Sign Detectives in Schenectady

Photos by Howard Ohlhous

Old signs are fundamentally mysterious. This wall opposite the Schenectady AMTRAK station has the chapter headings for a book of blank pages. Why did you need a biscuit? Did a pair of socks cost the same as a pair of pants at the Boston One Price Clothing House? Generations of bored commuters have imagined the answers to these questions as well as another riddle: "How old are these signs anyway?"

Most of the wall's stories are lost for all time. On the upper section of wall, a ghostly letter "Ë" looms behind a sulphurous mist that was once the yellow backdrop of an equally lost later sign. Tantalizingly, "St. Louis Beer in Hotel" can be read clearly in a sign on the lower wall. However, the name of the hotel has been completely worn away.

A Uneeda sign half-sloughed off ancient brick is an icon, the urban equivalent of a barn with "Mail Pouch Tobacco" peeling off an endwall. Here the sign detectives hoped to find some good clues about age. However, they learned the first million dollar advertising campaign so successfully convinced the country that it needed biscuits sealed in wax paper that Uneeda signs barely changed for decades.


To further complicate dating the wall of signs, the original Uneeda ad had been painted over and later repainted, creating a double-exposure effect when the cover coat wore off the original lettering. The detectives could conclude only that the original ad was painted no earlier than 1898, when Uneeda Biscuits first came on the market.

The large sign on the lower wall offered the dectectives' first real lead. The 1884 Schenectady City Directory shows the Boston One-Price Clothing House as a new emporium amid the rows of dry goods and clothing stores along State Street . "One price for all customers" was a hot marketing hook of the day, as the custom had been for shopkeeper and customer to bargain on higher-priced goods.

If the Boston One-Price Clothing House sign were indeed 120 years old, it would be a remarkably ancient find. However, the detectives were frustrated to learn that the Clothing House was in business for decades. By 1895, it had moved to 322 State Street, where it remained until finally fading away during the World War I era.

It is the smallest sign on the lower wall that broke the case. Mary Seeley was the matriarch of a large family who lived at 521 Smith Street. When her children Rita, a dressmaker, and Aaron, a clerk at General Electric, moved out in the late 1890s, she needed to make ends meet without their board. In 1899, she opened The Star Restaurant at 144 South Centre Street.

Seeley's appears to have been more an exercise in mass feeding than fine dining. Perhaps the wall ad should have at least provided the address. In the 1902 Schenectady Directory, the Seeley's Star Restaurant ad was missing and Mary Seeley was again listed as keeping house on Smith Street for a large number of Seeleys.

The Seeley's Restaurant ad has the same typography and same white border as the Boston One-Price Clothing Sign. This allows the sign detectives to feel confident in dating both signs to 1899-1901 and to make a rare announcement :

"Case Closed"

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