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Photographic Memories: The George S. Bolster Collection at The Saratoga Historical Museum

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Saratoga’s Photographic History

The George S. Bolster Collection: Insight into Saratoga’s Past

The George S. Bolster Collection: Broadway in the 1940sLocated inside of the Canfield Casino’s Saratoga Historical Museum, there are only about a few dozen of George S. Bolster’s photographs that are available for the public to peruse. But go upstairs, and a locked room holds a complete and massive collection of over 325,000 negatives taken in and around Saratoga from 1855-1980. If you’ve been in any Saratoga gift shop or seen a photograph from Saratoga’s past, chances are they were taken by Mr. Bolster himself.

Born and raised in Saratoga Springs, George S. Bolster had already begun to show an interest in photography at an early age while at St. Peter’s Academy. He continued exploring his new found passion, honing his skills by taking pictures of employees, patrons and talking to any photographer that came for a stay, while employed as the desk clerk at the Worden Hotel. Bolster opened his first studio in his Walden Street home and in 1957 he partnered with local photographer Charles Hutchins. Hutchins had previously been the partner of Harry B. Settle, a photographer known for being instrumental in taking thousands of pictures of Saratoga at the turn of the century. Together, Bolster and Hutchins purchased equipment from another photographer, Joe Deuel, who owned equipment and negatives from important photographers from as far back as the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1967, Hutchins passed away and Bolster became the sole owner of their Phila Street studio, his own work in addition to the thousands of negatives from photographers before him, like Jesse S. Wooley, Gustave Lorey, Seneca Ray Stoddard, C.C. Cook, H.C. Ashby and including Settle and Deuel. All of these negatives are included in Bolster’s “Old Saratoga” collection, and while they are in the thousands, Bolster’s work makes up the vast majority, roughly about three-quarters worth.

The George S. Bolster Collection: The Grand Union Hotel circa 1885Looking over Bolster’s life’s work, his collection of photographs serve as a definitive archive of Old Saratoga; a timeline of what used to be, from the evolution of horse-drawn buggies to the first cars and the building and rebuilding of Saratoga after its countless fires. You’ll see Duke Ellington’s tour bus parked in front of the Adelphi Hotel; then NYS Governor Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the track in 1931 and the enormous United States Hotel from the corner of Broadway and Division Street back from August 1939, as well as a snapshot from 1943 showing that the Congress Theater once screened the Tim Holt/Bonita Granville film Hitler’s Children. There’s even a look inside the Grand Union Hotel circa 1885 when it was leased by W. Edgar Woolley.

Another large part of Bolster’s collection includes documenting everyday life, events like   wedding pictures, high school and college yearbook photos, and portraits from the Saratoga Bench and Bar from the early forties through the eighties. As you flip through the collection, you’ll recognize the historic buildings that still stand, and local businesses that used to be: E.H. Holland Engraving and Printing stands today as 1 Phila Street’s Reruns Consignment Shop and Menges and Curtis Apothecary’s storefront looks untouched, just as it did in 1860.

When Bolster died in 1989, he willed his collection to Saratoga’s Historical Foundation.  As much as Saratoga has changed over the years, with the help of Bolster’s photographic memories, we’ll always be able to keep pieces of Saratoga’s past in the present.

You can visit the Saratoga Spring History Museum website for some of the prints; maybe you can find your house or a favorite spot around town.

The Museum is open Saturdays from 10am-4pm and admission is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors. There’s much more to the museum than the Bolster exhibit, such as Saratoga’s Haunted Past (Ghost Hunters has visited the museum and confirmed paranormal activity), Fashion of Saratoga, and the Walworth Memorial Museum, about the tragedy-ridden history of the local family.

Aubree Cutkomp is an Assistant Editor for The Free George. Photos Courtesy of The Saratoga Springs History Museum

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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