Union College and the Time of Schaefer. Part I.

Union College is a long-established, non-denominational, liberal arts school in Schenectady, New York. The city is an old Dutch settlement in the Hudson Valley watershed.

In 1948, the student body organized a social centre with a bar they called Dutchmens’ Rathskeller.

Information on the establishment and functioning of the bar is set out in archival issues of the college paper, Concordiensis. These are preserved in the New York State Historic Newspapers’ digital archive.

A 1995 article limned the history of the Rathskeller, including the end of all alcohol service in 1985.

The Rathskeller was partly financed and built by the students themselves. Greek-letter societies made contributions. The plan for a bar was first bruited in 1918. The College Board of Trustees concurred with the plan, but National Prohibition in 1920 likely shelved it. Finally it became a reality in 1948.

In the 1950s the bar featured weekend jazz shows. Student-managed for years, food service was contracted out in the 1970s. The cellar bar continued, selling popular beers of the day, and region. Schaefer was one, made initially in Manhattan and after 1972 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

10 years before the 1995 article appeared, the drinking age to purchase alcohol in New York was raised from 19 to 21. It had been 18 since 1933, was raised to 19 in the 1980s, with the last change so far in 1985, to 21.

The changes meant most students could not drink in the bar, so the licence to serve alcohol was surrendered.

A school in Truman’s era, that had let 18 to 20-year-olds many with military service enjoy a beer, now had to chart a new course.

The Rathskeller continues to this day, but alcohol-free. A flood some years ago destroyed most of the original interior. Restoration was done but the vaulted ceiling and some furnishings are original.

When the Rathskeller sold booze, breweries would advertise to students. Schaefer in 1959 was particularly imaginative, as we see from an issue in the school paper that year:



In this wicked parody of author Ernest Hemingway, his 1930s protagonist looks like a beatnik cum Che Guevara. It had to amuse the more literate at Union College.

It shows, too, that even 60 years ago “Papa” was ensconced in the American writing pantheon and college lit curriculum.

Below we see, in the Union College website, how Dutchmens’ Rathskeller looks today. The cool coffee shop ambience can’t quite conceal the grotto’s liquor bar origins, at least to my romantic mind.

I recall similar at my alma mater, Montreal’s McGill University, welcome respites from the hard hours of study, and harder chairs in the library.

One hopes the Rathskeller at Union College will enjoy 70 more years of successful operation, whatever liquids it offers.



See our Part II.

Note re images: First image is drawn from the 1959 advertisement linked in the text, via New York State Historical Newspapers. Second image is from website of Union College, as linked above. All intellectual property in sources belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.