Views Into the Past: Results of an ebay Find, Part I

Not long ago I happened upon something of great interest to me as an RPI archivist – a photograph album documenting Rensselaer and its vicinity in the early twentieth century.  This is the story of how we acquired not one but seven photo albums compiled by Mr. Louis Blackmer Puffer, RPI Class of 1909.

The Institute Archives has a standing search in ebay for things related to Rensselaer.  Every day we receive email notifications about what’s new.  There’s usually a bunch of stuff we already own – old yearbooks, some Institute publications, a postcard or two, etc.  At the end of the list there’s a message that says “View all results.”  I rarely look there because it’s mostly stuff that’s been posted a thousand times and I’ve already determined we don’t need any of it.  But one day in September I followed the link, just to see how much additional material was available.  Was I in for a surprise!

As I pored over the usual array of items, one in particular stood out – an album containing photos of a 1911 student survey in Warrensburg, New York.  At that time  students were required to go on expeditions to develop their surveying skills.  The photos depict students posing with rods and transits and other paraphernalia as well as using the equipment, goofing off, and relaxing in their spare time.  Best of all, each image is neatly labeled, often including names or initials of people in the photos.

While the album was a little more costly than the things I usually buy, my colleagues and I wanted this unique treasure for our collection.  In addition, it turned out that the seller had several more Puffer items.  I quickly purchased the one I’d seen on ebay and began negotiating for the sale of additional materials.  In the meantime, I did a little research on the student photographer.  This led to a couple more surprises.

I discovered Puffer’s photographs were sold off to different people after his death, including a batch that ended up at the Vermont Historical Society (VHS).  The silver lining is that a description and inventory of the VHS collection is available online.  Thanks to the biographical information provided in their finding aid I now know more about this son of old Rensselaer.  It turns out that in addition to his photography avocation he was an avid outdoorsman, which helps explain the many outdoor scenes throughout his albums.

Additionally, Louis Puffer was not just a student here; soon after graduation he became a lecturer in mathematics at his alma mater.  In 1911 he was the faculty member in charge of the Warrensburg survey expedition, supervising a cadre of students only a couple of years younger than himself.  Puffer later took a teaching position at the University of Vermont, taking him back to the state where he grew up.

I’m happy to report that the Institute Archives now has Puffer photographs dating from 1905 to 1914 along with two undated albums.  They document student life in ways we’ve rarely seen, including Troy from the perspective of an RPI student/recent alumnus.  So stay tuned – I’ll share more of Puffer’s images in future posts!

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Adventures in the Archives Part 1

Throughout October, archivists and archives across the nation honor American Archives Month by explaining who they are, what they do, and the successful impacts they (and their collections) have on communities. For this celebration we decided to share some projects with the Rensselaer community and shed some light on how the Institute Archives gets used and who we work with.

I’ll begin by sharing a project that the Vice Provost & Dean approached me with last March. Linda Schadler was eager to find answers to some key questions: “Who were the first female full professors in each department?” “When were women first hired, and how many?” “Who were the first female deans?” “When did Rensselaer build the first residence hall for women?” “What was the environment like for female students at a predominately all male technological institute?”  Linda (and I) decided in order to answer these questions (and many more), a student needed to spend the summer researching in the Archives, with a sole focus on placing women in the context of Rensselaer’s history. Thus the History of Women at Rensselaer project came to fruition.

Throughout the past summer Linda and I guided Brooke Hayden ‘18 as she set out on her quest. We reviewed with Brooke her discoveries on a weekly basis, only to find that she was uncovering more questions we didn’t originally ask. To date, Brooke has done more research than anyone else on the history of women at Rensselaer (that I know of), and her research continues! Brooke meant for this to be completed at the end of the summer, but she was so enthralled with the subject, she decided this would culminate into her Capstone project!

Nevertheless, to celebrate Brooke’s pursuit of finding answers in the Institute Archives I asked Linda and Brooke to share their experience with the community. Here is what they have to say!

Linda: “After 20 years at Rensselaer, I looked around and realized that the landscape for women at Rensselaer had changed dramatically.  I am no longer the sole woman in my department, no longer teaching classes with very few women, and more.   When I asked our Chief Information Officer (whose mother was one of the first graduates) about the history of women at Rensselaer, he suggested talking to an archivist.   You cannot believe how much information is in the Institute Archives and how interesting it is to learn about the lives and perspectives of the women who have passed through here.  For me, the Archives have been a source of laughter, introspection, celebration, and recognition of how far we have to go for women at Rensselaer. Thank goodness for Brooke Hayden, who was willing to take on a project about the history of women at Rensselaer, and dig into the details!  I cannot wait to see what more we learn from the Archives and how she puts it together in an exhibit for all to see, hear, and learn from.”

Brooke: “When I began my research into the history of women at Rensselaer this summer, I must admit I did not know what I was in for. I remember on my first day I walked into the Archives to find stacks and stacks of boxes filled with documents and I wondered how I would be able to find all the information I was looking for. As I learned the lay of the land I began to feel like a detective working to uncover the past lives of people who walked the very same paths that I do as I hurry to class. I loved uncovering stories that had been overlooked that gave a glimpse into the lives of those who came before me. I was in awe over their incredible accomplishments and astounded by the struggles they overcame. Recognition for these women and their successes is long overdue and I feel proud to be able to share their stories. Throughout this whole experience I have had the incredible opportunity to learn from and work with Rensselaer’s wonderful Archivists as well as talk with current and former students, staff, and faculty. I look forward to sharing what I have uncovered with the Rensselaer community to shed light on the women’s history that has been waiting to be shared.”

Please stay tuned for Brooke’s exhibit and final project in 2018. We will keep the community posted.

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Troy’s Total Eclipse 1925

Total solar eclipse, Troy, New York, January 24, 1925.The last total solar eclipse to cross Upstate New York took place on the morning of January 24, 1925, reaching its peak at 9:11 a.m. This week’s eclipse prompted a researcher to send us a photograph of the event as viewed from Troy. (Note the figures standing on the roof tops in the left hand side of the image). The January 14, 1925 edition of the Rensselaer Polytechnic featured a front page article on the forthcoming event.

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Commencement 1917

The Institute’s ninety-third commencement took place on Wednesday, June 13, 1917 in the ’87 Gymnasium. Eighty-nine students received bachelor’s degrees: 53 in Civil Engineering, 19 in Electrical Engineering, 12 in Mechanical Engineering, and 5 in Chemical Engineering. Three graduate degrees were awarded: a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, a Masters in Civil Engineering, and a Doctor of Philosophy (chemistry). The commencement address was delivered by Charles Whiting Baker editor of the Engineering News-Record.

Many members of the class left for military service immediately after graduation.





Read on for the Class of 1917 Senior History

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Rensselaer in the Great War

The first week of April 2017 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War, or the First World War as it came to be called. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States, as his reasons for declaring war. The U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure and the House concurred two days later. The United States later declared war on Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary on December 7. In May the Selective Service Act was passed requiring all males between the ages of 21 and 31 (later increased to 18 through 45) to register for potential call-up for military service (the draft).

The Great War had a significant impact on Rensselaer and American higher education in general. The value of higher education, especially technical education, to the nation’s war effort was recognized and taken seriously for the first time. At Rensselaer the pressure of voluntary enlistments (over 30 students enlisted and left the Institute by May of 1917) and the draft cut civilian student enrollment from 623 in 1917 to 190 in 1918 (mostly students who had deferments from the draft or were foreign nationals).

The student body had been well aware of the conflict prior to America’s entry. In February 1917 the Secretary of the Institute’s rifle club had wired Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, offering to raise two companies of mounted engineers from the Rensselaer community. Baker replied that he would give the proposal consideration, if necessary. In May 1917 the Institute trustees announced their intention to establish a course in military engineering, and classes in military training began in October for about 150 students.

Also in 1917 in order to conserve its rationed coal supply the Institute began two heatless days per week and closed several buildings. The library began collecting funds to send books to servicemen in France and the student body started a “Smoke Fund” to collect money for the purchase of tobacco products also to be sent to soldiers in France. With the exception of athletic events, most campus social activities were limited or curtailed, including the annual student and alumni pageants held each spring at graduation.

In 1918 the possible value of higher education in wartime was acknowledged by a new War Department rule that college and university students who were academically in the first third of their class would be granted draft deferments. This rule was criticized by former President Theodore Roosevelt for giving special treatment to students. Rensselaer’s President Palmer Ricketts responded to Roosevelt in a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun arguing the case for educational deferments.

Members of the all-male faculty were also leaving for military service and in response to this in November 1918 the Institute appointed its first woman teacher, Miss Hazel Brennan, as an Assistant Instructor in Chemistry, but she left a year later. In 1919 Madame Marie De Pierpont was appointed as an instructor in French. She was named a full professor and appointed head of the language department in 1928. In 1918, possibly to compensate for the shortage of students, Institute trustee Alfred Renshaw (President Rickett’s brother-in-law), made a motion at the trustees’ December 5 meeting that women be allowed to attend the Institute. The motion lost. This was followed by a motion by trustee Henry W. Hodge, class of 1885, “Resolved, that at the present time it is not advisable to allow the admission of women students.” All votes were “yea’ except Mr. Renshaw.

In February 1918, the War Department created the Committee on Education and Special Training. The purpose of this committee was to assess the needs of the military branches. Identifying a drastic need for trained soldiers, the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) was created to provide special training for men entering the service through voluntary induction and was essentially an effort to encourage young men to receive both a college education and train for the military simultaneously.

The SATC officially began on October 1, 1918. It was located at 525 educational institutions and inducted 200,000 total students on the first day. Unlike the Selective Service Draft, enrollment in the SATC was completely voluntary. However, men who joined received the rank of private in the United States army. This was not a way of avoiding enlistment. A similar program was initiated to train students for naval service.

SATC had a short existence since the armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918. However, for two months in the autumn of 1918 Rensselaer, like many other colleges, became literally a military camp, with 550 student soldiers and 120 student sailors under military authority. The students pursued a greatly condensed year-round curriculum, which consisted of about two-thirds of Rensselaer’s regular coursework, but was to be completed in two years.

President Palmer Ricketts described the program in a September 1918 letter to Rensselaer’s alumni. Both the army and navy units were demobilized after about 80 days in December 1918. Two hundred of the students immediately left the Institute and those remaining returned to their four-year curriculums.

At least 838 Institute students and alumni were on active military service during the Great War. Of these, 426 were graduates, 186 were former students who left before receiving their degrees, and 226 were students who left the Institute to enter the service. The Polytechnic estimated that thirty-nine percent of Rensselaer students and alumni served on active duty.

Twenty-nine Rensselaer alumni and students died in service during the Great War. Eleven were killed in action, thirteen died of pneumonia, and five died in aircraft or vehicle accidents. The names of twenty-eight were inscribed on a bronze memorial plaque now located on the Approach. The name of Lieutenant Ransom S. Pattison, ’08, who left before graduation and was killed in France, is not included on the plaque. (The thirteen who died from pneumonia were likely victims of the devastating 1918-1920 flu pandemic which also killed 14 Institute students during the same period.)

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