Union College and the Time of Schaefer

Union College is a long-established, non-denominational, liberal arts school in Schenectady, NY, an old Dutch settlement far up the Hudson Valley watershed.

In 1948 its students organized a social centre and bar they called Dutchmens’ Rathskeller.

The information on the establishment and operation of the bar set out below was gleaned from numerous articles in back issues of the college’s newspaper, Concordiensis, collected in the New York State Historic Newspapers’ digital archive.

The Rathskeller was in part financed and built by the students themselves, eg. numerous Greek societies made contributions. Interestingly, the plan to create a licensed bar was first bruited in 1918.

The Board of Trustees concurred with the plan then, as it did in 1948, but the onset of National Prohibition in 1920 likely made the idea moot. In any case, it became a reality in 1948.

In the 1950s the bar was noted for its weekend jazz concerts. For years it ran under student management but by the 1970s the food service was contracted out.

Still, the cellar bar continued successfully, selling the popular draft beers of the day and region, including Schaefer, made in Manhattan and a modern new plant, from 1972, in Allentown, PA.

This 1995 article in Concordiensis chronicled the history of the Rathskeller, including the cessation of alcohol service in 1985.

This seems an odd reversal, as one tends to think of social and moral change as continual, ever-liberal, and irreversible. It’s not true, as contrasted with science and technology, from whose progressive, inexorable truths one can’t turn back.

10 years before the article appeared, the drinking age to purchase alcohol in New York was raised from 19 to 21. It had been 18 since 1933, and was raised to 19 a couple of years before the change in 1985, the last to date.

It meant most of the student body couldn’t drink in a bar set up with that purpose in mind, among others. And so the licence to serve alcohol was surrendered.

A school that in Truman’s era let 18 to 20-year-olds, some with military service connected to WW II, enjoy a beer henceforth had to chart a new course. Dura lex sed lex.

Happily, the Rathskeller of Union College continues to this day, but alcohol-free. A flood destroyed much of the original interior and furnishings some years ago but restoration took place and the vaulted ceiling and some of the furnishings are original.

In the Rathskeller’s bibulous past, beer companies took the opportunity to advertise to the student body. Schaefer brewery in 1959 was particularly imaginative, as we see from an issue of the school newspaper that year, in this ad:

The wacky parody of author Ernest Hemingway, his 1930s protagonist kitted out like a 50s beatnik (or beatnik-cum-Che Guevara, we might say now), must have amused the more literate charges of the school.

I find it funny, anyway, and it shows too that even 60 years ago Papa was far advanced in the pantheon of immortal American writers.

Indeed this is barely less true today. Every time I ask an undergrad in modern academe studying American Lit what they’re reading, sure as shootin’ Champ Hemingway is there.

Some non-tech, cultural phenomena aren’t mutable, you see. So sing the conquistadores of American letters, if you can hear them.

Below is an image, from Union College’s website, of the Dutchmens’ Rathskeller today.

We fondly recall similar resorts at our alma mater, McGill University in Montreal. They provided welcome respite from the hard hours of courses and harder chairs in the library.

We wish the Rathskeller of Union College another successful 70 years’ operation, and beyond, whatever drinks it serves.

Note re images: The first image shown is drawn from the 1959 advertisement linked in the text, via New York State Historical Newspapers. The second image appears on the website of Union College also linked above. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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