Untangling a collection puzzle

Our blog today is written by Julia Pelkofsky, Cataloger for the collections digitization project.

In 2016 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received a $750,000 grant to put its collections online. As part of that process, individual objects are being cataloged, their data input into an electronic database. As this process goes on, the objects begin to tell more than just the history of the Shakers, but the history of the museum and its practices. After completing an inventory of a storage space, we came across a few items that had us wondering what led to certain objects being treated the way they were. 

When I began to catalog a box of wick holders for oil lamps, the majority of which were acquired by the museum in the 1950s, I noticed that each holder was marked with its accession number followed by an “-A”, meaning that it was a part of a set. This didn’t raise any red flags at first, but I soon realized there was no original record of any “-A” associated with any of the accession numbers I had in front of me. The accession cards created at the time the objects were accepted by the museum did not offer much help in this way as the cards described whole lamps, and made no mention of a wick holder, solitary or otherwise. 

Lamp and Wick holder, Canterbury, NH

Lamp and Wick holder, ca. 1895-1940, Canterbury, NH, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.3699.1 (lamp) 1950.3699.2 (wick holder). Staff photograph.

I presented this to one of my colleagues, who was similarly perplexed, but directed me to check in another storage area where she knew some lamps were kept. Sure enough, these lamps matched the numbers of the wick holders, which had started this journey. I was excited to have the prospect of reuniting a collections piece, but while surveying the lamps I saw an immediate obstacle. The lamps I had in front of me were all converted to electric. There was no mention of this in any file, so it was unclear when the conversion was done and why. 

Only one lamp in this group mentioned specifically that it had been electrified by the Shakers and its electrical cord looked far older than the ones attached to the lamps in question. Therefore, it seemed likely the conversion from oil to electric lamp happened after the museum had acquired these lamps.  

Sitting Room Gallery, 1976, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Sitting Room Gallery, 1976, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. The Lees Studio, photographer.

In talking with Jerry Grant, Director of Collections and Research, he explained these lamps had been electrified by museum staff to light galleries in the museum! The staff was attempting to create the sense of a Shaker interior and therefore wanted the lighting in the space to feel authentic. In this image of the “Sitting Room” gallery space from 1976 there are two electrified gas lamps in use. The clearest is the lamp in front of the Shaker sister mannequin. The electric bulb is aglow and the lamp’s electric cord can be seen running down the table’s stand.  

When the museum decided to convert the lamps, some time before 1976, the wick holders were removed and marked with the corresponding number, so it was clear which wick holder belonged to which lamp. Since that time, standard museum practices have evolved and most museums would not modify an artifact in this manner. However, these electrified lamps are now a piece of the history of the Shaker Museum itself and will be preserved in their altered state.





An ingenious time saving device

At Mount Lebanon in 1866, Brother Elisha D’Alembert Blakeman wrote a eulogy to recently departed Brother Isaac Newton Youngs. He said, “His mechanical genius was remarkable … Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to B[rother] Isaac.” Although Brother Isaac had nothing to do with the invention or making of this winding device, Brother Elisha’s words ring true for a number of Shaker brothers – often identified as “mechanics” – who had similar roles in other communities – brothers such as Thomas Corbett at Canterbury or Brother Micajah Burnett at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. From the brains and workshops of these Shakers, there seem to be an almost endless stream of “little conveniences” intended to make work more pleasant and efficient. This winding device is a good example. 

Bandage Roller (side view), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1840

Bandage Roller (side view), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6368.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

When the Shaker Museum acquired this device from the Canterbury Shakers in 1953 it was identified as a bandage roller and it was displayed in the Museum’s medical department exhibit without a bandage wound on it. The wooden wheels mounted on the winding shaft are adjustable. By turning a small thumbscrew the distance between the wheels can be set from zero to two inches. While this adjustment is appropriate as bandaging materials could certainly vary in width, it makes one think that it would also be an appropriate tool for winding all kinds of narrow materials – bonnet edging, carpet binding, strapping, and even short pieces of chair webbing – in fact, at present the winder has a short piece of chair webbing on it. Once the bandage or other narrow material is wound into a roll the outer wheel can be removed and the roll slid off the iron shaft. The winder is made all the more convenient by having a notch cut out of one end that can be slipped over the end of a table or work desk and secured with a wooden threaded screw. Whatever the maker of this device though he was making – bandage roller or something else – it may have been taken around from shop to shop whenever something relatively short and flexible needed to be rolled up. 

Bandage Roller (end view), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1840

Bandage Roller (end view), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6368.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

The piece was clearly made with much thought and care. The metal shaft turned by the handle and the collars that hold that hold the disks to the shaft appear to have been made on a metal lathe, and the support on which the shaft rests and the handle were forged by a blacksmith. The screws that hold this forged plate to the device are helpful in providing a “made before” date for the piece. In general, metal screws with screwdriver slots that are not precisely centered on the head of the screw were made before the invention of automatic screw-making machinery in the late 1840s. Several of the screwdriver slots on the roller appear to have been hand cut during the period before mechanization of the process took hold. 

In a Shaker community, with a variety of skilled crafts persons available to assist on projects, it was probably easier to conceive of and complete projects that required several different skilled people than it would have been in the outside world. This little device could have required the work of a joiner to make the base block; a turner to make the wheels, threaded screw, and knob on the handle; a blacksmith to fabricate the iron support shaft and the handle; and a machinist to turn the shaft, collars, and possibly even the screws. As it was common for Shakers to have been trained in several different trades, it is possible that one brother identified as a “mechanic” could have made all of these varied parts. 



An emery mold possibly made from a woodworking plane

Shaker sisters made a number of accessories for sewing – needle cases, beeswax cakes, pin cushions, and emeries were the most common, both as items used by the Shakers  and eventually as items that they sold in their stores. To accomplish quality sewing it was important to have thread that didn’t knot-up as it passed through fabric and sharp, smooth needles that would not abrade or damage the fabric. Before cotton thread was mercerized – a strengthening process that was developed in the 1840s and perfected in the 1890s – sewers passed their thread through beeswax cakes to make it smooth and less likely to catch on the fabric that was being sewn. Likewise, needles needed to be kept sharp and free of rust. Small bags of ground emery rock (aluminum oxide with a variety of impurities) were used sharpen needles and remove any rust that may have formed on them. Emeries were often made in the shape of a strawberry and occasionally decorated to emphasize that shape. Tailors and others involved in sewing would poke their needle into the bag, usually made of tightly woven wool or satin, until the needle was ready to use. 

Emery Mold, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845

Emery Mold, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2482.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

The emery mold in the Museum’s collection was used to hold the cloth bag while it was filled with emery powder and sewn closed. After the strawberry-shaped emery bag was assembled, it was topped with a cover over the closure to keep any powder from leaking out. The closure was often shaped like the hull of a strawberry. This mold was made to accommodate fabrication of several sizes of emeries. On one end of the block there is a hollowed-out strawberry-shaped recess about 1 1/8 inches wide and 7/8 of an inch deep that was used to form a large emery. On the opposite end a center strawberry-shaped recess is surrounded by eight similar recesses that vary in diameter from three-quarters of an inch to one inch in diameter. A hole drilled in the side of the block was apparently used for mounting the mold on a peg so it could be rotated to make either end point up.  

Emery Mold (detail of “Z. W.” stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845

Emery Mold (detail of “Z. W.” stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2482.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

An intriguing feature of this mold is the presence of the initials “Z. W.” stamped next to the single 1 1/8” diameter hole. The position of the stamped initials is odd–it would have been more logical to have positioned the stamp further away from the edge of the hole. This seemingly illogical placement has caused some conjecture that the block had been stamped prior to having been made into an emery mold. The stamped initials are similar to the stamps used by woodworkers to mark their tools, a mark that often appears in the end grain of tools such as woodworking planes. It is possible that the block from which this mold was made came from a block of maple cut from the end of a large woodworking plane – something like a long jointer plane. Assuming this is a logical explanation for the stamp appearing on the mold and for its awkward placement, the next question is who was “Z.W.”? 

The only Shaker with those initials who has been identified as living at Mount Lebanon is a brother named Zadock Wright. 

Although Wright is usually associated with the Shaker community at Canterbury, N. H., where he moved in 1892 and died at the age of 83 in 1819, he originally joined the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon.  At Canterbury he is known to have been a deacon and as such his initials appear on some very early – sometime between 1793 and 1807 – Shaker spinning wheels. Whether he was also a maker of spinning wheels or a woodworker at all is not known. At this time the initials of the family deacon were stamped on some Shaker products to identify them as Shaker rather than stamping them with the word, “Shaker.” The “Z. W.” stamp that was used on spinning wheels was not made with the same stamp as that on the emery mold. Deacon Zadock was old enough when he joined the Shakers at Mount Lebanon to have acquired his own tools and brought them with him when he joined. If he had a plane that he used at Mount Lebanon, it is possible it was left behind when he moved to Canterbury – especially if he was not planning to do woodworking at Canterbury. If damaged, cracked, warped, or missing a part, it may have been viewed as merely scrap to be reused for some other purpose – like the emery mold. 

We know something of Deacon Zadock’s early history with the Shakers from information published in Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee… (Hancock, MA: 1816):

“Zadock Wright, of Canterbury, was, at the commencement of the American Revolution, a royalist, and conscientiously refused to take up arms against the king, to whom he had sworn allegiance. He accordingly fled to Canada, to avoid the danger to which his political principles exposed him; but was, afterwards, taken by the Americans, while attempting to move his family to Canada, and sent, a prisoner, to Albany.

After being retained as a prisoner at large, for several years, his situation became very critical and alarming. His estate was confiscated, and himself thrown into prison at Albany. This happened at the time of Mother’s [Ann Lee’simprisonment, in the same place. He was, at that time, under great exercises of mind concerning the work of God, which had then taken place at New-Lebanon, among the people of his acquaintance. This, together with his present situation, and temporal difficulties, brought him into great tribulation; and he felt very anxious to see Mother through the grates of the prison; which she perceived, and obtained admittance for him into her apartment of the prison. On being questioned, he informed Mother and the Elders of his embarrassments. Mother looked on him and said, ‘You will be delivered.’— Again she said, ‘God will deliver you.’—Again, the third time she said, ‘God will deliver you.’ Though this appeared, at that time, impossible to Zadock; yet the declaration from Mother made a forcible impression on his feelings. 

He had been, from principle, much opposed to the American Revolution; but Mother taught him to view the subject in a different light from what he had done; and convinced him, that it was the providential work of God, to open the way for the Gospel. He then clearly saw, that it would be impossible for England to prevail – that the hand of God was in it; and America must be separated from the British government, and become a land of liberty, for the gospel’s sake. 

Soon after this, he parted with Mother; and after struggling through many difficulties, for more and after struggling through many difficulties, for more than a year, without seeing or hearing any more of Mother and the Elders, he was, at length, through the interposition of Divine Providence, released from his embarrassments, according to Mother’s words. Having returned to his family, in the state of Vermont, in peace, he was, shortly afterwards, visited by Israel Chauncey and Ebenezer Cooley, and embraced the testimony of the gospel, in which he has continued faithful to this day.”

Objects in the Museum’s collection need considerable evaluation to truly understand all of the nuances of their history. Although the examination of this piece leads to a number of conjectural conclusions, we hope that bringing together all the known and possible pieces of information about this piece and making a best informed guess, our knowledge of objects in the collection will continue to grow. 




Untangling the history of the Calver family starting with a box of toothpicks

Box of Tooth-Pick Holders, J. V. Calver & Co., Washington, D. C., ca. 1895

Box of Tooth-Pick Holders, J. V. Calver & Co., Washington, D. C., ca. 1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1993.2.21.1a,b (box); 1993.2.21.2-10 (tooth-pick holders. Staff photograph.

In 1992 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received over 400 Shaker items collected by Charles and Helen Upton of Brunswick, New York. Among the items was a small cardboard box containing nine nickel-plated metal tubes. Each tube can be pulled apart exposing a quill, probably from a goose, mounted to the short end of the opened tube. The quills are sharpened much like a quill pen but, instead of being intended for writing, they were to remove food from between the teeth. The devices were offered for sale at ten-cents each.

Also included with the Upton gift was a collection of 34 letters exchanged between James Valentine Calver, Jr., a Washington, D. C. dentist, and Brother Benjamin Gates, trustee and chief businessman of the Mount Lebanon Church Family. The letters, beginning in 1888, document a business relationship that developed between Dr. Calver and the Mount Lebanon Shakers. In these letters, Dr. Calver proposes to have the Shakers manufacture and package a product  he invented to relieve the pain of toothaches. He was also interested in having the product marketed under the Shakers’ name in the same way several doctors had contracted to have the Shaker name attached to their proprietary medicines. The story of Dr. Calver’s Shakers’ Toothache Pellets has been well-researched and published by M. Stephen Miller in the December, 1991, issues of The Shaker Messenger. 

In his article Miller recounts the story of the Calver family – how through contact with Elder Frederick Evans while Evans was in Philadelphia of other business, James, Sr., his wife, Susan, and their nine children – five girls and four boys – all of whom had a year or so earlier arrived in the United States from England, came to Mount Lebanon at the end of May, 1850, and took up residence in a cottage at the North Family. Shaker life was not a fit for most of the Calvers and only two daughters, Sister Amelia Calver and Sister Ellen Calver, remained Shakers for life. The Calver parents and three of the girls all left the Shakers within a few years of their arrival and the four boys, Thomas, Henry, William, and James, left the Shakers at different times.  All four of the Calver boys eventually settled in Washington, D. C. and had somewhat remarkable lives. Miller shared some of the details about the Calver boys in his article and suggests that this is, indeed, an evolving story. The box of tooth-pick holders in the Museum’s collection offers an opportunity to make a small contribution to the story of the Calver boys.

Thomas Calver (1841-1920) left the Shakers in 1855. At age twenty in 1861 it seems likely he would have joined the Union Army. In fact, he was a charter member of the James A. Garfield, Post Number 7, of the Grand Army of the Republic and was often elected as the Post’s medical director. Although he was apparently trained as a physician, in the 1890s he was working in Washington, D. C. as secretary to Senator P. W. Hitchcock of Nebraska and for the last 20 years of his life was an Auditor of the Treasury Department. He married twice, had seven children, was well known locally as a poet, and is buried in St. Paul’s Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

Invitation to Attend the Graduation of Henry Calver at the Columbian University, Law Department, Washington, D. C.

Invitation to Attend the Graduation of Henry Calver at the Columbian University, Law Department, Washington, D. C., Class of 1881, 1881, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1989.2.1.433a.                                                                           This invitation was sent to Sister Amelia Calver. It is not known if she attended the ceremony.

Henry Calver (1845-1943) left his Shaker home in 1866 and went to reside with his brother Thomas in Washington, D. C. In 1870 he enlisted in the Signal Corps and was stationed at Fort Myers, Virginia, as a weather observer. He became part of the effort by the Weather Bureau to coordinate weather reporting around the country by means of telegraphy. Henry stayed in this work until 1877 when he applied for and received an appointment in the United States Patent Office. There he took up the study of law, graduated from the Law Department of the Columbian University, and by 1883 was established as a patent attorney. Henry eventually moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he died. He is buried in the Hope Cemetery in Worcester.

William Calver (1845-1943) went to the world in March, 1872 and like others in his family eventually moved to Washington, D. C. There he became well known as an inventor. Many of his inventions and patents had to do with solar energy. According to an obituary published in The Washington Times, November 9, 1908, his interest in using the sun for energy “was impressed upon [him] while interested in mining in Arizona. Here the scarcity of fuel and the continuous torrid rays of the sun made such an invention practicable.”  William founded the Calver Universal Power Company and was known to have “built in the barren wastes of Arizona huge frames of mirrors, traveling on circular rails, so that they may be brought to face the sun at all hours between sunrise and sunset.” This array of 1600 mirrors could focus the rays of the sun that would normally fall on an acre of land onto an area of a few inches – producing enough heat to melt iron, according to Archibald Williams in The Romance of Modern Invention (1904).  William Calver is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

James Valentine Calver, Jr.  (1839-1901) was a most promising young Shaker brother. He worked as a gardener, was trained as a cabinetmaker, was a teacher in the boys’ school, a family deacon, and the second elder of the Church Family. However, James made the decision to leave the Shakers in October, 1871. He moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts and worked there in the seed business. The next year his brother William joined him and eventually both of them moved to join their other brothers in Washington, D. C. James initially worked, as did his brother Henry, as a clerk in the Signal Office. In the last years of the 1870s he apprenticed with a dentist and in 1880 he began attending The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery from which he graduated the next year. In 1888 he married Nanette Rogers Draper, a woman ten years his junior. It was during these next years that James developed and marketed his Shaker Toothache Pellets and most likely the tooth-pick holders as well, although he made no known attempt to associate this product with the Shakers. James was apparently suffering from some kind of “mental malady,” and in the late 1890s he and Nanette began spending winters in Orlando, Florida to try and regain his health.  Unfortunately, probably as a result of his “malady,” James Calver committed suicide. The Washington Post of April 3, 1901 reported his death:

“Dr. J.V. Calver, a winter resident, committed suicide here last night. For some time he has been in a nervous condition, and it was evident to his immediate friends that he was suffering from some mental malady. He left the house, and as he did not immediately return, his wife instituted a search, which resulted in finding his body in the loft of the barn on the rear of the premises. A pistol at his side and a wound in the head told the story. Dr. Calver and his wife came here from Washington two or three years ago, and he engaged in pineapple culture. He was the manufacturer of a proprietary remedy well known to pharmacies throughout the country and from which he derived an income. He also owned property in the city of Washington. The body was shipped to Washington today for interment. …. Until two years ago, Dr. Calver was a well-known dentist in this city, and for several years was the dentist in St. Elizabeth’s Asylum. He went to Florida in the hope of regaining his failing health, and expected to return to Washington to practice.”

James Irving, photographer, “Group of Shakers, [Interior of Mount Lebanon School], ca. 1871

James Irving, photographer, “Group of Shakers, [Interior of Mount Lebanon School], ca. 1871. Retrieved from: http://contentdm6.hamilton.edu/cdm/search/collection/sha-ste/searchterm/school/field/all/mode/exact/conn/and/order/title/ad/asc&hnode=135 on March 27, 2018. The male at the left of the image has been identified as Brother James V. Calver. Sister Amelia Calver is seated next to him with Sister Emma J. Neale next to her. Brother Calvin G. Reed, Superintendent of the Shaker school is seated at the desk.

Although at this time not much is known about Nanette Calver’s life after James died, she apparently at some point moved to Los Angles, California, where she died in January, 1941. Steve Miller mentions in his article about Toothache Pellets that there are some vials of the medicine that were labeled, “J. V. Calver & Co., Los Angeles, Calif.” Nanette’s move to Los Angles may explain why this product was being sold with that label.

Possibly with the help of the Calver brothers, she appears to have continued manufacturing and selling Shakers’ Toothache Pellets and possibly the tooth-pick holders. These products may have supplied her with an income, although Nanette may have had a career of her own–she attended Howard University Medical College from 1879 until 1882, according to the Howard University Medical Department’s Biographical and Statistical Souvenir published in 1900. James is buried in the Rock Creek Cemetery. Nanette died in Los Angles and was returned to rest next to her husband.

Steve Miller suggested in 1991 that the Calver story could certainly be filled out as new research is undertaken and that observation is still valid in 2018. Two interesting points for exploration come to mind. First, James Valentine Calver apparently committed suicide as a result of a psychological or nervous disorder. In 1869 James’s sister Ellen, living at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon, appears to have committed suicide by drowning herself in the family mill pond and, while her reason for going to the pond was not clear, there was suspicion that she had become deranged. Was there a genetic predisposition in the Calver family toward mental illness? Second, when James and Nanette went to spend their summers in Orlando, Florida – and “engage in pineapple culture”– it is possible that James was drawn to that location and that work by his knowledge that some of the Mount Lebanon and Watervliet Shakers had, a few years earlier, established a community just south of Orlando in Narcoossee. A quick glance at a journal titled, “Live Oak Lake Florida” in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, does include a mention of two visits by James Calver, one in August, 1898, with Brother Benjamin Gates with whom he arranged the Tooth-ache Pellet business, and one in September, 1899.  The saga continues.





Relief from asthma that risks death in a “maniacal delirium”

Mount Lebanon’s Second Family was at one time probably the community’s largest family, comprised of not only the home farm – those buildings and properties now referred to as the Second Family – but also the South Farm, the West Farm, and the East Family. In the years prior to the Civil War, the Mount Lebanon Second Family presented a seemingly strong financial outlook. They had an adequate farming program to support the family and, as the chair business at the South Farm was under their jurisdiction, a successful industrial one as well. During the late-1850s and early 1860s the South Farm became the South Family and as it assumed control of its own finances, the Second Family appears to have suffered from losing its industrial component. The West Farm failed to thrive and its residents were assimilated into other families and in 1872 the East Family’s Elder and financial manager, Edward Chase, absconded, leaving the Shakers as much as $25,000 dollars (more than half a million in today’s dollars) in unexpected debt to people in the outside world. The East Family was broken up by 1875. To add further stress, by the early 1880s the Second Family seed business was not keeping up with competition from seed merchants in the outside world.  In consideration of all of these changes, the Lebanon Ministry tried to identify businesses that would help the Family regain its financial footing.  

Shaker Asthma Cure Bottle and Shipping Box with Sample Package

Shaker Asthma Cure Bottle and Shipping Box with Sample Package of the Same, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880s-1890s, Shaker Museum } Mount Lebanon: 1957.9330.1 (Shipping Container); 1957.9330.3 (Sales Bottle with Pills); 1999.1.161a (Sample Shipping Box); 1999.1.161b (Sample Bottle with Pills).

In March 1880, apparently at the request of Church Family Trustee Brother Benjamin Gates, Dr. Lyman Brown, a pharmacist from New York City, came to Mount Lebanon to “arrange for putting up some powders at the Second Family.” The Shakers had become involved with Brown as they attempted to rebuild following a catastrophic fire in 1875.  Brown contracted with the Shakers to use their well-disciplined workforce to manufacture, bottle, label, and ship his medicines. The arrangement was apparently lucrative for both. It was the hope of the Lebanon Ministry that what Brown had done for the Church Family could also be done for the Second Family. Once it appeared that involvement in the medicine business could be accomplished at both Families, more projects were taken on. On October 26, 1882, the Ministry recorded in their journal : “The Second Family are making an effort to start a medicine cure of the Asthma, to be made into sugar coated pillets, put up in little bottles & sent out in little wooden cases, by mail.” 

fig 2

Label, “The Shaker Asthma Cure,” Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1883, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1998.4.35.

M. Stephen Miller, in his book From Shaker Lands and Shaker Hands: A Survey of Shaker Industries (University Press of New England, 2007) provides the medical background on asthma: “Four distinct, although overlapping answers have endured side by side [for the causes of asthma] … a primary disorder of the lungs, an allergic condition, a disease associated with environmental irritants, and a disease linked to emotional distress.” Although there is not a “cure” for asthma, there are treatments that greatly relieve the constriction of the bronchi, allowing those with the disease to breathe better. Miller suggests that although the formula for the “pillets” has not been unearthed in Shaker records the testimonials suggest that those who tried the Shakers’ medicine slept better – insomnia being a major complaint of those with asthma. While the pills may have contained a sedative that helped with sleep, it is also possible the Shakers went out on a rather dangerous limb and offered a “cure” that contained Datura Stramonium – more commonly known at that time as Thorn Apple.

Label, “Thorn Apple, Datura Stramonium, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Label, “Thorn Apple, Datura Stramonium, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.21389.1

According to Mrs. M. Grieve, author of the online botanical.com, the extract of thorn apple can be given in the form of a pill to “allay cough in spasmodic bronchial asthma.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thorn apple leaves were smoked in a pipe or as a cigarette to relieve the symptoms of asthma, but the smoke was also an irritant, making the pill form more attractive.

fig 3

Package Insert, “The following rules should be strictly observed in connection with the Shaker Asthma Cure,” Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1883, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9332.1.

The active agent in thorn apple is atropine – still one of the preferred substances used in asthma treatment.  The Shakers at Mount Lebanon had been preparing an extract of thorn apple for sale since the mid-1830s. If the Shakers did indeed use thorn apple extract in their “asthma cure” they were taking a risk in doing so, for as recorded in Amy Bess Miller’s Shaker Herbs: A History and a Compendium (Clarkson M. Potter, 1976), “In large doses it is an energetic narcotic poison. Its victims suffer the most intense agonies and die in maniacal delirium.”  

Again, we find ourselves in a position where we could use some help. Many of these pills remain and are available to a qualified chemist who can analyze the compound.








Mitten weather

“Thumb in the thumb place, fingers all together.
This is the song we sing in mitten weather.” 

When March came in like a lion this year and the snow on Lebanon Mountain reached nearly two feet, our thoughts turned to the challenges the Shakers faced during the cold time of year. It was not unusual for a company of brethren to take to the mountain road with snow shovels where, for example, in March of 1852 they were “compelled to break roads thro the snow banks.” Even with clear roads, winter travel by wagon or sleigh was cold. Special clothing for winter travel was necessary to travel at all. The Museum has several pairs of what are presumed to be mittens for teamsters. The mittens, made from sheep skin with the wool left on the outside of the mittens, were not particularly flexible and useful for handwork, but were certainly suitable to hold tight to a pair of reins and keep the driver’s  fingers from freezing. 

Sheep Skin Mittens, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880

Sheep Skin Mittens, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1956.8175.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

These teamster’s mittens were a gift from Peter Joray of Chatham Center, New York. Joray was the author of several articles in the 1960s about the Shakers at Mount Lebanon and had been a frequent visitor to the Shakers when they still lived there. When received by the Museum the name Henry Clough was found written on the edge of the inside of the cuff of both mittens, along with what might have possibly once read, “Mount Lebanon, N. Y. Shakers.” Brother Henry Terry Clough was born in September 1862 in Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut.  He was admitted to the Church Family in 1873 where he attended school until he was fifteen years old. At age 18 the 1880 U. S. Federal Census identified him as a teamster. It would make sense for the mittens to have dated from this time. Brother Henry eventually worked at the Second Order of the Church Family (later called the Center Family) in the herb business. At the end of April 1890 Brother Henry determined to sever his relationship with the Shakers and left for New York City. His plan upon leaving the Shakers involved rendezvousing with Sister Julia Matilda (Minta or Mintie) Dalton, who had taken leave of the Church Family ostensibly for an extended visit with relatives three months earlier. They married, had five children, and lived in New York City where Henry had a successful career with a jewelry company. In February 1909,  seemingly nostalgic for the simplicity of community life, they both returned to the Shakers with their children. Henry, with his previous experience in the herb business, was re-employed there. In September 1921, the Cloughs again decided to leave their Shaker home and moved their household furniture to a home they owned in Lebanon Center. 

These mittens were most likely made by the Shakers. The Museum holds a number of patterns from the Mount Lebanon Shakers for making both mittens and gloves. They were made for multiple purposes and from a variety of materials – cloth as well as various leathers. While the Museum does not have the pattern for Brother Henry’s teamster mittens, it does have in its collection a pattern for “Large Size” gloves dated 1867 “For Sheep skin gloves – wool on” that show the Shakers were making hand coverings that were intended for work in the cold. A typical mitten pattern had two pieces – one pattern for cutting the mitt and the other for the thumb. An example made in December 1842 “For handing Mittens – Right Size for Dwight H[inkley], &c.” is identified as “Latest and best fashion ever introduced.” While the thumb pattern is missing, the pattern is also identified as “No 4 – Thumb and hand.” Borrowing a thumb pattern from an 1847 “Pattern for Glove handing No 4 thumb & hand,” made for “H. D. W. [i.e., Brother Henry De Witt] allows a vision of how the mitt and thumb patterns worked together to make a full mitten. Rights and lefts were determined by merely flipping the pattern over when it was being traced onto the cloth or leather. These patterns rarely include a cuff – an attached extension that continued the glove or mitten up the arm – but most would have certainly had them. One pattern merely states that the cuff should be cut three by nine inches and attached. 

The Shakers’ making of gloves and mittens is an area that has not been very well explored. While knit, felt, and cloth hand-wear falls neatly into the subject of Shaker textile arts, gloves and mittens made of various leathers appear, like shoe and hat making, to fall under the broader subject of Shaker costume – one that could use considerably more scholarship. 



Rewards of merit for young Shaker pupils

Copies of Eldress Polly Jane (Ann) Reed’s “Heart Cutouts” Showing

Copies of Eldress Polly Jane (Ann) Reed’s “Heart Cutouts” Showing Decorative Borders, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1844.

Eldress Polly Jane (Ann) Reed produced in little more than a decade beginning in 1843, more gift drawings in the forms of sheets, heart cutouts, leaf cutouts, and circular cutouts than any other scribe who recorded the spiritual gifts received during the Shakers’ Era of Manifestation. More than fifty of her works from this period are still extant. Eldress Polly was an extraordinary Shaker. In 1825, when Mount Lebanon Elder Calvin Green, on a missionary journey, visited her parents’ home in Fairfield, New York, eight-year-old Polly decided that she wanted to go home with him. Her parents sent her off with the elder when he promised to be as a father to her and to make sure she would be well cared for. Polly was also known for her skill in stitchery and penmanship. In her obituary, she was remembered as “a woman of most excellent and ingenious faculties; a finished scholar; a beautiful speaker, and a most lovable associate.” In 1855, Polly was called to serve as the First Order Elder Sister in the Church Family and in 1868 until her death in 1881 she was a member of the Lebanon Ministry.

Prior to her call to serve in the Shaker leadership, Polly was one of the teachers for the girls’ school. During these years she produced these three rewards of merit for the young scholars in the school. While two of the rewards in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon were created for young girls, the third one was for Henry Cantrell. Since Shaker boys and girls went to school at different times of year – the boys, with male teachers in the winter, and girls, with female teachers in the spring and summer – it appears that Polly prepared these rewards for the boys’ school as well as for the girls she taught.

Eldress Polly’s last known gift drawing is dated April 8, 1854. These rewards of merit date from 1854 and seem a natural continuation of the artful skill she expressed in those earlier drawings. Eldress Polly is not known to have signed her gift drawings and the attribution of the body of her work is based on one documented drawing and the distinct similarity of handwriting and decorative elements to all the other drawings. Two elements – an eight-pointed star and a border decoration that looks something like a four-legged lizard from above – appear on a number of her drawings as well as on these rewards of merit.

The rewards of merit, unlike many that were presented to students in the outside world at the completion of some education or behavioral goal, were living documents. They seem to start out as relatively undecorated documents – with borders of either spaced dots or hatched lines — and as the scholars satisfied certain requirements the dots and the hatches were completed by Polly by making the dots into her distinctive eight-pointed stars, or in the case of Sylvina Clyne’s reward the space between the dotted border was filled in with the four-legged lizards figures. Edress Polly explains how the rewards work in verse:

“Dear scholar this ticket is written you see
To show how discreet and industrious you be;
If well you behave, well your lessons rehearse,
You’ll get a nice border round every verse;
But should you prove forward neglectful or dull,
Your borders will show it by not being full.
Then strive day by day to observe every rule,
That you may have joy at the close of the school.”


“When going to and from the School
If I do keep each wholesome Rule
My teacher’s Love I doubly Share
As every Star doth Witness bear.”

Eldress Polly Jane (Ann) Reed, Reward of Merit for Henry Cantrell

Eldress Polly Jane (Ann) Reed, Reward of Merit for Henry Cantrell, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1854, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1963.14352.1.

While the three rewards in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection share similar sentiments, they vary in design and complexity. Henry Cantrell, at 14 years of age, in his final year of school, was given the most developed reward. Each of his subjects and points of deportment are presented in four-line verses. The rectangular star-bordered box for spelling contains the verse: “These little stars do plainly show, How many spelling words I know. For every ten I spell complete, A little star I freely get.” His reward has his name recorded as well as having been witnessed by Elder Calvin G. Reed, his instructor.

Martha Jane Flandro’s reward includes rectangular hatch-line-bordered boxes with simply the words, “Spelling, Reading, Writing, Geography, Arithmetic, and Studying Silently.”  Additional rectangles on the back side are labeled, “For standing Erect in my rank” and “For keeping my eyes on my book.” Martha Jane’s  life with the Shakers is a bit of a mystery. She may have been an orphan brought to the North Family Shakers in 1852 when she was between ten and 12 years old and left the Shakers the month after her reward of merit was prepared. This may explain the relatively undecorated borders on her reward. Sylvina Clyne, like Martha Jane, has a rather short life with the Shakers. She came to live with the Shakers in 1852 at age seven or eight and was gone by 1857 having been moved around from family to family in that relatively short time. This unsettled Shaker life may also explain the sparse borders on her reward. Her reward is the only one of the three on which Eldress Polly employed the “lizard-shaped” decoration between the border dots.

All in all, these rewards, in addition to providing an interesting finale to Eldress Polly Reed’s work as a scribe during the Era of Manifestations, show the tremendous care taken and effort made by Shaker teachers in courting the love and respect of their students and in rewarding their students successful learning and appropriate deportment.

Of course, as always, the Museum would like to know if more of Eldress Polly’s rewards exist in other collections.


Putting names to faces: The difficult task of identifying early Shakers

Around this time last year, we looked at this illustration of the Shakers’ worship and suggested that as research on the Shakers continues there is an opportunity to bring forth the personal stories of more and more of those who lived that unique committed life. At that time we explored the possibility of identifying several of the Shakers portrayed in the illustration – specifically the short Shaker brother and the two brothers presented by the artist as persons of color. (In previous research on this topic and generally in research about racial inclusion among the Shakers, these brothers are identified as African-American; however, the Shakers were often not specific in describing the race of individual members, so they are referred to here as persons of color.)

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers. Their Mode of Worship”

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers. Their Mode of Worship,” D. W.  Kellogg & Co., Hartford, CT, Ca. 1833/34-1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1

Sometime around 1830 an unidentified artist sat with other world’s people who had gathered for the public meeting in the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ new meetinghouse and produced a sketch of the Shakers’ “mode of worship.” Once the sketch was engraved and printed for public sale it became the first published image of the Shakers. It was apparently “wildly popular” and “was copied with only slight alterations for years thereafter, appearing variously as lithographs, woodcuts, and engravings. It was such a popular subject that at least eighteen versions of the same scene are known to have been published in the nineteenth century,” according to Robert P. Emlen, author of a study of these prints published in Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society in 1992. This print and those eventually derived from it have been used by scholars in studies of Shaker dance, costume, and architecture. Because the artist, possibly overwhelmed by the novelty of the scene, included persons of color among the brothers, the print has been used to document and emphasize the Shakers’ acceptance of all races into their church – as equals. However, the experience of life as a Shaker of color has yet to be well documented or analyzed. 

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers. Their Mode of Worship”

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers. Their Mode of Worship (detail),” D. W.  Kellogg & Co., Hartford, CT, Ca. 1833/34-1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1

Whatever the artist’s motivation for including these two brothers, it offers an interesting opportunity to explore and hypothesize about who these two men may have been. Some years ago the short brother in the ranks of the brethren was posited to be Brother David Rowley, a 50 year-old 4’10 3/8″ brother who was a resident of the Mount Lebanon North Family. As Brother David’s stature was useful in putting a name to an otherwise anonymous member of the sect, the consistent representation in nearly all of the known versions of this scene of these two brothers as men of color challenges us to know who they were. Probably fewer than a dozen of the more than 3000 Shakers who have been identified as residents of the Mount Lebanon community over the years have been identified as persons of color. The date of the sketch helps narrow down the possibilities. At this time members of the Church Family would probably not attend the public meeting so those present were likely from one of the novitiate families – the North Family or the Upper and Lower Canaan Families. Occasionally members of the Second Family or the East Family might attend. Surveying the list of known Mount Lebanon Shakers who were identified by the Shakers as persons of color and who were members of one of the novitiate families, or the Second or East Families, around 1830 produces only five possible candidates. 

Brother Tower Smith was a member of the North Family. In August, 1821, North Family Elder Calvin Green recorded in his journal that, “The Brethren reap & stack the rye on Amos’s mountain … a Black man from Hudson here, by name of Tower Smith, wants to live with us — he had some faith years ago. We finish pulling flax.” Little additional information about Brother Tower’s life at the North Family has come to light. In October 1833, in a shifting of members’ rooms to provide accommodation for the sick and aged in the dwelling, Brothers Frederick [Crosman], John [Wood], and Tower [Smith] were moved into a room, previously used for the spinning jenny at the North Shop. Six months later it was noted in “A Brief Journal Kept by R[ichard] Bushnell,” in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, that  “Abel [Knight] goes to Hudson, taking with him Tower Smith, who like most others, wants to be with those who were most congenial to his sense & state.” Elder Richard added, “poor old man I hope he may not spend the remainder of his day in suffering.” 

Brother Ransom Smith was apparently the son of James and Sarah Smith. According to Elder Calvin Green at the North Family, James Smith arrived in New Lebanon, on February 5, 1816, and left two loads of goods before returning to his home in Norwich, New York, on the 9th. He returned at the end of February with “2 of his Daughters, viz. Jerusha & Sally,” leaving them with the Shakers when he returned home at the beginning of March. On June 7, that year, “James Smith with his family arrives here [at the North Family] having moved at length & go to the old Patterson house,” a farm house just west of the North Family where the Shakers housed new arrivals. A week or so later, James and Sarah’s son, Ransom, arrived at the North Family with what was probably the last load of the family’s belongings. Ransom lived at the North Family until being moved to the Second Family after Christmas, 1835. He lived out his life as a Shaker, dying at the Second Family at the age of 81 in 1876. As a Shaker he worked as a teamster and a gardener. 

Brother Abraham Wood attended school at the Church Family in 1823 at the age of fifteen. In April, 1824 he came from Frederick Crosman’s family and went to live at the Upper Canaan Family where he remained until January 6, 1828 when it was noted in “A Journal or Memorandum for the Family of Believers [at Canaan]” in the collection of the Library of Congress, that “Abram Wood goes to the world.” Apparently he reconsidered this decision and on January 1, 1830 the same journalist noted that, “[Albert Whittemore] age 34 from Mansfield Connecticut, came in on the 26th of last month, & unites at, or about this time.” But five days later it was noted that “the above named Albert Whittemore is found to be Abraham Wood, who lived in the family of Frederick Crosman & Aaron Bill about nine years ago, on the discovery of which he peaceably goes away.” Brother Abraham’s (or Albert’s) candidacy as one of the African-American brothers included in the print is weakened by his absence from the community from June, 1828, until November, 1830, but since the exact date of the visit by the artist has not been verified, his inclusion is not impossible. 

Brother James Taylor came to the North Family in the summer of 1816 and professed his faith. In June of that year he was sent to live at the Upper Canaan Family. He is noted by a journalist on January 1, 1832 in “A List of the [Upper Canaan] family, with their respective ages,” as being 41 years old, having been born in 1791. On November 16, 1835, in the same journal, detailing events at the Upper Canaan Family between 1813 and 1843 in the Shaker Collection at the Library of Congress, it is noted that, “James Taylor (man of color) goes to the world, he was rec’d as a candidate (according to recollection) Feb. 1829 – lived with C[illegible] Bryant in the Hill house & received into this family some time in 1831.” 

Brother Nelson Banks was born in Stafford, Connecticut, January 5, 1800. Although it is not clear when he made the decision to unite with the Shakers, he apparently had a somewhat successful life prior to making that commitment. He signed the North Family covenant on April 13, 1829 and on December 19, 1831 “deposited in the hands of the Trustees eight hundred and twenty nine dollars and took a certificate of inventory.” This money, as noted in the North Family Book of Records in the collection of the Library of Congress, “he freely gives for the benefit of the North Family in the United Society (Called Shakers) in New Lebanon without any change or demand to be made by him for the use of the same so long as it is in the employ of said family.” This standard agreement made with new members allowed them to deposit funds for the use of the family without fully consecrating the money to the Church. Members who had signed this kind of document could request the return of the money or property if they decided to leave, but Brother Nelson stayed, and on June 13, 1837, “dedicated & devoted to the united interest of the North Family eight hundred & twenty dollars said money being the same deposited in the hands of the Trustees in the year 1831 December 19th for which he then took a certificate of inventory: which is now canceled by his choice & dedication.” Two years later Brother Nelson moved from the North Family to the Second Family where he lived out his life a Shaker primarily as a gardner, dying August 19, 1878 at the age of 78.

Although these are the only identified men of color (so far) at Mount Lebanon who appear to be possible attendees at a public meeting in the Mount Lebanon Meetinghouse during the time when the visiting artist was able to make the sketch, the Shakers were not particularly concerned about identifying a member’s race as part of their official records. Usually this information is discovered as Shaker records are studied with a specific interest in the topic. 

As useful as this print is in visualizing Shakers and Shaker worship, the addition of some personal stories of those captured by the artist at that moment only enlivens its importance in telling the Shaker story. Next up – the brother wearing the stocking cap during meeting – there must be a story behind that. 


Ellsworth Kelly’s lozenge-shaped oval box

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

When the hammer fell on lot number 130 on Sunday, August 5, 1990, at the Willis Henry Auction held on the grounds of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, the successful bidder set a world record for the highest price paid at auction for anything made by the Shakers. What made the audience come alive as much as the price on that hot humid afternoon was that the winner of the lot was talk show host and actress, Oprah Winfrey. The piece, a small pine three-drawer counter in red paint was the cover lot on the auction catalog. Oprah Winfrey was not the only well-known personality who made significant purchases that day. Several dozen lots earlier, a reddish-orange bentwood box was purchased by the artist Ellsworth Kelly and his future husband Jack Shear. While Oprah’s three-drawer counter was unique for a few years for its price, the bentwood box was thought to be a unique example of Shaker workmanship for its unusual shape. Most of the lidded boxes the Shakers made by bending thin strips of steamed wood were oval in shape. Although the ovals vary from box to box from nearly round to extremely elongated, this box is not oval at all. Rather, it is more of a rectangle with rounded ends – what Ellsworth Kelly later called “lozenge-shaped” – but in every other respect it was made like thousands of other Shaker oval boxes. 

Six years ago, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear decided to give their collection of two-dozen Shaker pieces to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. That gift was received by the Museum in 2016 and this spring, from March 24th through May 13th, pieces from the collection, accompanied by a selection of prints by Kelly, will be exhibited at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, New York. In preparation for the exhibition the Museum staff is conducting additional research on the Shaker pieces that will be exhibited. The unique box is included in the exhibition and has been the target of the staff’s research for the past few days. 

The auction catalog identifies the box as having been made at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It is not clear if this attribution came from the consigner of the box, or if it was, at the time, the auction house’s best guess at its origin. In either case, more investigation was in order. The bottom of the box bears what appears to be a three-line inscription, which, were any of it still legible, might answer all questions about who made the box and where and when. Until that technology can be accessed, the information remains elusive. 

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

As is the case with the construction of most Shaker boxes, the bent sides of the box and its lid are made of maple and its top and bottom, the heading as the Shakers called it, are made of pine. The three over-lapping fingers on the box and the single finger on the lid are fastened together with copper tacks. The heading is secured to the bent rims with iron headless tacks. The box is painted inside and out with a reddish-orange paint – no wood is left exposed. There are a few design features, other than its unusual shape, that are notable. The ends of the overlapping fingers point to the left. This characteristic is most often found on boxes that were made at the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine. Shaker oval box makers often smoothed off the heads of the tacks used on the fingers to keep anything from catching under the head and pulling the tack out. On this box, the heads of some of the tacks show marks – small parallel grooves – left by a file. These marks on tack heads are most often found on boxes made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. In a similar manner, the use of iron rather than copper headless tacks to secure the heading in the box rims is often associated with early boxes made at Canterbury. 

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim)

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim), Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1954.6743.1a,b. Staff photograph.

Given these construction and design characteristics, a good case can be made for this box originating in the shops of the box-makers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. However, an oval box in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village led to a reconsideration of this conclusion. That oval box has a label glued to its bottom that reads, “This box was made by Ebenezar Freeman of Alfred in his 82d year of age, and by him presented to me Aug 26th 1861. Mary P. Vance.” Ebenezer Freeman turned sixty-one on July 12, 1861, beginning his 82d year. The box is the work of an accomplished box-maker and it is likely that he made a number of boxes in his lifetime. This box has a distinctive feature that is usually found on Canterbury boxes – the rims of the box and the lid had their edges rounded before they were bent and tacked. This creates a double hump on the edge of the rims where the two ends overlap, shown in the picture to the left. Boxes made at Mount Lebanon, for example, had the rims sanded to a single round edge after the rims were bent and the overlap tacked. This observation raises the question as to whether the Alfred oval box-makers were either taught by the box-makers at Canterbury or if someone who knew how to make boxes was transferred from Canterbury to Alfred. Either of these options would explain why the tacks securing the fingers appear to have been smoothed with a file – they learned that from Canterbury. It may also suggest that the fingers on Alfred boxes point left instead of right to intentionally set them apart from those made at Canterbury. 

As the decision was being made to attribute the  Kelly / Shear lozenge-shaped box to the Alfred community rather than either Sabbathday Lake or Canterbury, the existence of a second box of this unusual shape came to light. This box, nearly identical in size and very similar in its color and the shape of its fingers, is in the collection of the Shaker Museum at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This box is attributed to the Alfred Shakers and as far as anyone knows has been in the community at Sabbathday Lake ever since or even before the Alfred community closed and its members relocated to Sabbathday Lake in 1931. The box in the collection at Sabbathday Lake is pictured on page 17 of The Human & Eternal: Shaker Art in Its Many Forms published in 2009 by and available from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum. 

For now, and for the for exhibition at the Jeff Bailey Gallery, the attribution of this box will remain with the workshops of the Alfred, Maine Shakers. All are welcome to come and see it face to face this spring. 




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 https://knowitall.org/photo-gallery/aiken-county-schofield-school

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 http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2005/09/07/aik_1102.shtml#1.

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.