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 up in the Hudson Valley watershed.

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

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

The Rathskeller was in part financed and built by the students themselves. Numerous Greek letter societies made contributions. The plan to create a licensed bar was first bruited in 1918. The College Board of Trustees concurred with the plan then, but perhaps the onset of National Prohibition in 1920 made the idea moot. In any case, it only 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 initially in Manhattan and after 1972 in a modern new plant in Allentown, PA.

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

The change seems an odd reversal, as one tends to think of social mores as progressive, ever-liberal, and irreversible. It’s not true, as contrasted with science and technology, from whose inexorable truths, once proved, there is no turning back. 10 years before this 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 that most of the student body could not drink in a bar established with that purpose in mind, among others. And so the bar’s licence to serve alcohol was surrendered.

A school that in President Truman’s era had let 18 to 20-year-olds, some with military service in 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 furnishings remain original.

When the Rathskeller sold booze brewing 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:

This wacky parody of writer Ernest Hemingway, his 1930s protagonist kitted out like a 50s beatnik (or beatnik-cum-Che Guevara), must have amused the more literate charges of the school. It shows too that even 60 years ago “Papa” was firmly ensconced in the pantheon of American writers.

So it remains today. Every time I ask an undergrad studying American Lit what they are reading, sure as shooting Champ Hemingway is there. Some non-tech or 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. The cool coffee shop patina can’t quite conceal the origins as a bar, at least to our romantic mind. We recall similar resorts at our alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, welcome respites from the hard hours of courses and harder chairs in the library. Some were bars (mid-70s), some were not, and I remember each one.

May the Rathskeller of Union College enjoy another successful 70 years’ operation, 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.