The Mount Lebanon Shakers and their support for African American education in South Carolina

On April 3, 1885 the mercury reached 46 degrees Fahrenheit at Mount Lebanon’s North Family according to Brother Daniel Offord’s entry in the family’s garden journal. It was a mild cloudy Friday and the hired men were working at getting the year’s firewood cut, split, and under cover while a few of the brothers were working at the family’s saw mill.  To what seemed to be an uneventful day, Brother Daniel added a curious note: “Sent a bbl of lamps tin ware literature &c &c to Martha Schofield.”

Schofield staff

Schofield School staff, date unknown, retrieved from

Martha Schofield was born in 1839 into a Quaker family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her parents were strong abolitionists who frequently had Reverend Edward Hicks and James and Lucretia Mott as guests in their home and on occasion were known to harbor fugitive slaves. As a young girl, Martha, strongly affected by these experiences, began teaching runaway slaves to read and write and when she turned 18 began her professional teaching career in Bayside, Long Island. In October of 1865, with the end of the Civil War, and in response to President Lincoln’s call to help emancipated slaves, she moved to Edisto Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. Three years later, and after recovering from malaria or tuberculosis back at her family home, she returned south with her life savings and promises of support from people like her friend Susan B. Anthony and founded the Schofield Normal and Industrial School in Aiken, South Carolina, to serve the area’s freed slaves. A school building was completed in 1870 and with three teachers, including Schofield, the school taught and boarded 68 students. The school grew rapidly and focused on training young African Americans in the trades and to become teachers. In 1882 Schofield was able to build a large brick two-story schoolhouse but was in need of additional dormitory space to house an ever-growing population of students.

The First and Second Schoolhouses for the Schofield Normal and Industrial School, Aiken, SC, ca. 1885

Schofield Normal and Industrial School, First (1870) and Second (1882) Schoolhouses from, South Carolina Bureau, The Augusta Chronicle, “Schoolhouse Inspires Students,” retrieved from

An article appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 19, 1885 concerning two young African-American men, Alfred W. Nicholson and Hampton Matthias, who were teachers at the Bettis School in Edgefield County, South Carolina. In an effort to keep ahead of their students they decided they both needed additional education so, while Matthias taught, Nicholson attended university and then when his course works was done for the year – they switched. Both had been students at the Schofield School and Martha Schofield took the opportunity of having two of her students featured in the Tribune to make an appeal for support for her school. In a February 26 article she expressed her concern about the challenge of accommodating an increasing demand for African American teachers. She wrote: “Here there is such a pressure behind us we dare not stand still; we are pushed on to new burdens, the completion of which is only seen by the eye of faith shining under the light of Divine guidance. We are being forced to erect a girls’ boarding hall….The cost, with careful management, will be about $1500. Over $500 has been subscribed and the lumber is on the ground and paid for. No debt will be incurred. Carpenters stop when the money gives out.”

Carte-de--Visite, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle

Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962.13962.1,

It was apparently this appeal to which the North Family Shakers responded both in money and with a barrel of goods. In a letter to the Tribune published March 1, 1885, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle expressed her family’s respect and support for Martha Schofield’s work. She notes that they, the North Family, had been aware of her efforts in educating African American students for several years. With the letter, the North Family included a check for five-dollars to be sent on to Schofield to aid in the building of the school. Eldress Antoinette’s letter, transcribed below, addresses her experiences with freed slaves who worked in the hotels in Lebanon Springs, New York, where she grew up until she joined the Shakers in her teens.



To the editor of The Tribune.

FRIEND: We read with interest the letter of February 26 from Martha Schofield addressed to the TRIBUNE, asking aid for building a schoolhouse in which to educate some of the colored people, to whom at present she seems to be giving her life labors unselfishly. We have watched her course of action several years, and have admired her as a heroine in striving, against persecution and many adverse storms, to be a friend to the friendless, and to uplift the lowly and oppressed who through circumstances over which they had had no control, have been subjected to the grossest wrongs, and suffered and sorrowed beyond language to portray.

I well remember when a small child of hearing a colored man say that if he could be a white man he would be willing to be skinned alive. He might justly have been considered a gentleman in manners and address, to some degree a man of letters, whose greatest fault seemed to be that his skin was very dark, and on that account he suffered many indignities from those of a lighter complexion. I also have a vivid recollection of an old slave called Venus who was employed as a washerwoman in some of our public hotels. Many hours I say by her side hearing her relate her sufferings at the South when under the lash of her cruel master. Her hands and fingers were ill-shapen and deformed. When she told me the wrongs inflicted upon her my young heart was deeply touched, and almost bled with sympathy as I saw the scalding, bitter tears course their way down her furrowed cheeks.

I remember those things in the dark days of our late Civil War and, while we deeply regretted the cruel effects of that war upon many households and the mourners who were bereft of loved one[s] who fallen in battle, yet the cries and groans of downtrodden, oppressed slaves were greater, piercing the heavens, and He who heareth the orphan’s cry and feedeth the ravens struck a blow that broke the strong chains that bound them, and the manacles fell! We watched with intense prayerful interest the events of those never-to-be-forgotten days, and now rejoice that there is a way open for the slaves, who were once thought to be almost soulless and devoid of intellect, gradually rising in the ascending scale of knowledge, moral worth and spiritual unfoldment.

We sent THE TRIBUNE five dollars ($5) [roughly $120 in today’s dollars] to aid in the erection of a schoolhouse above referred to in hopes that this small contribution, given in sympathy for the cause of freedom, may induce others to add thereto, and thus create a little fund that may be forwarded in safety to Martha Schofield, who we honor for her work’s sake.        Sincerely, ANTOINETTE DOOLITTLE.

Mt. Lebanon, N. Y., Feb 27, 1885.

The Schofield School – incorporated into the public schools of Aiken, South Carolina and integrated in the 1960s – continues its educational mission. If Ms. Schofield responded to Eldress Antoinette’s letter and if the North Family continued to support the school is still to be discovered.



Altered states: piecing together an object’s history

The Shakers’ communal furniture pieces were often larger than those used in single family homes, so when those pieces found new uses outside Shaker villages they were sometimes altered and reduced in size: benches made to seat eight to ten Shakers might be shortened to serve in a family entryway as a place to sit and put on shoes; communal trestle-style dining tables that once fed 12 to 16 Shaker brothers or sisters have been shortened to seat the storied nuclear family; and tall 10-drawer cases have been cut in half to become four- or five-drawer bureaus. Often these alterations were done by outsiders who bought surplus furniture from the Shakers. Sometimes, however, these alterations were done by the Shakers themselves. For example, on January 18, 1884, a South Family scribe (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, mss. no. 21485) recorded in the family journal that Samuel Shumway, a non-Shaker resident of the town of New Lebanon who was often hired to do carpentry and cabinetmaking for the Shakers, “cut a door thro the porch into the Deaconesses room [and] cut a large case of drawers into [i.e., in two] – half goes in the North garret, the other half remains in the porch.” 

While it is not known if the object that is the subject of this article resulted from the intentional alteration of a piece of furniture or something more tragic, it was clearly once part of something larger. When cataloged into the collection it was identified as a “drawer.”  Upon recent examination the remnant has been identified not as drawer, but as a four-sided gallery that likely sat atop a small case of drawers to make a piece called a washstand. Before the advent of indoor plumbing and sinks for personal wash-ups, washstands were common in Shaker and non-Shaker dwellings. The pieces took many different forms, but often had a back-splash or a gallery to contain any leaks, spills, or splashes from an ever-present water bowl and pitcher. 

The gallery has several distinctive features. The sides are made of a tight-grained curly maple. The right and left sides and the front side all flare out slightly. The four sides are dovetailed together. The underside of the gallery bottom has long grooves along its right and left side that were made to receive the plank side boards of the case piece upon which it sat and in the center of the front of the underside, between these grooves, is a small rectangular mortise that likely once secured the tenon of a divider that separated two drawers in the washstand. There are also small rectangular holes just inside the gallery walls that were made by nails that secured the gallery to its base. These details, taken as a whole, suggest a strong connection between this gallery and the galleries of several washstands that have been attributed to Brother Abner Allen (1776-1855), a known Shaker cabinetmaker from Enfield, Connecticut. One washstand with a similar gallery (see below) is in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village. While the dimensions of the gallery on this washstand – 3 ½” high by 27 7/8” wide by 19 ¼” deep — do not match those of the gallery in the Shaker Museum’s collection – 3 1/4” high by 23 ¾” wide by 17 5/8” deep – all of the other characteristics of the complete washstand gallery compare favorably with the displaced gallery.  

Washstand, Enfield, CT, ca. 1850

Washstand, Enfield, CT, ca. 1850, Hancock Shaker Village: 1989.2. Timothy Rieman, photographer.

Brother Abner was known to favor figured wood – especially curly maple. He seemed to have an affinity for dovetailed joints that are not joined at right angles. The protruding edges of the bottoms of the galleries on both examples terminate in the same thumb-nail shape. The most noticeable difference between the two examples is that the gallery in the Shaker Museum’s collection is painted red while the complete washstand is not. It is, of course, conceivable that the complete washstand, at some point, had its paint removed to expose the beauty of the curly maple. If this is the case, it is an interesting piece of information to think that Shakers made furniture from wood known for its decorative appearance and then obfuscated most of that feature with paint.  

Since this piece was acquired in 1961 at Mount Lebanon and was most likely made at Enfield, Connecticut, it is likely that the washstand from which this gallery was separated was brought to Mount Lebanon, maybe with Elder Walter Shepherd and Brother Daniel Orcutt when Enfield closed and they moved to the North Family at Mount Lebanon. 

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is currently migrating its collection records to a web-based public database thanks to a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation. In the process, much of the collection is being re-examined, allowing us to make sense of and flesh out the stories of pieces in the collection.




“…he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers….”

In a participatory class about making soap the leader started her presentation explaining the steps that would be involved in the day’s activities. Following her welcome, she started, “First, we’ll need to slaughter, butcher, and render the fat from an old hog.” Before the students could flee the room, she announced that we would be skipping that step in light of time constraints. Her point, however, was not lost on the class. Many of the classes involving early crafts and trades have been cleansed of the unpleasant preparations our forefathers and mothers undertook without question. Such is the case with most trades associated with wood. Most woodworking projects now begin with boards of a standard thickness, width, and length and we ignore the process that historically would have been used to get them to that state — felling and limbing a tree, hauling the tree trunk, cutting it to length, splitting or sawing it into boards, drying the boards, regulating them to a particular thickness, making their faces and edges parallel, and smoothing their surfaces. All of this, done by hand, is brutal work. Until the advent of practical machines, the preparation of usable boards from rough-sawn lumber could take as much time as making the boards into something.

The Shakers were interested in reducing the amount of unnecessary labor needed to build up the physical part of their “heaven on earth,” and the thickness planer made smoothing boards easier.

fig 1 1952.6054.1_ 1

Thickness Planer (right side), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

There had been a number of attempts to ease the chore of planing. Most of the early attempts were designed to move a traditional hand plane, driven by a reciprocating shaft, back and forth over a piece of wood . The great improvement came with the use of a rotary motion to plane boards. The history of these planing machines in America features two dominate men, each with a specific approach to flattening, regulating the thickness of, and smoothing boards. William Woodworth from Hudson, New York patented a successful planing machine in 1828. His machine had two long sharp blades mounted in a rotating horizontal bar set at an adjustable height above a flat table. Mounted in the table were slowly rotating cylinders that pushed and pulled the board under the rotating planer blades. This design was the precursor of the modern planing machine. The biggest draw-back of the Woodworth machine was that, while it smoothed and regulated the thickness of a board, it did not always make it truly flat. If the board was twisted and warped before planing, it would probably still be twisted and warped after planing.

The second player in this story was Thomas E. Daniels of Worcester, Massachusetts. His was the first successful machine patented in America to truly flatten a board. His planer, patented in 1834, had a movable carriage to which a rough-sawn board could be secured so it could not move or flex. The carriage advanced under a rotating vertical shaft to which was fastened a bar parallel to the carriage. This bar had a cutting blade mounted at each end. When rotating – the power was often supplied by a waterwheel – the cutters sliced across the board removing any unevenness and leaving a truly flat surface. To make a board that was of a consistent desired thickness, the height of the cutters above the board would be set at that height; the board would be turned over, secured to the carriage, and again passed under the cutters.

Each machine had its advantages – the Daniels planer produced a board that was not twisted or warped and the Woodworth produced a smoother surface. Often a workshop would have one of each of the machines – flattening their boards on the Daniels planer and finishing them on the Woodworth machine.

Woodworth held a patent on his machine, but it was frequently contested and he was in constant litigation. He sold the rights to most of the individually patented improvements to the machine to a syndicate of three investors who manufactured them. They sold the planers, and also charged the owners on a per-linear-foot-planed basis for using them. Woodworth died in 1839 but passed on his part of the patent to his children. As the Woodworth children and the syndicate had a monopoly on this type of machine, it was a very lucrative business and as such they protected their patent until 1856, when it could no longer be extended. Litigation concerning the patent occasionally involved the Shakers. In 1851, Mount Lebanon brothers Jonathan Wood and Henry Bennet were called to court in Albany “concerning the lawsuit, pending between Gibson & Allen about the Planing Machine …There is much contention in the law about Woodworth’s patent – Gibson [one of the men who bought the patent] has lately had the right renewed 6 years – He holds the right & forbids others (us with the rest) using it without paying for it. We consider it unjust & so do others: & some, rather than submit to pay, stand against in the law.” [Quoted in Planers, Matchers and Molders in Americaby Chandler W. Jones, 1985.] The Shakers were called to testify because they were known to use machines similar to Woodworth’s at the time he “invented” the planer. In fact, in 1833 when William Woodworth’s lawyers returned from court to tell him that the judge demanded that he write up new specifications for his patent that would claim rights to only those parts of the machine he had invented, “he smiled and said the whole of them were fools, for they occupied the time of the court for three days on what he could have told them in five minutes; that he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers in the western part of the State of New York.” Joseph Turner who had been a machinist who helped build Woodworth’s first planers reported this comment adding that he “was astonished to hear him say that, after selling the patent.” [“A Domestic Journal of Daily Occurrences Kept by…Isaac N. Youngs, [1847-1855], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,  Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-70.] The Woodworth patent cases had a long-term effect on patent law and were, in part, responsible for adjustments in 1861 to change the life of patents from 14 to 17 years – 17 years without extensions.

fig 3 1952.6054.1_ 4

Thickness Planer (detail of cutting head and feed rollers), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The planing machine in the Museum’s collection is clearly a Woodworth-style planer. It has not yet been determined if the planer was made by the Shakers or if they purchased it. All of the metal parts on the planer were cast. If the Shakers had gone to the expense of making several dozen casting patterns, having them cast, and machining them to fit together properly, they would have made several of these machine. No other examples survive. There is no manufacturer’s name on the planer, however if it was commercially made the name may have been left off to guard against the maker being sued by the syndicate. The blades on the planer are marked “A. Wheeler, Brattleboro, Vt.” Wheeler is a known manufacturer of edge tools – axes, adzes, drawknives, and, apparently, planer blades.  At the same time Wheeler was in business there was a manufacturer of planing machines in Brattleboro, Calvin J. Weld, from whom the Shakers purchased a planer in the 1850s for their Tyringham, Massachusetts community. It is possible that this machine was obtained from the same source. Whatever its source, the Museum’s planer is a remarkable machine still in operating condition – sharp blades and all.




Why did the Shakers switch from palm leaf to poplar?

Heart-Shaped Woven Poplar Cloth Box

Heart-Shaped Woven Poplar Cloth Box, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1875-1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1993.2.20a,b.

The Shakers made poplar boxes of different shapes and styles in great numbers beginning in the 1860s and continuing in various communities for nearly a century. The first mention of “hearts” being made was in the Mount Lebanon Church Family deaconesses’ journals in 1873. Apparently they were not the most popular of the poplar products – often only three of four dozen were made in a given year. For many years Sister Emma J. Neale is noted as the maker of these particular poplar boxes. There are two types of forms on which these boxes were shaped. One was a solid piece of pine and the second, probably an improvement, was made in two parts joined at an angle so that when the larger part of the form was lifted the slightest amount, the form immediately became smaller keeping it from putting any stress on the recently glued sides of the box. The finishing – fitting a lid, adding any decoration, and sewing accouterments – completed the box for sale in the Office Store.

Heart-Shaped Form

Heart-Shaped Form, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1875-1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2477.1a,b.

Why did the Shakers at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon develop the heart-shaped product in the first place? It’s been suggested that the invention of poplar cloth and the poplarware products that followed was necessitated by a need to find a material to replace woven palm leaf when shipments of palm from Cuba and the Caribbean were halted by the beginning of the Civil War in April of 1861. The Shakers were prodigious consumers of palm leaf for manufacture of their bonnets – both for home use and for sale. While it may be the case that the Shakers were purchasing palm leaf from Cuba and the Caribbean, it continued to be available from Italy and Africa at the Port of Boston. In Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts in 1865, there were more than 100 men and women employed in five businesses that made 328,000 palm leaf “Shaker hoods and hats or jockies.” These manufacturers were supplied by two businesses employing 19 men and women who processed over 250,000 pounds of green palm leaf into material for weaving and plaiting even during the Civil War. (Warner, Oliver. Statistical Information Relating to Certain Branches of Industry in Massachusetts for the Year Ending May 1, 1865. [Boston: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1866]) To add to this apparent contradiction, Deaconess Betsy Crosman, recorded in her journal having “made 30 small popple [poplar] silk covered baskets for sale” at the beginning of November 1860. The next year she made 60 more and Deaconess Matilda Reed made 15 dozen napkin rings of  popple cloth.” (“Deaconesses Journal, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,” 1848-1872. Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-143.) Apparently by the time the insurrection had blossomed into a full-out war, the Shakers had already worked out the procedures and built the specialized machinery for manufacturing “popple cloth.”

Perhaps the switch from palm leaf to poplar was because the process of preparing palm leaf for weaving involved considerable work. The leaves were sorted, setting aside the longest leaves from which the warp “threads” were stripped out and gauged to the proper width. The shorter weft “threads” also had to be cut out and gauged. At some point these were dried and “bleached” in the fumes of burning sulfur to remove their green color. The warp was then tied on the loom (of course there were limitations on the length of the warp – and therefore the finished palm cloth – based on the length of the leaves). Finally, the weaving of the cloth could begin. With poplar, some of this tedious preparation was done by the brothers – at the very least, they planed the poplar into thin, consistently-sized strips. The gauging was done by machine and the poplar required no bleaching as its sap wood is naturally white. The greatest advantage of poplar over palm comes in the weaving. The thin strips of poplar are woven into a cotton warp and the length of the warp was not limited by the length of the poplar strips. In one case it was noted that the sisters put one hundred yards of warp on a loom for poplar cloth. In consideration of the advantages of poplar over palm leaf – yes, palm leaf may have been stronger and lasted longer, but unlike palm leaf bonnets, the products made from poplar were not expected to last for generations – it may have been that the idea to develop poplar cloth came as much from a desire to simplify and, by the way, use materials readily available on their own property at no cost but manpower.

A number of Shaker industries that seem simple and straightforward on first look, turn out to be quite complicated once investigated. Additional information and comments on the beginning of this important Shaker business are most welcome.



When humility and recognition collide

Silver Award Medal (front in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters

Silver Award Medal (front in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2006.1.1a,b.

The New York State Fair was first held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It was the first such fair ever held in the United States and is today one of the largest, attracting over one million visitors. The fair was started by The New-York State Agricultural Society, with financial backing from the New York State Legislature. The second fair was held in Albany, New York, and from that time until 1890, when the fair was permanently located in Syracuse, the perceived “agricenter” of the state, it was rotated among the cities of Albany, Auburn, Buffalo, Elmira, New York, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Utica, and Watertown.

Every kind of conceivable exhibition, both animate and inanimate, was included in the fair and competition for awards was stiff. An award of one of the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals not only spoke to the excellence of the animal or object being exhibited but could easily translate into money as people sought to purchase award winners.

In 1873 the Shaker sisters of the Church Family at Mount Lebanon created an exhibition of their “sale work,” what today would be called their “fancy goods.” These were the objects they offered for sale at the office store – the majority of which at this time would have been useful and decorative little boxes made of poplar cloth. The silver medal in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection was awarded for their fancy straw work – which was probably how the judges classified what may have been, to them, mystifying woven poplar wood.

On September 23, 1873, Brothers Henry Cantrell and Joseph Holden left Mount Lebanon for Albany to attend the State Fair. That same day Sisters Sarah Ann Lewis and Tabitha Lapsley “went to Albany to exhibit … sale articles at the State Fair.” [Sister Polly Jane Reed, Pocket Diary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, [OClWHi, mss. no., V:B-166]] The 33d annual New York State Fair opened on September 24. Several other members of the Church Family apparently went to see the fair as well. On the 28th of September, Sisters Tabitha Lapsley, Polly Lewis, and Caty (or Katie) Boyle returned home leaving Sarah Ann Lewis to return the next day. “She staid to take care of her things – it was not necessary for Tabitha to stay longer so she slipped sway & come home thankful to get out of the bustle.” [ibid]

It is most interesting that although the “comings and goings” to the fair are frequently mentioned, no mention has been found in the journals of the sisters being awarded a medal. That absence may signal an interesting tension between the commercial marketing potential of receiving an award for their products and the Shakers’ constant struggle to remain humble. It would be interesting to know what the Shakers did with the medal when they returned, who kept it and where.

Silver Award Medal (back in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters

Silver Award Medal (back in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2006.1.1a,b.



Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ.  


An earlier blog examined one of the smallest publications done by the Shakers – The Little Instructor, printed by Elder Henry C. Blinn in 1849 at Canterbury, New Hampshire. On the other end of the spectrum, the Shakers were involved in publishing a piece measuring three by four feet. It is an 1887 lithographed chart created by Jacob Skeen titled Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ.

Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ by Jacob Skeen

Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ by Jacob Skeen, The Skeen Chart Co., Louisville, KY, Lithographed by the Lithograph and Printing Company, Louisville, KY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2017.25.1a,b

The great fire of 1875 at Mount Lebanon’s Church Family had repercussions that continued for years as the Shakers increased industries that would produce cash to help them recover from the loss. The best known and probably most lucrative of these efforts was the addition of a contract to manufacture medicine for Andrew Judson White. This work, like much that followed, depended on the well-organized, dedicated sisterhood of the family. Other industries that were taken on over the next decade included the manufacture of knitted gloves and mittens made from raccoon fur and silk and the manufacture of men’s neckties. As part of this effort, in February 1887 the Shakers began producing giant charts intended to educate children about the Bible.

The chart was the result of ten years work by Jacob Skeen, an industrialist – he created and operated the Louisville Crucible Steel Casting Company – turned Bible and ancient history scholar. Skeen researched, designed, and created the artwork for the chart. In partnership with his brother David Skeen, he was eventually able to enlist the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, New York (Brother Benjamin Gates), Union Village, Ohio (Elder Matthew B. Carter), and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (Elder Francis M. and Brother William F. Pennybaker) in the project. The chart provided timelines showing major figures of the Bible and their family trees along with their geographical locations and major Biblical events including the creation of Adam and Eve, the birth of Christ, and a summary of Christ’s miracles and parables. It was the Shakers at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon who did the actual work to produce the charts – a perfect job for the sisters. With some assistance from Brother Andrew Fortier, Sister Cornelia French and several others set up the chart business in the south garret of the new Dwelling House. There they trimmed the massive color lithographs and pasted them to a cloth backing. In early April David Skeen came to Mount Lebanon and made a presentation about the charts to the Shakers in their meeting room. That month the Shakers shipped about 25 charts to New York City to be sold. Brother Alonzo Hollister made peddling trips with the charts. Sales must not have met expectations and in mid-October, Brother Benjamin traveled to Cincinnati to meet and consult with Elder Matthew Carter and William Pennybaker about them. Their desire was to convince Skeen to produce a smaller, cheaper chart. It is not clear how many charts were originally printed but the year-end summary of the Church Family sisters’ work noted that in 1887 they had pasted and trimmed 204 charts and the business was concluded that year. The fact that there are untrimmed, unpasted charts, such as the one in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection, suggests more than 204 charts were printed.

While the charts are rare (the survival rate for something that large is usually small) even more scarce is a book the Skeens produced to accompany the chart. The book provides instructions on how to maximize the educational value of the chart and includes similar artwork. The book also supplies a little more information on the publication of Skeen’s charts. Although the charts are dated 1887, Skeen’s Key of Explanation contains nine testimonials – all but one from various Louisville, KY, churches – dated November 1886. It appears Skeen may have circulated the original drawing for the chart to garner testimonials prior to turning it over to the lithographers for publication in 1887. At this time only two copies of the book have been located in libraries – one at the Library of Congress and the other here at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Much remains unknown about the relationship between the Skeen brothers and the Shakers, including how the Shakers came to be involved in this venture, how much their investment was in the business, and even whether the Shakers used the Bible charts in their own schools.



When the future baseball legend met the Shaker Eldress

In early November this year an article appeared in the Eastwick Press about the dedication of a new athletic field in Berlin, New York, honoring Elroy Leon Face, a Stephentown native best known for his remarkable career as a professional baseball player. His career as a relief pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates is legendary.

Elroy Face, better known as Roy, was born February 20, 1928 in Stephentown, New York. Sometime in the early 1930s, he crossed paths with Eldress Sarah Collins, a Shaker known for her skilled and tenacious work in webbing Shaker chairs and braiding rugs at the South Family.

Chair Salesroom, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1932

Chair Salesroom, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1932, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1968.16808.1. Photographer unidentified.

Roy’s father, Joseph Face, Sr., and his mother, Bessie Rose Face, operated a boarding house owned by the Faith Knitting Mills in Averill Park, NY. Roy played baseball at Averill Park High School. Prior to this, however, Joseph worked for the Shakers at the South Family at Mount Lebanon taking care of their cows and horses. It was this work that led to the photograph shown here. The image, taken in the South Family chair showroom, shows Roy and his older brother Joseph Jr. In recent correspondence with Roy, he confirmed that he is the young boy in the photograph by answering, “It’s true!”

Baseball Card, “Roy Face, Pittsburgh Pirates, “ 1958

Baseball Card, “Roy Face, Pittsburgh Pirates, “ 1958, The Topps Company

After he finished high school, Roy served in the Army from 1946 to 1947. When he returned from service he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. After two successful seasons with their farm team, he was not, however, given a spot in the majors. He was drafted in 1951 by the Brooklyn Dodgers and in 1952 by the Pittsburg Pirates. His first trip to the mound in a major league game was in April 1953 and by 1956 he had become a force to be reckoned with when he set a record for pitching 68 games in a single season. He became best known as a relief pitcher and the master of the “forkball.” He was so effective with that pitch that home run master Hank Aaron said that “he hated to try to hit Face and that forkball.” In 1959 Roy Face posted a season of eighteen wins with only one loss for a record .947 season winning percentage – a record for relief pitchers that still holds. In 1959, 196-, and 1961, he played in the annual All-Star game and was a World Series champion in 1960. In all he played seventeen seasons – fifteen for the Pirates and one each for the Detroit Tigers and the Montreal Expos. For aficionados – his career stats are: career wins: 104; career losses: 95; era: 3.48; strikeouts: 877; saves: 193.

Roy now lives near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where from 1994-2012 he supported the Elroy Face Forkball Golf Tournament and raised over a half-million dollars for the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

“You want a Christmas story. Well I can give you one, Of what happened to the Shakers in good Mt Lebanon”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century one finds a mix of the spiritual and the temporal in Christmas celebration among the Shakers. Traditionally, from the earliest days in their settlement at Niskayuna, the Shakers devoted Christmas day to spiritual matters, setting aside any unnecessary temporal duties. In preparation for Christmas day, usually during the days of Advent, the Shaker ministry designated a day of confession and reconciliation. This day of “yearly sacrifice” and fasting was meant to put aside all hard feelings one to another so the family could move ahead unencumbered into the new year. Sister Cornelia French recorded in 1897 in a Church Family journal, “The Ministry inform the family at the breakfast table that the day will be improved in the yearly sacrifice gift. The Ministry expressed their feelings in regard to an increase of peace and Union in the family with an exhortation to all to unite with them and banish all discord and hardness of heart one toward another forever from our home.” The yearly sacrifice is one of the most enduring observances in Shaker life. 

The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,

“The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,” (title page), Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1898, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12819.1.

At the same time, some secular elements of the Christmas season crept into Shaker families. In 1898 at Mount Lebanon’s Second Family the sisters wrote a poem titled, “The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry.” The poem is hand written on narrow pieces of paper less than an inch and a half wide and eight and a half inches long. These pieces are glued together to make a twelve-foot-long strip. This and another similar poem were discovered in what appears to have been a cash box. It has a crank on its side that rotates a shaft around which a narrow strip of paper was wound. When the crank was turned a strip of paper emerged from the end of the box and a bell inside rang.

Box, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850

Box, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.769.1.

When a sale was made, money was dropped into a hole in the top of the box and the crank turned to produce a slip of paper and ring the bell. The slip could have been used as either a receipt or, more likely, a slip on which the amount and description of the sale was written and deposited with the money in the box. The Second Family sisters modified the box so that as the crank was turned a verse of the poem emerged from the end of the box and the bell rang. This was repeated until the end of the poem. The drama of it all must have been terribly exciting. 

The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry

“The Visit of Santa Claus. A Christmas Story. Machine Poetry,” (first verse), Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1898, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12819.1.

The poem begins: 

  1. “You want a Christmas story. Well I can give you one,

Of what happened to the Shakers in good Mt Lebanon: 

On Christmas eve and Christmas day in Eighteen Ninety-eight 

You all will know the story’s true which I will now relate. 

  1. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, ‘twas evening, you see. 

The door opened quick while we sat at our tea: 

Sweet Shaker sisters came in numbering four, 

Singing bright Christmas carols standing close by the door…. 

The poem continues to describe Christmas day in the family – the singing, the meetings, addresses, more singing, and the “Great Christmas tree with presents well laden, for each sister, each brother, each dear little maiden.” Of course the food and the presents are described and the appearance of none other than Scrooge who was quickly dismissed by all with much “bah humbuggery.” It is interesting that Santa Claus does not appear in the poem but apparently the many presents left behind showed that he had made his visit. 

The poem ends in good Shaker fashion at the sixteenth verse: 

“To the giver of good, the father in Heaven, 

The thanks of this family is fervently given: 

For the most watchful care from the power above, 

Our hearts should forever give the purest of love.” 


Drawer pulls: What’s original?

Pieces of furniture made by the Shakers do not necessarily remain in the form in which they were made. Some merely show wear and tear, some have been refinished, and some have had decorative and structural changes made to them. These changes may have been done by the Shakers themselves or may have been done after the piece left its Shaker home. For example, on pieces made during the second half of the nineteenth century the Shakers occasionally used white porcelain or brown stoneware drawer pulls instead of the more traditional wooden or brass ones.

A desk made by Elder Amos Stewart in 1873 appears in a photograph made by William F. Winter, Jr., in 1930 with white porcelain drawer pulls. By 1986, when the desk was offered for sale at auction, the pulls on the lower drawers had been replaced with wooden pulls.

Case of Drawers, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1820

Case of Drawers, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1820, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.596.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

The piece being considered in this blog post, a case of drawers with cupboards above the drawers, was similarly modified. In this instance, most likely common wooden drawer pulls were replaced by commercially-made decorative wooden drawer pulls.  This work was undoubtedly done by or for Shakers. The reason for this modification is part of a significant event in the history of the Mount Lebanon Shakers.  On February 6, 1875, the Church Family at Mount Lebanon experienced a devastating fire. It started in the family’s Wood House / Sisters’ Workshop due to the careless disposal of hot ashes and soon spread to the Dwelling, the Ministry’s Workshop, the Ice House, a Barn, the Gas House, and a Storehouse. All of these were total losses but the greatest loss was the Dwelling House with its furniture and personal possessions. Nearly 100 Shakers were displaced and the Shakers rebuilt as quickly as possible. The resulting building, completed in 1877, was built of brick with a slate roof to make it as impervious to fire as possible.

At this period in Shaker history it would have been difficult for the Shakers to replace with their own labor the quantity of furniture that had been lost. As a consequence, beds, tables, and cases of drawers were commissioned from outside cabinetmakers. These essential pieces of furniture were supplemented with older Shaker pieces no longer needed in other places. The case of drawers discussed here may have seen in service in a building not damaged by fire or possibly it was donated to the Church Family by one of the other families at Mount Lebanon. By this date, several of the families had lost significant numbers of members and it is certain that there was surplus furniture.

fig 4

Pedestal Table, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1877, Published in Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship, The Mount Lebanon Collection, (Alexandria VA: Art Services International, 1995), p. 95, Mark Daniels, photographer.

The new dwelling house, while not built in the most elaborate style of the period, was certainly a more modern structure than the one it replaced. In keeping with the style of the building some of the older furniture was “upgraded” to better fit with the new furniture that was used. Carpenters were hired to build a number of round and oval pedestal tables for the Brethren’s rooms. Some of these tables had drawers and the pulls that were used on these drawers were more decorative than was typical of Shaker pieces. Apparently, in an effort to help the older case of drawers fit with the new furnishings, the same decorative pulls were installed on the cupboard doors and drawers of the 1820s piece.

A present day consequence of this decision by the Shakers is that this particular piece has not often been selected by curators seeking classic pieces of Shaker furniture for exhibitions. Betrayed only by its pulls, every other element in the design and construction of this piece speaks clearly to the most classic period of Shaker furniture-making. The case of drawers was acquired prior to 1947 by the Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr. This piece had last been used by Sister Emma J. Neale at Mount Lebanon.


The earliest oval boxes: A conundrum

The simple oval-shaped bentwood box ranks high on the list of iconic objects associated with the Shakers. These boxes are pleasing to the eye and the hand. They are often colorful, painted in reds, oranges, greens, blues, browns, and yellows. They were typically made in more than a dozen different sizes ranging from around two inches long to well over a foot, and many of them were made to nest one inside the other. In addition to their varied physical attributes, these boxes served a variety of uses: in the kitchen and pantry they held salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, herbs, and spices; in the sisters’ workrooms they held sewing notions; and in the brothers’ workrooms they held tacks, nails, screws, dry paint pigments, and on and on. Many of the oval boxes used by the Shakers are inscribed with the names of those users as well as names of the makers, dates, and descriptions of how they were used. All of these attributes make these boxes particularly interesting to collectors and particularly useful to the Shaker Museum in telling Shaker stories.

Craftsmen in any Shaker community may have made boxes for use in their community, but not every Shaker community had an industry that produced boxes for sale to the outside world. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon, Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake, Alfred, and Union Village did, at various times, produce boxes in quantities great enough to make notable sales to the outside world. Around 1850, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs at Mount Lebanon collected information on some of the industries at Mount Lebanon – including the oval box industry. He noted that at Mount Lebanon, boxes were first made for sale at the Church Family around 1799, making this one of the earliest Shaker businesses. This continued until after the Civil War when the business was moved to the Second Family. There it was carried out with varying success into the 1930s. Between 1822 and 1865 over 77,000 boxes were made at the Church Family. Much fewer were made at Mount Lebanon after 1865. Other communities with box industries did so in a manner close to what had been established at Mount Lebanon, but none of them matched the quantity of boxes made. Brother Delmer Wilson at Sabbathday Lake continued making boxes into the 1950s and some boxes were made by Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in this century.

While oval boxes may seem complex their manufacture is pretty straightforward. Shakers called the bent parts of the box the rims. The flat boards fit into the rims were called the heading. The narrow arch-shaped overlapping ends of the rims were called swallowtails (often just called “fingers”). Box rims were bent to shape using steam and a shaping form. They were tacked through the swallowtails to keep them bent in an oval shape. To do this copper tacks were driven through the swallowtails to secure the rims. When dry, the heading was cut to fit into the rims and secured with points – small copper, iron, or wooden wedges driven through the rim into the edge of the heading. No glue was used to secure the parts together. Most of the thousands of boxes the Shaker made followed this formula. Though the shape of the swallowtails and the pattern the craftsman chose for nailing them to the rims may differ, the choice of copper, wood, or iron points may be determined by available materials, and the skill with which the boxes were finished may vary widely, the construction of these boxes is predictable.

There are a small number of oval boxes that have been attributed to the Shakers by their general appearance that diverge in several ways from the standard boxes described above. They are sometimes called “tucked-finger” boxes for a reason that will soon be apparent. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has five examples of these boxes in its collection; they have several distinctive characteristics that easily identify them:

  • First, the shape of the oval of the box is a very rounded compared to the more elongated elliptical shape of most Shaker boxes.

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.5a,b (left); 2016.5.6 (right). Staff photograph.

  • Second, the narrow ends of the swallowtails, rather than just being tacked down, are inserted through small slots in the rim and then tacked to the rim – therefore, “tucked-finger.”
  • Third, the tacks at the end of the swallowtails are the only copper tacks used in the boxes. All of the rest of the fasteners used to secure the swallowtails are wooden pegs.

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fourth, the fastening of the rims to the heading is done with wooden points. This is done in an unusual pattern. Usually, points are spaced fairly evenly around the box rim, but on these boxes five to eight points (depending on the size of the box) are used to secure the heading just to the left of the center of the rims. These are in addition to the points that are spaced evenly around the rest of the rim.

    fig 5

    Detail of Points Fastening Box Rim to Heading, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fifth, the pine heading material used in these boxes is generally of very tight-grained old-growth pine.

    fig 1

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • And sixth, a number of these boxes are decorated or have remnants of decoration. Boxes can be painted a single color, painted to have a fancy grain pattern, painted with floral or other designs, or painted with a scene.

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

Several of these divergences in construction and materials from the common boxes made by the Shakers suggest that these boxes were made quite early – the use of tight-grained pine and the frugal use of copper tacks may indicate the boxes were made at a time when old-growth pine was still standing on Shaker land and when the making of copper tacks was a laborious and expensive process. The extra effort of inserting the ends of the swallowtails into the box rims suggests that the makers did not fully understand that this was unnecessary to make the boxes structurally sound. All of this, plus the general scarcity of these boxes, points to the possibility that these boxes were the earliest products of the Shakers’ oval box makers – the prototypes of what would become the iconic Shaker oval box.

A problem with these observations emerges with the realization that none of these boxes, to date, has a solid provenance connecting it directly to the Shakers. This, then, is the challenge: to try to establish a clear connection between extant examples of these boxes and the Shakers. Four of the five boxes in the Museum’s collection were collected in New York State in the general vicinity of Watervliet and Mount Lebanon but not directly from the Shakers.

As always, we appreciate observations and comments that might help with a better understanding of the origin of these boxes.