Union College and the Time of Schaefer

Union College is the 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 students organized a social centre with a bar they called Dutchmens’ Rathskeller.

Information on the establishment and operation of the bar was gleaned from archival issues of the college paper Concordiensis, preserved in the New York State Historic Newspapers’ digital archive.

A 1995 article limns the history of the Rathskeller, including the cessation of all alcohol service in 1985.

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

In the 1950s the bar featured weekend jazz. Student-managed for years, by the 1970s the food service part was contracted out. The cellar bar continued, selling popular draft beers of the day, and region, including Schaefer, made initially in Manhattan and from 1972 in Allentown, PA.

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 early 80s, with the last change in 1985, to 21.

It meant most of the student body could not drink in the bar, so its 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 henceforth had to chart a new course. Dura lex sed lex.

The school’s Rathskeller continues to this day, but alcohol-free. A flood destroyed much of the original interior some years ago. Restoration occurred but the vaulted ceiling and some furnishings are original.

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



This wacky parody of writer Ernest Hemingway, the 1930s protagonist kitted out like a 50s beatnik (or beatnik/Che Guevara), surely amused the more literate at the school. It shows too that even 60 years ago “Papa” was ensconced in both pantheon of American writers and the college lit curriculum.

Below we see, from the Union College website, the Dutchmens’ Rathskeller today. The cool coffee shop ambience can’t quite conceal the liquor bar origins, at least to my romantic mind. I recall similar resorts at my alma mater, McGill University, welcome respites from the hard hours of study, and harder chairs in the library.

One hopes the Rathskeller will enjoy 70 more years of successful operation, whatever lubricants it offers.



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.