During World War II, it was common for U.S. communities to display pictures of local servicemen and women. While only a few of these photo collections have survived, a small upstate New York town not only still has theirs, but has digitized it.
Mechanicville, a suburb of Albany’s Capital District, is New York’s smallest city with a population of under 6,000. But during World War II, its population was about 7,500, and many of the blue-collar workers in the region went to war.
It became a ritual for servicemen and women in the area to visit Siciliano’s Restaurant, where the owner Charlie Siciliano would snap photographs and display them. “After the U.S. entered the war, word spread around town that Siciliano was taking photos of anyone who showed up at his restaurant in uniform,” writes Chris Carola for the Associated Press. “It quickly became a ritual for local servicemen home on leave or recently returned from overseas to head to the hangout, known for its Saturday night dance bands and clams at 25 cents a dozen.”
“Each sailor, soldier, airman or Marine sat in the same well-lit corner at the end of the curved wooden bar,” Carola writes. “Many are holding a drink in their hands. The interior white tile walls and a shaded window served as a backdrop. The same vase with flowers, and occasionally a bottle of wine, appears in nearly every photo. Siciliano, a photography buff, gave each person he photographed a copy for free. Each framed photo had a name typewritten under it. A star placed on a photo indicated that person was killed during the war.”
Men and women in the photographs represent all branches of the U.S. military and nearly every rank and specialty: enlisted men and officers, gunners and bomber pilots, medics and doctors, Carola writes.
But unlike the fate of many such collections, Siciliano hung onto his—more than 700 photographs altogether. “The 3-by-3-inch photos, framed in groups of 25, covered the walls of his bar for 30 years,” Carola writes. “Siciliano died in 1980, a few years after selling the restaurant. The new owner had the photos arranged alphabetically in eight frames.”
Eventually, the collection of photographs was donated to the Mechanicville Public Library, where more than 600 of them are still on display. “Some are torn or discolored, but most remain remarkably intact and clear, as if they were taken yesterday,” Carola writes. Several years later, Siciliano’s son Charlie Jr. donated the negatives to the library as well.
Since then, the entire collection has been scanned and is available online, through what was originally a pilot program sponsored by the Capital District Library Council (CDLC) and then by the NY 3Rs Association, which is made up of nine Reference and Research Libraries in New York and is intended to help libraries share resources. The scanning itself was done by a Mechanicville Library volunteer.
“We originally each started our own programs,” explains Susan D’Entremont, archivist and digital project manager for the CDLC. “Mechanicville was part of the CDLC’s pilot program, CDLC Digital Collections. In 2011, the six upstate library councils merged their collections together to form NY Heritage.” Since then, several other libraries have merged their digital collections under the NY Heritage umbrella, she says.
Participating libraries are responsible for choosing the material; digitizing it, either in-house or through a vendor; creating the metadata; preservation and storage of their master scans; and local publicity, D’Entremont says. CDLC/NY Heritage supplies training, guidelines and best practices, technology, and statewide and national publicity.
So what of the subjects of the photos? In August, four surviving members from the photographs met at the library: Mechanicville native Christopher Sgambati, 90, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific, Army veterans Anthony Luciano, 90, and Felix Farina, 91, and Marine Corps veteran Francis Varone, 89. (Three others were contacted; it’s unknown how many others might still be alive, more than 50 World War II veterans are still thought to live in the area.) There they were photographed with their World War II photographs.
“We considered them all part of our family,” Charles Siciliano Jr., who was 9 when his father started taking the photos, told Carola. “That collection will last long after all the guys are gone, including me.”
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