Monday, November 27, 2023


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

At 5 am on November 7, 2023, our executive director arrived at work to unlock the museum’s doors. It was New York State’s General Election Day, and the Chemung County Historical Society welcomed voters from county districts 09-05/11-04, and 11-05. Poll workers arrived, set up, and were open for voters at 6 am. Polls closed at 9 pm. Before the end of the day, more than 200 people walked through the doors and our archivist stayed until 10 pm to lock up.

Many voters had never been in our building before. After voting, they took advantage of the museum’s free admission for the day to explore. Others took a quick look around, vowing to come back to see more. We even had a few tell us they wanted to donate items to our collection.

It was the first time CCHS was a polling site. In the United States, the majority of polling places are located in public schools. This makes sense because they are situated throughout the community. Most school buildings have good accessibility features, and are designed with large rooms, like gymnasiums or cafeterias, which can accommodate polling equipment and poll workers. Schools also have sufficient parking to handle the flow of traffic.

Unfortunately, what makes less sense, is the disruption Election Day can bring to schools and student routines. Concerns about safety make it more problematic.

We thought we could help and in the fall of 2022, we contacted the Chemung County Board of Elections. We have ample parking, a good-sized education room, and our museum is all on one level. Local Election Board officials visited then sent an independent inspector to evaluate voter accessibility. There were a few things that needed to be addressed, but overall, the officials agreed CCHS would be a good site and we were granted the right to host an election in the spring.

The New York State Board of Elections is responsible for defining all New York State election laws and rules for each of the state’s 62 counties. The Board mandates what the national, state, county, city, and town elections look like on the local level tasking local administration to the Chemung County Board of Elections. Local boards also provide election supplies to villages, fire districts, and school districts that conduct their own elections. They register eligible citizens to vote, and they perform various public education services including providing information to candidates seeking elective office. Local boards also accept and rule on voter petitions.


The Chemung County Board of Elections consists of two Election Commissioners. The commissioners are elected by county committees of their same political party and must be approved by the county legislature. Each are supported by two Deputy Commissioners and office staff.


According to the Chemung County Board of Elections, as of May 2023, the county has 55,480 registered voters. The unofficial results from November 7th, indicate that only 9,063 voters or 16% of eligible voters cast their vote. The election results aren’t official until after the required recount on November 22nd since races in Districts 1, 2, and 4 remained too close to call.

Voting, or having a voice in their government, is a key part of democracy. The United States is founded on the idea of freedom, and our nation’s history contains the struggle of different groups of Americans fighting to secure their vote. Voting reflects how engaged the public is.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy and law institute inspired on the work of United States Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., more states, about 19, have recently passed legislation making it harder to vote. Some of these laws require people to present IDs, or they take away the vote from anyone previously convicted of a felony. Others severely restrict early and absentee voting, and remove voters’ names from lists if they haven’t recently voted. Since 2020, only 17 US states have passed legislation making it easier to vote. Is voting important? In reference to the 16% of Chemung County voters who voted on November 7th, Chemung County’s Democratic Committee Chair Jamal Malik recently said, “The future of the city council is in the hands of a very few people. I think it was like 17% of the eligible voters came out and voted. So, every vote counts, and it's important that people get engaged, civically get engaged, not just be registered to vote, but actually go out and vote and that's the message that needs to be crystal clear to everyone.”

We hope that county voter engagement grows. Since the Chemung County Historical Society collects history through artifacts and documents of the County, we have items from elections more than 100 years old. We’ve been sharing some of these online in our weekly posts. This past fall, we were also pleased to be selected by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museums on Main Street program to be one of twelve sites to host a traveling exhibit called Voices and Votes. We won’t be getting the exhibition until fall of 2025, but have started planning for an accompanying display and programs to highlight voting in Chemung County. We’ll be sharing more details about this exciting project in the future.

Granted, 5 am was a pretty early start to the day, but well worth it to participate in local democracy. 

To see more about voting in Chemung County's past, check out our online exhibit Vote! Chemung County  

 Voting machine used from 1962 - 1982, CCHS Collection

Monday, November 13, 2023

Reclaiming Her Art: Francis S. Sinnett

 by Monica Groth, Curator

Too often the work of women is overlooked or dismissed. In some cases, a woman's accomplishments are even erroneously attributed to a man. 

I came across an example of the latter case recently. Coincidence brought about its discovery and the correcting of a decades old mistake. County Historian Kelsey Jones was researching the lives of two county artists - a couple, John Townsend and Francis Smith Sinnett - when I ran into him at the office. John Townsend Sinnett (1807-1891) was born in Dublin, Ireland and immigrated to the U.S., making painting his profession. His wife Francis, was born closer by, in Tioga County, and she too developed skills as an artist. We know that the couple lived at Southport Corners in the town of Southport by 1850, and had eight children by 1865. 

Kelsey showed me a painting attributed to John Townsend Sinnett held by the Arnot Art Museum. This painting, included below with permission of the Arnot, is entitled Demon Rum Versus Water. It depicts the moral hazard of the alcoholic carafe, encircled by a serpent, by contrasting it with the purity of water, complemented by a white pitcher and a waterfall to the far right. I was impressed by the quality of the painting and the obvious skill of the artist, but was unfamiliar with their name. According to our database, there were no Sinnett paintings in our collection. 

Demon Rum Versus Water, c. 1860
Image courtesy of the Arnot Art Museum

However, only the next day, I was researching 19th century art to include in an upcoming exhibit and was struck by this painting, a colorful tableau filled with exotic fruits:

Still Life painted by Mrs. Francis S. Sinnett, 1863

Notice anything? The pitcher looked nearly identical to the one in Demon Rum Versus Water! The painting style is also similar - could the paintings be by the same artist? Or artists in the same household and studio using the same still life props?

Our painting, an untitled still life, was anonymously donated to the Museum in memory of Robert L and Mary Cain many decades ago. It is attributed to W.J.R. Sinnott, an artist seemingly unconnected to Francis or John. So who was W.J.R. Sinnott? History draws a blank. No one by that name appears to have lived in the area during the 1860s. W.J.R. Sinnott doesn't appear to exist. 

Any record of a W.J.R. Sinnott, elsewhere spelled Sinnett, seems to equate him with John Townsend Sinnett. But we know J.T. Sinnett would have no reason to invent new initials for himself. A newspaper clipping advertising his services as a painter is signed J.T. Sinnett. Perhaps this is simply a case of mislabeling or misreading? A spelling mistake could be easily made due to the similarities of the last name. Check out this close up on the painting's signature. Could this painting have been painted by a Sinnett...could it have been painted by the other Sinnett?

Close-up of signature on Still Life Painting

We believe that this signature does not read "WJR Sinnott" but rather "Mrs. F. Sinnett".

Francis S. Sinnett was an artist in her own right. Indeed, in the 1857 Elmira City Directory it is she, not her husband,  who is listed, her profession clearly delineated as "artist". The entry even includes an address at 48 Water St, perhaps a art business? Kelsey Jones has done a lot of excellent research on the Sinnetts. He discovered a newspaper account rhapsodizing about Francis' award of first prize at an art exhibition. The excerpt declares that her "fruits and flowers" in particular were "very fine" and that there was really "no competition" between her and the other female applicants.

I theorize that "Mrs" was repeatedly misread by art sellers and even historians as "WJR". This isn't actually that surprising. There weren't many women acknowledged as professional painters in 19th century America, and few of them were signing their paintings in a way which openly advertised their femininity.  "Mrs" was not something an art lover would expect to see in a florid signature; so they didn't.

Francis had to distinguish her art from her husband's, but it is interesting the she chose to do so by including the address of "Mrs" rather than simply including her first initial. Indeed, in another painting attributed to Francis, she signs it simply "F. Sinnett". Many other women of this period, especially authors, choose to hide their sex from readers and buyers, preferring the anonymity of gender-neutral initials. They were more likely to be published and purchased if their publishers and readers thought them male. 

Perhaps the art world was different. Perhaps Mrs. Sinnett was proud of her success and wanted the world to acknowledge her womanhood as well as her talent. We may never know what she intended, but there's a little welcome feminist vindication in applauding her work today and reclaiming her talent. Her painting will be on display in our upcoming exhibition.