did not institute Christmas as a holiday until the fourth century and probably chose December 25 in an effort to Christianize these popular pagan celebrations. As a result, pagan traditions of disorder and misrule continued, with the poor expecting food and drink at the expense of the rich and threatening mischief if refused.

Traditions of wassail and mistletoe stem from pagan religious rites that predate Christianity.

Because of these pagan traditions of disorder and the lack of biblical evidence for Christmas, the Puritans and other Calvinists rejected the celebration of the holiday in the 17th century. Christmas was even outlawed in parts of colonial New England. While some (Anglican) Southerners celebrated the holiday with church, dinner, dancing and visiting, it was not widely celebrated in the North until the mid-19th century. In Geneva, businesses were still routinely open on Christmas Day during the 1800s, and as late as 1900, the post office and some shops had open hours on the 25th.


Thomas Nast’s 1863 view of Santa Claus created the image Americans have used ever since.

By the early 1800s Christmas had become a concern to the Protestant middle class, particularly in New York City, where the holiday resembled the modern Mardi Gras or Halloween. Class conflict and poverty in the rapidly growing city made the traditional reversal of roles more problematic. During the holiday season lower class New Yorkers, especially the poor and young, engaged in drunken rioting, theft and assault. Threatened by the disorder, wealthy New Yorkers like Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore intentionally tried to remake Christmas as a family-centered holiday using literature. Reinterpreting the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas” virtually invented the American Santa Claus. Stories in Irving’s Sketchbook popularized a peaceful and harmonious Christmas celebration. Merchants and ministers alike soon embraced this child-centered holiday involving gifts and goodwill. The growth of consumerism, the Victorian focus on children, and Americans’ desire to create their own traditions, all contributed to the adoption of this reinvented Christmas holiday.

The 19th-century family surrounding the Christmas Tree.
When Phineas Prouty Jr. and his wife Adelaide lived in the Prouty-Chew House from 1855 to 1891, Christmas centered on their children. Several diary entries describe the household celebrations during the early years of their marriage with their young daughters Milly and Allie.

“Oh the excitement and wonder of this morning! The tea set! The doll! The candy! Nuts! & cornucopias!! Little Sister has her arms full of pretty things and looks wild at all this noise and frolic. This afternoon I made a Christmas tree and Mill had a private tea party.”
-Adelaide Prouty, December 25, 1859


By the 1860s Christmas was well established and closely resembled today’s holiday, right down to complaints about commercialism. For more about the invention of the American Christmas read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Prohibition: The Real Story (Or Close to It)

John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

The term “Prohibition” brings up many images: flappers, garter flasks, speakeasies, and mobsters. Like many historical words, it conjures up few facts – alcohol was outlawed, no one could get it, and you had to buy it from mobsters, right?

Not really. In the words of one person who lived through Prohibition, “If you couldn’t get a drink, you weren’t really trying.” How could this be?

For starters, most laws annoy the citizens who don’t agree with them (and that can be many people).  Laws are often vague and full of loopholes. Federal laws often saddle the states with enforcement with little or no funding, whether or not the states agree to it. All these factors applied to the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

The 18th Amendment stated that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” The amendment was ratified by all states but Connecticut and Rhode Island (although New Jersey didn’t ratify until 1922!), certified January 16, 1919, and went into law one year later. The Volstead Act established powers and punishments for enforcing Prohibition. It allowed using alcohol for religious rituals, industry and science, and medicinal purposes (prescribed by a doctor and carrying a special label), and it didn’t outlaw possession. A revised version of the act allowed for making up to 200 gallons of intoxicating fruit juice (hard cider and wine) a year for home consumption.

Since possession wasn’t illegal, drinkers stocked up on alcohol right up to January 17, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect. Consumption and sharing with friends was still legal, as long as it wasn’t sold. There were doctors who wrote prescriptions for medicinal liquor, and the number of “churches” and “clergy” – outside of denominations with strict rules - rose sharply after 1920. (The Internet didn’t create “become a minister” or “start your own church”.)  Finally, home production was the biggest loophole for a city like Geneva, in the heart of grape country with Italian immigrants who knew how to make wine.

There were a variety of ways to get a drink. The late Dr. Robert Doran was a Hobart student at the beginning of Prohibition, and shared his memories in a column for the Finger Lakes Times. Frank Mellen ran the Seneca Café and continued to serve and sell alcohol during Prohibition. Dr. Doran’s friends would buy brandied wine from Frank for parties; it had been produced by local wineries, stockpiled, and was available for several years.

Many businesses, like the Seneca Café, continued to serve alcohol even after being arrested more than once. The short-lived Mullan-Gage Act called for strict enforcement of Prohibition in New York. However, the law had little impact; statewide, there were thousands of arrests but only six convictions and no jail time. It was repealed in 1923 and enforcement was left to Federal agents.

Barrels from the raid of a beermaking operation were stored at City Hall as evidence.

A person could make his own wine (up to about 1,000 bottles a year); wineries that had converted to making juice would sell barrels with instructions for winemaking. In Geneva, you could leave the job to Italian immigrants who were more experienced and buy wine from them. There were a number of speakeasies – illegal bars – where you could get a beer or a shot of liquor, maybe some food. Their locations were known around town but not documented, so we don’t have a lot of information about them.

This is merely the tip of the ice cube in the highball glass. The 1920s changed music, fashion, and popular culture, and attempting to halt the drinking of alcohol had much to do with it.


Did you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or go to www.genevahistoricalsociety.com

Friday, December 13, 2013

Clubs, Associations, Organizations: Networking in the 1920s

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

Elks' Club

There was a commercial that had the tag line “you’ve come a long way, baby” which some folks might think applies to the way people network now versus the 1920s.  Networking now is done on “social sites” like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pintrest or Twitter (to name a few).  We put our photos up on-line using Shutterfly, Flickr, or SmugMug.  We can talk to each other “face to face” via Facetime or Skype and if you don’t mind the lag in time it is almost like being in the same room. 

However, in the 1920s networking really meant being in the same room and participating in verbal conversations.  Many people (men especially) belonged to fraternal or service organizations.  Often these organizations or clubs used rituals to bind their members together.  Organizations like the Masons, Foresters, Fraternal Order of Eagles, Knights of Columbus, the Elks, the Moose, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Kiwanis Club competed with Masonic Lodges, Eastern Star, military groups, religious and ethnic organizations for members.  Add organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, Business Women’s Club, and various book groups, art clubs and sewing circles and America was a country of “joiners.”

The 1925 Geneva City Directory lists 48 societies, associations, organizations, and military groups, religious and benevolent organizations.  The book clubs, art clubs, and sewing circles are not even mentioned and their inclusion would certainly make the number much higher.  Both men and women could be out socializing at clubs or meetings every night of the week if they were so inclined.


Iroquois Club

Many joined service organizations like Zonta, Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lions.  Some opted for fraternal organizations such as Masons, Elks, Moose, Eagles, or  D.A.R.  The basic difference between the two groups was fraternal groups looked out for the welfare of their members while service groups worked at making a difference in their neighborhoods and communities.

Many of them began as all white male organizations and gradually added women and minorities so that many of these groups are very integrated today.  But, some groups such as Masons (all male) and Zonta (all female) are still sexually segregated.  Some groups remain staunchly one ethnicity even if the “rule” is unspoken.

In the 1920s two service groups started chapters in Geneva.  The Geneva Kiwanis Club organized on May 27, 1921 with 53 charter members and the Geneva Zonta Club organized on May 1, 1929 with 12 charter members.  Kiwanis International is a group that works to serve children and Zonta International is an organization of executives and leaders who advocate the advancement of women.  These two service organizations joined a collection of established clubs in Geneva that included Elks, Odd Fellows, Masons, Macabees, Woodsmen and many more.  In the days before, television, computers, and digital social networks these organizations were how you were entertained, met people with similar interests, established business connections and got to know your neighbors. Many fraternal organizations, like Modern Woodsmen of America, were founded with the idea of helping their “brethren” in times of illness and death, much like insurance.  They were not the same as service groups like Rotary, which were founded to help their community, members and non-members alike.

Masonic Temple
Today, many of these clubs and organizations are gone or merged due to lack of interest on the part of the public.  Some groups like the Masons, Rotary, Geneva Women’s Club, and Fortnightly Club continue to be well attended and some communities are more supportive of service organizations, private clubs and fraternal organizations than others.

In our archive there is no directory comparable to the 1925 Geneva Directory that lists all the cubs, associations and organizations, but the yellow pages of the 2013-14 Verizon directory list 14 clubs only 4 of which are in Geneva.  There are other organizations whose meetings circulate among member’s homes and so do not have a phone number or address to list, but you can see that the number of groups has dropped drastically from the 48 listed in 1925. 

I have nostalgic feelings for those days when family life revolved around personal interaction with friends and acquaintances, but there are a lot of positive things to be said about the new social media sites too.  Where else do I get to see photos of my niece’s Halloween costume 10 minutes after she puts it together, or a friend’s new born baby, or my other friend’s new puppy just minutes after it comes home?  How else can I get a tour of my friend’s home in Kansas without flying out there and have it narrated by him at the same time?  One way or other humans find a way to communicate and socialize; however, it often changes with each generation.  Enjoy networking!  It binds communities together!

Did you enjoy this 1920s moment?  The Geneva Historical Society is hosting several workshops and programs in December and January about the 1920s all leading up to our Speakeasy Party at Belhurst on Friday, January 17.  For more information about the Speakeasy or related programs, call us at 789-5151 or visit  
 www.genevahistoricalsociety.com.


Monday, December 9, 2013

ROC the Day


On December 11 local Geneva nonprofits will be participating in ROC the Day.  Organized by the United Way of Greater Rochester, ROC the Day is a 24-hour, online event that provides individuals an opportunity to support nonprofit organizations in the Great Rochester area.   The concept is simple, on December 11 go to www.roctheday.org and fill a “shopping cart” with the charities you wish to support.  Last year ROC the Day raised over $875,000 for Rochester area nonprofits. 

This year, Geneva nonprofits are collaborating together.   Between 9 am and 6 pm on December 11 we invite community members to the Smith Opera House to see the great work being done by Geneva nonprofits, enjoy free entertainment and refreshments, and donate-on site.   Participating nonprofits are 

Boys and Girls Club of Geneva/ Geneva Community Center
Child & Family Resources
Family Counseling Service of the Finger Lakes  
Foundation for the Geneva Public Library
Geneva Center of Concern/Geneva Food Pantry
Geneva Community Lunch Program
Geneva Community Projects: Geneva Dog Park
Geneva Family YMCA
Geneva General Day Care
Geneva Historical Society
Geneva Reads
Geneva Theatre Guild
Literacy Volunteers of Ontario-Yates
Lockland School
The Smith Opera House
Success for Geneva’s Children
Thrive to Survive


Whether it’s at the Smith Opera House or www.roctheday.org, on December 11 please consider becoming a ROCstar and make a difference right here in Geneva.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Here We Come A-Wassailing...


Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen,
Love and joy come to you
And to your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year

 On Saturday, December 7 the 45th Annual Wassail Bowl and Sale is being held in the Presbyterian Church, 24 Park Place in Geneva, from 10 am to 2 pm.  This is a great opportunity to get fresh wreaths and greens, baked goods, and gifts for the holiday season.  The proceeds all benefit the Geneva Historical Society.  Wassail will also be available for tasting.  This begs the question - what is wassail?

Though the exact origins of wassail is unknown, in England it was an Anglo-Saxon  greeting (“waes hail”) meaning “be in good health.”  This simple greeting gradually evolved into a call and response toast. One person started the toast (usually the most esteemed guest) by raising a communal bowl and shouting “was hail” to the person next to them and that person would answer “drinc hail.”  The bowl would be passed around with each person taking their turn in the call and response.  What were people drinking?  A mixture of mulled ale or mead, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg topped with crab apples and slices of toast.  This beverage became known as wassail and it was served in a huge bowl known as the wassail bowl.   



In time wassail became associated with Christmas and particularly the Twelfth Night.  By the 1600s wassailing had also changed from an indoor activity to an outdoor activity.    On the Twelfth Night, or January 5, groups of people would travel from house to house singing songs and offering to share the contents of their wassail bowl for a small fee. Wassailing would continue into the 1800s. 

To encourage fertility, farmers also wassailed their animals and crops, particularly apple orchards.  Singing, toasting to the trees health, placing cider soaked bread into the branches or splashing the trees with cider were all done to ward off evil spirits and ensure a fruitful harvest.



To taste this piece history, join us at the Wassail Bowl and Sale.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Arrival of the Consumer Economy

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information


Geneva, like most of American society, was gradually but completely transformed between the post-Civil War period and the early 20th century from an agrarian and somewhat homogenous village into a much more diverse, industrialized, and wealthy city. This transformation led to political and cultural shifts that challenged long-standing ideas about identity, work, gender, religion, and family roles. One of the most significant changes that clearly emerged by the 1910s and 1920s was the shift to a modern consumer culture. Whereas in the past, most Americans had defined themselves by religious, work and family roles, by the 1920s Americans were increasingly demonstrating their values and identity through the things that they owned.

Buick markets its 1923 sedan as a car for a woman and her children.

Technological advances, improvements in productivity, and innovations in financing combined with the development of mass media to create this mass culture. The prosperity of the 1920s led to an explosion of consumer goods available even to people of modest means. Household products and conveniences that were developed in the late 19th century and used by wealthy Americans became cheaper and began to spread down the economic ladder. As production increased, companies had to figure out how to sell their products to more and more people. Marketing and advertising became major components of national businesses. Newspapers and magazines were the preferred way to reach people. Then, as now, marketers believed that women were the major consumers of household products, and so, many goods were marketed to them, even those not originally considered to be of interest to women.

There was no shortage of stuff to buy in Geneva. Kresge’s variety store opened in 1930 on Seneca Street, right between Keilty’s Dry Goods and Woolworth’s 5 and 10.

Genevans participated in this new economy, both as consumers and as producers. New retail shops opened in town to sell automobiles, phonographs, radios, electrical and heating equipment, furniture, cameras, sporting goods, clothing, food, typewriters and vacuum cleaners. Among the many goods manufactured by Geneva companies for sale nationally were typewriter type, cutlery, boilers, stoves, canned foods, eyeglasses, razor strops, boats, and auto wheels.

Geneva companies reached a national audience through magazines like Popular Science.
Houses in local 1920s real estate listings boasted modern conveniences like electricity, bathrooms, garages, paved streets and steam heating. The long list of contractors indicates that there was a strong market for building and redecorating houses, as people added wiring, central heating and plumbing.

Local and national advertisements featured modern, “sanitary” bathrooms.

National women’s magazines advertised stoves, kitchen cupboards, bathrooms and cleaning products to make the home safer, more efficient and pleasant. Women in the upper class and growing middle class no longer had to spend the whole day doing food preparation and housework. They were free to pursue other activities—joining women’s clubs and lending a hand to church charities, the suffrage movement and the prohibition lobby. People spent more time reading, eating out, playing sports, listening to the radio, and going to the movies.



Advertisers stressed how their products saved time and money, appealing to housewives’ interest in doing things other than housework. Efficiency and organization, which had revolutionized factory production in the 1910s, were applied to the household. Professionals in the new field of home economics worked with manufacturers to bring efficient and sanitary principles to the home.

Advertisers sold the idea that a modern kitchen was a healthier and more efficient one.

Marketers also had solutions for those who aspired to consume the latest goods, but had less money. Products like linoleum were sold as durable and cheap alternatives to more expensive rugs or patterned hardwood floors. Hats could be dyed or refreshed with a coating that made them look new. Payment plans allowed people to buy on installment. A woman could sew her own dress in the latest styles of Paris. With these products any woman could save money and still identify with movie stars and socialites.

Advertisers prompt Americans to keep up with fashion on a budget.
Although it would slow consumption down for a decade, even the Great Depression could not stop the American desire to buy. Kresge’s (now Kmart), which opened just as the Depression began, survived the contraction, as did most other Geneva department and variety stores. The post-war period brought consumption back full force, and we have not looked back since.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Seneca Chief

By Alice Askins, Site Manager of Rose Hill Mansion

View of Geneva, ca. 1836.  The steamboats are the Geneva (formerly the Seneca Chief) and Stevens.


In 1807, people on the west bank of the Hudson River saw a strange boat.  It was Robert Fulton’s North River Steamboat, often called the Clermont.  The boat was the first vessel to prove that steam propulsion would work for commercial river traffic. According to the book Great Fortunes: 

What seemed strange in the vessel was the substitution of lofty and straight black smoke-pipes, rising from the deck, instead of . . . gracefully tapered masts . . . and, in place of the spars and rigging, the curious play of the working-beam and pistons, and the slow turning and splashing of the huge and naked paddle-wheels . . . The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment . . “.

In 1817, steam propulsion spread to Lake Ontario when a consortium in Sackets Harbor funded the construction of the first US Great Lakes steamboat, the Ontario.  By the late 1820s Seneca Lake had its first steamboat, the Seneca Chief.  It was built for and operated by the Rumney brothers, Geneva merchants.

The Chief’s keel was laid in Geneva on December 12, 1827.  Originally the boat was 90 feet long, 19 feet wide, eight feet high, and the draft was four and a half feet.  In June 1828, the Geneva Gazette reported that the Chief’s engines were between 40 and 45 horsepower, and would propel the boat at 10 to 12 miles per hour.   

Launched in May 1828, the Chief’s first official trip was part of the Independence Day celebrations (the exact date is uncertain, as different sources mention different dates).  The Gazette reported,

“We are indebted to a friend for the following account of an excursion made on Saturday last, from Geneva to the head of the Seneca Lake, on board the Seneca Chief, by a party of Ladies and Gentlemen, which . . . amounted to one hundred and thirty persons. The day was uncommonly fine, the party in excellent spirits . . . The Boat left the Harbor at Geneva precisely at 8 o'clock in the morning . . . The country on each bank of the Lake excited universal admiration among the passengers . . . between four and five thousand persons assembled at [the head of the lake]  . . . to greet the Steam Boat on its first trip . . . After stopping here about two hours, the Boat set out on its return to Geneva, where she arrived at eight o'clock, having been a little more than five hours going, and rather less in returning.  Part of the way down her speed was equal to ten miles an hour, without raising the pressure to near the capacity of her excellent Engine . . .  when fully completed and the machinery worn smooth, the Boat will be enabled to make her trips . . . and return in eight hours, including short stoppages at several points.  A Band of amateur Musicians afforded a zest to the pleasures of the day.“

The writer was delighted that the Chief had created “ next door neighbors” at the other end of Seneca Lake, “that hitherto remote region.”



The Seneca Chief, however,  was not just a pleasure boat, though. 

“Immediately after the Fourth the Steam Boat will commence her regular trips to the head of the Lake daily, Sundays excepted, leaving Geneva at 7 in the morning and returning at 7 in the evening—carrying the mail in connexion [sic] with a daily line of Stages to Washington city.  She will touch at Dresden and at Bailey town 
(near Ovid) to receive and deliver passengers and take freight boats in tow.”   

The Courier mentioned in April 1831 that the Chief had arrived with passengers and ten boats in tow, which included such cargo as flour, pork, whisky, and lumber.  The Gazette predicted that “Geneva will become a great focus for travel by Steam Boats, Canal Boats and Stages.”

The Rumneys did not rest on their laurels.  Less than a year after its launch, they overhauled the Chief:

“The Engine has been raised so as to add three feet to her wheels, giving them a diameter of 15 feet.  An elegant Cabin is erected upon the deck . . . a mast has been added on which to spread a sail in a fair wind; and, taken altogether, she is much improved in speed, accommodations and appearance.” 

In January 1832, a storm sank the Seneca Chief at the wharf.  When the boat was raised, the damage was minor.  Still, the Rumneys took the opportunity to make more changes.  That spring, the Courier announced that

“The Steam-Boat Seneca Chief has now commenced running up and down Seneca Lake, four times each week . . . The boat is much improved in appearance and speed . . . and every attention will be paid to the comfort of passengers, as well as the strictest attention to neatness and order.  No ardent spirits will be kept on board. ."   

In 1833, the Rumneys sold the Seneca Chief to John R. Johnston and Richard Stevens, who in turn bought the steam navigation rights to Seneca Lake.  Johnston and Stevens rebuilt the Chief, lengthening it by 35 feet and renaming it the Geneva.  They may have installed a bigger engine, as an 1879 memoir stated “When John R. Johnston operated on the water, a new life was put into the steam marine of Seneca Lake, and things moved lively from that time to this.”   Two years after purchasing the Chief,  Johnston and Stevens built the Richard Stevens, the second steam boat on Seneca Lake.

By 1847 or 1848 (sources differ) the Seneca Chief/Geneva had come to the end of its useful life.  Someone had a brilliant idea – they could blow up the boat as part of the July 4th celebrations.  The Gazette described the event in 1889:


“It was to be the grand coup of the celebration. Loaded with a supply of powder she was placed far out in the lake, and a wire connected with an electric battery run to her. A grand spectacle was looked for by the assembled multitude on the shore. It is estimated that 10,000 people were present lining the shore at every convenient point. The electric key was touched time and again but there was no thundering response. Failing in this a party armed with a fuse was despatched [sic] in a small boat and another attempt was made to blow her up by thus igniting the powder.  This even failed to work, but the boat took fire and the disappointment of the spectators was considerably lessened by seeing the relict of the grand old steamer shoot fiery tongues towards heaven, illuminating the whole harbor and the adjacent shores . . . The powder had become wet in some manner and its explosive qualities thus destroyed.  As it was the sight was a memorable one.”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Geneva's Armory: Form and Function

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

We walk by buildings every day without questioning their appearance, whether or not we know architectural styles. Sometimes we stop seeing buildings altogether. The Armory comes to mind because I recently spent several months on a committee to plan a Veterans Day event there. Anyone over the age of three years old will look at the Armory and say/ think, “Castle!” Why?

Built in 1892, the Armory initially looked like many other public buildings of its time: red brick, rough stone foundation, and lots of arched doorways and windows. The tower was a little unusual but not unheard of.






Original armory and High Street School







New York armories were all designed the same. There was an administration building in front, and an attached drill shed behind it. (The drill hall looked like, but should never be called, a gymnasium.) The Geneva armory drill shed is visible in back and to the left.

Geneva’s National Guard unit, the 34th Separate Company (later Company B), quickly outgrew its building. The state legislature authorized an expansion which was completed in 1906.

1906 Armory – current size, but the right-hand tower still has conical roof

The castle or fortress appearance, adopted earlier in other towns and cities, was no accident. The 1890s and 1900s were times of immigration, labor unrest, and concern about Socialists and Communists trying to organize new immigrants and workers. State militias were activated to protect citizens however the government saw fit, by preventing violence or breaking strikes. Armories were built in the center of towns and cities to reassure citizens, and remind agitators, that the militia was on the job.

The Geneva armory, like others, was built to function defensively if necessary. Look at the south (left-hand) tower. The base rises in toward the building while the top windows of the tower jut out. If attackers attempted to scale the foundation, defenders in the tower had a clean shot at them. Likewise, the casellations (pattern on top of the tower) and narrow windows provided protection for soldiers shooting down at the street. Larger armories had iron gates that locked in front of the main doors for extra protection against mobs.

Armory with final alterations
Sometime after 1906 the top of the north tower was altered to match the south tower, and a porch was built over the main entrance. The last addition to the building was the garage to the north, sometime after World War II.


Being in town and city centers, older armories were often built on small lots with little room for expansion. Changes in military vehicles and equipment required more storage space; by the 1960s, many urban armories were abandoned for new buildings on the outskirts of town. Some found new uses, many were demolished. Geneva is fortunate to still have this building on Main Street.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Grocery Shopping in Geneva 1957

By Karen Osburn, Archvist

I don’t know about you, but I love to grocery shop.  I love seeing the new products and choices and the incredible array of fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, fish and meats.  I can go to the store for a jar of peanut butter and come home an hour later with cashew butter, peanut butter, almond butter, cherry jelly, 6 cans of beans in 6 different varieties, 3 birthday cards, a set of dishes, 10 varieties of tea, a chocolate sea salt toffee candy bar and a jug of cat litter.  I will have spent way over my allotted food budget in a short period of time and loved every minute of it.

I remember going to the grocery store with my parents in the mid to late 1950s, when I was still quite young, and thinking that everyone drove to a shopping center.  My family went to Northgate Plaza where there were 2 grocery stores in the plaza; a Wegman’s and a Star Market.  One store was on the north end of the plaza and the other on the west side.  Sometimes we shopped at Wegman’s and sometimes we shopped at Star and on really good days we shopped for bargains at both!  They both had coin operated rides in front of the stores that were usually horses and if I was really well behaved my dad might put a nickel in and let me ride the horse. 



In my memory of those days we bought things like flour, eggs, butter, chuck roast, chicken, milk, sugar, toilet paper and whatever fresh fruit or vegetables were in season.  My dad would often pick out a couple of chuck roasts and ask the butcher to grind them for him and we would have hamburger or meatloaf.  We seldom bought already prepared foods as my mother was a good “from scratch” cook.  When we finished checking out we got S&H green stamps with our receipt or a different type of stamp that was yellow.  I was usually given the task of pasting the stamps in little booklets and when we saved enough books of stamps we went to the Green Stamp store and exchanged them for “gifts”, items like toasters, charcoal grills, lawn furniture etc.  I loved this adventure in shopping too, though I never convinced my mother to get me the stuffed animal that was only ¾ of a book of stamps.

I grew up in a rural part of the Town of Greece and it never occurred to me that in cities like Geneva there were a lot different grocery stores that you could walk to!  I pulled out the Geneva City Directory of 1957 to compare the stores in Geneva to the ones I remembered in Greece and found out that in 1957 there were 38 retail grocery and meat shops listed!!  I knew that corner grocers were popular and necessary in that time period but to have 38 stores for 19,414 people meant one store for every 500 + people.  These stores were spread all over the City on Castle, Genesee, Exchange, Seneca, Middle, North, High, Lyceum, John, Hamilton, Oak, Wadsworth, William, Angelo, and Andes streets to name some of them.



The stores had names like A&P, Acme Market Basket (there were 4 of those listed), Best Market, Brennan’s, Commesso Foods, The Corner Store, Crest Super Market, the Economy Store, Madia’s, Loblaw’s,  Hamilton Food Market, Sunny Fruit Store and Thomas’ Red & White.  That is only 13 out of 38!  I am not sure what types of goods they stocked or how they would have compared to our two Greece Groceries, but I will bet they were plentifully supplied with a variety of good things. 

One Geneva grocery in particular, Market Basket, was a big success story.  Started in 1901 by Harry E. Hovey with one small store in Warsaw, NY he opened a store in Geneva in 1914 and eventually his business grew into 300 small groceries in central and western New York and by 1951 it had developed into 141 large self-serve supermarkets with a fleet of 35 trucks, their own carpentry shop, and its own “mimeograph” department.



When Harry Hovey died in 1953 Gordon Hovey, one of Harry’s sons became president of Market Basket.  In 1956 a proposed sale of the business was announced by Gordon Hovey and Paul Cupp, president of American Stores; the merger was completed in April of 1956 and the Geneva headquarters of Market Basket closed.

Today Geneva has three supermarkets Wegmans, Tops, and Madia’s.  Wal-mart has a large grocery section in their store on Hamilton Street as does BJ’s across the street.  Red Jacket Orchards also has a store across the street from Wal-Mart that sells fresh fruit from their orchards and other locally produced food products.  Wegman’s, Tops, Wal-mart , and Red Jacket are all located on Hamilton St. leaving Madia’s on the corner of Oak and Castle Streets as the lone representative of the once flourishing neighborhood food stores.




The way we purchase food has changed from what it was in the 1950s. The size of grocery stores has drastically increased while the number food stores in our cities have decreased, yet the variety of food items for sale would astound our parents and grandparents.  I wonder what your children will remember in 50 years about their trips to the grocery store with you…..