Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Nudes in the Directory

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

A couple years ago, one of my coworkers stumbled across an advertisement for Van Patten Plumbing and Heating Co. in a 1930s Elmira City Directory featuring a nude woman in the bath. We thought it was a little bizarre, not because we are particularly prudish, but because the city directory is a publication with all of the eroticism of a phone book. While the images aren’t terribly explicit (your definitions may vary), the directory really isn’t the place you’d expect to see a nude photograph of any kind. Now, I have finally gotten around to investigating the mystery of the nudes in the directory.
When I see this, my main concern is that unless she pulls the shower curtain, that lady is going to get water all over the floor. I'm clearly not the target audience for this ad.
First, I headed back to the directories themselves. I found the image above only in the 1935 Elmira directory. It is the first Van Patten nude advertisement, but not the last. In the years prior, from 1929 to 1934, they ran the far more wholesome image below.

So wholesome
There was no advertisement for the company in the 1936 directory, but 1937 brought a new nude photo. The advertisement below, however, had a longer run than its naked predecessor did. It ran in the 1937, 1939, 1941, and 1942 directories (the company didn’t run any directory ads in 1938 or 1940).
Just a lady, casually loofah-ing her foot
After those ads, the company’s next was in 1944, which was just the plain text below. They didn’t publish any more images, nudes or otherwise.

Now I had found that the nude photos were actually in FIVE directories. I had so many questions: Why did they choose to run these? What was this company’s reputation? What was the public response? Was this typical?

I started by looking for information about Van Patten Plumbing and Heating. What I found was horribly regular. Far from having any kind of deviant public reputation, Van Patten seemed to be a pretty typical heating and plumbing firm of the time. I found information on construction bids they won and lost. I found members of the family who were having birthday parties or starring in school plays. That was it.
Elmira Star-Gazette, April 2, 1935
There seemed to be no press mention of the nude photos. Nothing. And the company’s newspaper ads from the time were far more clothed. These ads all showed stylish women, in full-dress, selling washing machines. These model housewives were not just shilling appliances, but also the dream that every regular Elmira housewife could also attain the level of glamour that only high-quality refrigerator can bring a woman.
Which refrigerator will make me look like this classy lady?
Elmira Star-Gazette, May 21, 1935
So why did they run this ad if they weren’t some edgy company that wanted to make old ladies blush as they thumbed through the yellow pages looking for church listings? One theory I had was that they did it to attract attention. Remember, in 1935, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Construction work could be hard to come by. Maybe this ad was a ploy to get more eyes on their ads than their competitors. Hey, lecherous money spends the same!
Elmira Star-Gazette, September 18, 1935
There might be some merit to this theory. Van Patten and other plumbing outfits were feeling the pressure. In April 1935, Van Patten joined other appliance sales firms in protest of the Elmira Light, Heat & Power Corporation’s new system of allowing patrons to purchase appliances from them with installment payments. They believed that the utility company was unfairly undercutting them. That combined with the Depression, the coffers were likely low.

Finances may have been improving by 1938. Van Patten got some more jobs with the low bids for Dunn Field’s plumbing ($5,641), Elmira Free Academy’s heating and ventilation ($27,794), plumbing for the new School Five ($8,444), and plumbing for the new Bern Furniture Company. Still, they ran the nudes for three more years (1939, 1941, and 1942). Maybe they thought it made a difference.

Another possibility is that perhaps the newspaper and directory ads, with their stark differences in stark nakedness, were intended for different audiences. The newspaper ads are clearly selling women on the appliances they were expected to be using every day. I’m not sure that plumbing and bath fixtures are intrinsically more masculine than refrigerators, but maybe they had reason to believe that titillated men bought more tubs than housewives. Also, with a price tag of $10 each in 1935 (when the first photo ran) and $12 in 1941 (the last year for the photos), the audience for the directory would have been smaller than the newspaper. Folks struggling to feed themselves in the midst of the Depression wouldn’t likely shell out that sum for a book that was only good for a year, nudie pics or not.

The next thing I considered was the maker of the photographs. These were not images commissioned or taken by the folks at Van Patten. Instead, these were advertising images from American Standard (then as the Standard Sanitary Plumbing division). None of the company’s other illustrated or photograph advertisements that I can find online approach the level of nakedness of these two. This made me wonder then if these ads were even supposed to be made public. Were these actually the 1930s equivalent of the posters and calendars you see at the mechanic with nude women splayed across sports cars and posing seductively with power tools?

With that information, it was now time for me to do some more research about attitudes towards nudity during the 1930s. I knew that the Hays Code kicked into full enforcement in 1934, sanitizing the film industry, which up to that point had been pretty open to gratuitous nudity. It didn’t really apply to print, but given the timing of the first nude ad, I wondered if the Van Pattens were sending a political middle finger to the Hollywood prudes. Probably not, but I like the thought.
Look at this unsexy bathroom ad for comparison.
Elmira Star-Gazette
, September 6, 1941
In fact, with a little more digging, I found that female nudity in print ads was pretty common around this time and it was intended for both male and female consumers. A 1936 Woodbury’s Soap ad is recognized by experts as one of the first (some recognize it as the first, but that is untrue given that these Van Patten ads start in 1935). In his book The Erotic History of Advertising, Tom Reichert discusses how companies used nude models, but didn’t show nipples or genital. These more benign nudes show up in advertisements in major magazines, like Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, suggesting that the average consumer was not offended by a little butt cheek. For women, the nudes could be an aspirational model of beauty, which is just what the soap companies wanted them to think (some things never change). Trade magazines, however, were a different story. Because they were targeted at a male audience, the nudes in these publications were more explicit (though not by modern standards).

If you’re still reading this at this point, I wish I had some big historical reveal (pun intended) for you. In short, the real story seems to be some combination of the reasoning I’ve outlined above. What is the most interesting thing for me is that the 1935 ad seems to be one of the first known nude advertisement of its kind from this era. So really, Standard Sanitary and Van Patten were a little ahead of their time. The strange little nudes in the directory might actually be quite historically significant. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

One-Room Schoolhouses in Veteran

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1876, the Town of Veteran had a population of around 2,300 and it had 15 schools. 15!? To modern eyes, that may seem like a lot, but the majority were small, one-room schoolhouses. This was typical of most rural towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nearly all of the students would have to walk to school, so the schoolhouses needed to be close to where they lived. Of the 867 school-age children who lived in Veteran in 1876, 717 were enrolled pupils. There were 12 male teachers and 21 female teachers and a library of 445 volumes shared across the schools.

Students at Veteran School No. 7 in Sullivanville 
with teacher Eugene Bush, c. 1880s
The Town of Veteran Historians have a wonderful collection of photographs and materials related to these early schools. While researching the Towns and Villages of Chemung County: Veteran exhibit, which is on display here at CCHS through July 2018, I got to look through their school files. All the images in this post are from the Veteran Historians’ collection.

Veteran School No. 14, Parrott Road, Sullivanville, January 11, 1932
Teacher Irma Miller with students Mark Cronkrite (11), 
Judd Parrott (9), Margaret Vondracek (10), unidentified dog, 
Robert Hovencamp (11), and Frank Vondracek
The first schoolhouse in the town of Veteran was built in the early 1800s just east of the village of Millport. Simeon Squires served as the first school teacher. By the middle of the century, more schoolhouses had been built in Sullivanville, Pine Valley, and more remote areas of the town.

Veteran School No. 12, Pine Valley
Millport’s famous octagon school was built in 1869. The two-story building had two rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs, where students in grades 1 through 8 were taught. This was one of the only schools that had more than one teacher. In 1888, the two teachers were a husband and wife team who made a combined salary of $750 a year.

Veteran School No. 8, octagon schoolhouse in Millport, late 1800s
The school was torn down in 1930 and replaced with a red brick schoolhouse.
The interiors of the one-room schoolhouses were fairly similar. Typically, there were wooden student desks facing a teacher’s desk and a blackboard in the front of the room. The early schools had no electricity and water had to be brought in from either a well with a pitcher pump outside or from a neighboring home. A wood or coal stove would provide heat for the building in the winter. Since nearly every student walked to school, some were able to go home for lunch. Those who stayed would bring their own lunches or, at some schools, the teacher or parents would provide hot soup for all the students. Outhouses, one for boys and one for girls, were nearby. Some schools had a swing outside or a teeter-totter that students could enjoy at recess.

Interior of Veteran School No. 13, Miller-Skinner School, 
located at Veteran Hill and Sutter Road, 1940s
Most of the schools had students from grades 1 through 8 all in the same room. The teacher would work with one grade at a time but everyone could hear the lessons. Because of that, younger students often learned what their older counterparts were being taught. It was not unusual for students in these one-room schoolhouses to pass tests to skip into higher grades. After 8th grade, students would go to high school in Horseheads.

Veteran School No. 5 on Middle Road, c. 1920s
One of the neatest things that I found in the Historians’ files were photocopies of yearbooks from Veteran School No. 10 from 1935 and 1936. The homemade yearbooks included class photos, drawings likely made by students, and even a class will. I wonder how many schools produced their own yearbooks like that.

Veteran School No. 10 yearbook cover and page of student photos, 1936
Pages from Veteran School No. 10 yearbook from 1935
Veteran’s rural schools were consolidated with the Horseheads Central School District in 1950 and the days of the one-room schoolhouse came to an end. Several of the schoolhouses were torn down but may more remain as private residences. For more photos and information about Veteran schools visit To see more photos of students and read stories from those who went to some of the one-room schoolhouses in Veteran visit

Veteran School No. 1, Terry Hill

Monday, February 12, 2018

Conspiracy in the Underground

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

During the 1850s, Elmira was home to a large criminal conspiracy known as the Underground Railroad. Conspirators used codes and railroad terms to describe their routes and roles and to protect their identities. While today the participants are rightly celebrated as heroes, they were all in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Whites found to be working on the Underground Railroad could face a fine of $1,000 (approximately $29,000 in present-day) plus six months’ jail time, while Blacks could find themselves sold as slaves. Despite the risk, they persisted.

John W. Jones, Elmira Station conductor

The point man, or conductor as he was called, for the Elmira Station was John W. Jones. A freedom seeker himself, Jones had arrived in Elmira after fleeing slavery in 1844. He could have continued on to Canada, but decided to stay here and pay forward the help that had been given him. Assisting him were dozens of others who provided escaped slaves with food, clothing, shelter, employment, and forged identity papers. Some of these helpers are now well-known, including Jervis and Olivia Langdon, Ariel and Clarissa Thurston, John Arnot Sr., and Simeon Benjamin, but other’s names have been lost to history in no small part because of the illegal nature of their activities. Even forty years after the abolition of slavery, John Jones refused to share the name of their forger, a young mixed-race man, while corresponding with a historian on the subject.

Freedman's identity papers. Courtesy of

 Jones was, however, perfectly happy to explain how the Elmira Station worked. While sometimes freedom seekers would arrive unannounced, he would usually receive a letter from one of his contacts in Pennsylvania or Maryland, warning him to be on the lookout for some missing horses. Jones’ main contact in Pennsylvania was William Still, a conductor operating out of Philadelphia. Once they had arrived in Elmira, Jones would arrange for the fugitive slaves to be fed and sheltered until they could move on. Sometimes they would move on quickly, but other times they might stay for weeks, taking jobs so they might build up some savings. Once they were ready to move on, Jones would arrange for them to be smuggled to St. Catherines, Ontario in the baggage car of the 4 am train on the Northern Central Railroad. Much like the name of the Elmira Station’s forger, the names of the baggage handlers who helped hide the fugitives are unknown. While the exact numbers are lost to time, Jones and his team helped approximately 800 people escape to freedom.

William Still. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Monday, February 5, 2018

Knapp School of Music

by Erin Doane, Curator

For more than 110 years, Knapp School of Music has operated on College Avenue in Elmira. In all that time, the business has only had five different owners: Frederick H. Knapp and his wife Anna, Harl J. Robacher, Donald Hartman, and Robert Melnyk. 
Knapp School of Music, 104 College Ave., 2018

Frederick H. Knapp
Knapp’s Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra, 1904
Frederick Knapp seated front row center
 Frederick Knapp came to Elmira as a young man and began offering music lessons first at a studio on West Second Street near School #2 and then at a studio on North Main Street. The first instrument he had learned was the banjo, but he played and taught all types of stringed instruments – violin, mandolin, cello, and guitar. Various sources claim that Knapp founded his music school in 1901 but the earliest listing I found in the city directories for Knapp is as a musician in 1902. In the 1903 directory, he is listed as a music teacher at 117 Main Street. In 1905, he is listed as teaching at 110 College Ave. The earliest newspaper advertisements for Knapp School of Music appear in the Elmira Star-Gazette in 1911. By that time, the school had an established orchestra which all students could join in addition to taking individual lessons.

Advertisement for Knapp School of Music,
Elmira Star-Gazette, September 14, 1911
In 1915, the school moved to 112 College Avenue and was touted as a new type of music school set up for the benefit of those who could not normally afford music lessons. If boys or girls were interested in music instruction, showed talent, and it was shown that they could not afford the price of regular teachers, Knapp would enroll them in his school. He asked for just enough tuition to cover the expenses of keeping the doors of the school open. By September, there were 20 pupils enrolled.  Knapp taught violin, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Two more instructors, Edward Unwin and Blanche Crandall, also taught violin and Florence Shaw taught piano.

On May 20, 1919, Knapp hosted A.A. Farland, the world’s greatest banjoist. Farland played a recital at the Park Church with Knapp’s 35-member mandolin orchestra serving as an opening act.  In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Knapp and students of the school played at events throughout the region. The school’s full orchestra played at the Knights of Columbus ball in 1920, its banjo sextet played at the Sons of Italy in 1927, and its 12-piece banjo band played an evening concerts at En-Joie Health Park in Endicott in 1930. At the park concert, the musicians dressed in Hawaiian costumes and were joined by ten tap dancers. There were also annual recitals by the students at the Hedding Church Annex.

At 10:30am on December 20, 1934, Frederick Knapp died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at his home at 104 College Avenue. He was 56 years old. He had spent 35 years teaching music and was noted as one of the first local musicians to realize that “jazz” would become widely popular.

Anna A. Knapp
Advertisement from Elmira Star-Gazette, January 1, 1935
Just months before Frederick Knapp died, he had moved his studio from its longtime location at 112 College Avenue to 104 College Avenue where he had remodeled a house and equipped it with a series of modern studios. His wife, Anna, continued to run the school at that location. The annual recitals also continued with nearly 500 people attending the performance in 1935. In 1938, local newspapers started running advertisements for instruments for sale at the school. By 1943, Knapp’s was selling radios and phonographs as well as banjos, violins, saxophones, xylophones, and accordions.

Harl J. Robacher
Harl J. Robacher, Elmira Star-Gazette, June 22, 1953
Harl Robacher became proprietor and director of Knapp School of Music in 1944. He also operated the American Musical Institute in Syracuse and worked as a basketball promoter. He is credited as playing a key role in bringing professional basketball back to Elmira in 1946. He created the Knapp School of Music basketball team, made up of established sports stars, as a member of the semi-pro Pioneer League. During his time as director of the music school, students continued playing at banquets, balls, and recitals. Robacher ran the school until June 21, 1953 when, at 12:25pm, he died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at his home at 104 College Avenue. He was 50 years old.

Donald Hartman
Donald Hartman at Knapp School of Music, 
Elmira Star-Gazette, July 23, 1963
Don Hartman remembered his father driving him to Knapp’s for banjo lessons when he was a child. When Frederick Knapp died in 1934, Hartman was hired as an instructor at the school. Eighteen years later he became manager and after Robacher’s passing, became owner of Knapp School of Music. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the school expanded with as many as 40 affiliated studios within a 75-mile radius of Elmira including in Owego, Corning, Ithaca, Bath, Canandaigua, and Hornell, as well as, Tunkhannock, Montrose, Williamsport, and Dushore, Pennsylvania. The school also had a weekly radio program on Saturdays on WENY.

By 1963, the “Eight Week Trail Plan” had been established at the school. The plan harkened back to Frederick Knapp’s early idea of giving all students a chance to learn music without having to make a large financial investment to start. Students paid for eight weeks of lessons and were given an instrument to use for free as a way to determine if they were really interested in serious instruction. After the trial period, they could purchase the instrument and continue with lessons.

Robert Melnyk
Robert Melnyk at the Knapp School of Music, 
Elmira Star-Gazette, January 25, 1966
Bob Melnyk, a student and instructor at the Knapp School since 1955, took over the business from Don Hartman in 1965 and still runs it today.

Advertisement for Knapp School of Music,
Elmira Star-Gazette, November 23, 1965