Shakers reject “foolish consistency”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841.

Shakers numbered things. They numbered rooms for the ease of keeping their domestic life in order, and they numbered products to keep a consistency in manufacture and marketing. In Emersonian fashion, however, their numbering of products did not reflect an overall philosophy of consistency – even within the same community. For example, chairs made at Mount Lebanon were numbered from the smallest size, number 0, to the largest size, number 7, while oval boxes made in the same community at the same time were numbered from the largest size, number 1, to the smallest size, number 11. In a further example of not demanding some “foolish consistency” in numbering products, in the mid-1870s, apparently not finding the largest two or the smallest two sizes of oval boxes profitable, they dropped them from their offering and merely renumbered the remaining seven boxes number 1 for the largest remaining box, to number 7 for the smallest. This may have caused some confusion for customers trying to order number 1 or 2 boxes after the change. 

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Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer.

This change in the Shakers’ offering of oval boxes apparently came about right around the time when they were launching an initiative to increase the sale of chairs – and oval boxes – through mail order sales from a series of catalogs. The South Family had built a new chair factory in 1872 and greatly increased production and sales. The earliest catalog, dated 1875, includes chairs numbered 1 through 7 with small illustrations by an unidentified artist. On the final two pages, however, there are illustrations of a line of chairs – small to large – created by “Ferguson, Albany.” Hiram Ferguson was a noted photographer and wood engraver in Albany, New York. Although these two pages of illustrations present themselves almost as an afterthought, very soon after another catalog was issued with four pages of Ferguson illustrations, and soon after that, another catalog with six pages of Ferguson illustrations. This last catalog also includes a page showing a stack of seven oval boxes, numbers 1 through 7, offered for sale. While the creator of this illustration is not identified, a separate four-page bi-fold that survives in a very small number shows, along with two pages of “The Shakers’ Upholstered Chairs,” an illustration of “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes.” This illustration of eleven oval boxes, numbered 1 through 11 is identified as having been created by Ferguson.  

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An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1.

There has been some conjecture as to whether this bi-fold was intended to be issued as a separate flyer to accompany the chair catalogs, or if it was a four-page spread that was at one time intended to be bound with a chair catalog but, for some reason, was not. It seems doubtful that it was intended merely as a separate publication. While there is a page titled, “Directions for Ordering Chairs,” there is no address included, and none of the other chair catalogs are missing this page. It seems more likely that the Shakers engaged Ferguson to create an illustration of their oval boxes and intended to include the stack of eleven boxes in their chair catalog, but decided not to do so. The stack of seven boxes that was included in the catalog was printed with the same printing block that printed the stack of eleven boxes, but the bottom and top two boxes were cut away from the block. This also removed Ferguson’s signature.

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.

There are a few possible reasons for this change. In the mid-1870s, Elder Daniel Crosman (1810-1885) at the Church Family was the primary oval box maker for the community. After the devastating fire in 1875, other than making 50 round spit-boxes (spittoons) for the new dwelling that was being built to replace the one that burned, he appears to have had less time than usual to work at boxes. Elder Daniel made at least 11 sizes of boxes at one time; in fact, he made a box he identified as a zero that was apparently larger than a number one. The largest and smallest boxes may have been the least profitable ones to make and, therefore, the Shakers decided to no longer offer them for sale. This would have necessitated eliminating them from the catalog. Whatever the reason, the stack of 11 boxes is not known to have been included in a catalog. 

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph.

The creation of the images used in the chair catalog could have all been done by Ferguson – a photographer and wood engraver who could also duplicate wood engravings in type metal. The Shakers may have taken oval boxes and chairs to his studio and had him photograph them. From the photograph he would have his wood engravers make an engraved illustration simulating the photograph. The wood engraving was then used to create a mold from which duplicate blocks could be made from type metal. These blocks were then sent to the printer and set on the page with necessary text. For the oval box illustration, this process, minus the wood engraving, is preserved in various collections and is presented here – from photograph, to printing block, to printed page. Of course, if the wood engraving of the stack of oval boxes does survive, that would be an important addition to this discussion. 

Mother Lucy Wright was remembered as saying, albeit in the context of wanting quality rather than quantity in new Shakers, “Numbers are not the thing for us to glory in.” The ease with which the Shakers changed their number 3 oval box to make it a number 1 oval box certainly speaks to their desire to not be distracted by hobgoblins.  


Fig 1: Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer. 


Fig 2: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 


Fig 3: “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.  


Fig 4. “Hiram Ferguson, Designer, Photographer and Engraver in Wood, Bank Building, 448 Broadway, Albany, NY,” ca. 1881, retrieved from: 


Fig 5: Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph. 


Fig 6: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (cover) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 


Ellsworth Kelly and Shaker Furniture

Our guest blogger this week is Maxwell Taylor-Milner. His writing has appeared in YST PublicationsBard Papers, and as a chapbook, The Collected Evenings. He has conducted interviews with artists and writers for The Believer and Arabesques Review. He lives across the river from Hudson, NY, where he is the Assistant Director at Jeff Bailey Gallery.

In 1970, not long after moving his studio upstate, from New York City to the hamlet of Spencertown, Ellsworth Kelly bought a table. At first glance, it could be one of a hundred near-identical antique tables: a bit worn, a bit weathered, about the size of a ten-person dining table, medium brown. At nine feet long and just under three wide, the top, made of three pine planks of three different widths framed by a narrow piece of perpendicular trim at each end, seems to float on a shallow beech apron. The outer corner of each leg is flush with the apron, defining its rectangle rather than punctuating it, The inner faces of each leg are tapered, so the negative space formed between each are trapezoidal rather than rectangular. This in turn creates an optical illusion, that each leg is angled slightly out, a vector instead of a pillar, lifting the table up instead of merely supporting its weight. Rather than one in a hundred, it is actually one of three Shaker tables, now differentiated by time and refinishings, all made around 1835 in the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon, New York. Kelly wanted it immediately.

a_work_table_2016.5.22_ 1

Table, ca. 1835, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, Pine top, beech legs and aprons, maple center cross cleat Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.22

The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, were a millennialist Christian sect, established in England in 1747 as a more charismatic alternative to the Church of England. Inspired by a vision, Mother Ann Lee, the movement’s most important leader, left England for America in 1774, where she, with a small group of others, would found the first Shaker settlement at Watervliet, outside present-day Albany, New York. Hailed as both the second coming of Christ and Christ’s female counterpart, Ann Lee’s revelations were the basis for the enduring Shaker principles of celibacy, gender equality, pacifism and communal living. In order to better uphold these principles, the Shakers created their own, self-sufficient communities, separate from “the world.” In order to maintain their self-sufficiency, and later to supplement it, the Shakers made and sold medicines, seeds, textiles, produce, and, most famously, furniture.

From the outset, the Shakers believed they were living in the Millennium, the thousand-year Golden Age of Christ’s reign prior to Judgment Day. As a result, it was the duty of each believer to embody that golden age, and to strive for perfection in all things. While worship was the most important activity in Shaker communities, their devotion is best witnessed by their material production, especially the meticulous craftsmanship of their furniture. As Mary Lyn Ray writes, “Because the believer ‘put his hands to work and heart to God,’ this furniture has also been termed ‘religion in wood.’ For some, manufacture of furniture was no longer an ordinary assignment of making a table or case of drawers but became an act of worship” (Ray 108). Their dedication to the task was the measure of their devotion, and the means by which the Kingdom of God would be realized.

In keeping with the Shaker sequestration from the world, the better to perfect it, Shaker furniture was not a uniquely new style, but a refinement of what the world had to offer. Certain furniture types were circumscribed by Shaker proscriptions against worldly amusements and fleshly indulgence – card tables and upholstery were off-limits. But other needs, for storage, seating, and workspace, were undeniable. Rather than invent a new kind of ornament to differentiate their furniture, the Shaker commitment to modesty commanded “a paring down of familiar forms from which applied or inlaid ornament was stripped” (Lyn 108). Much of what is considered classic Shaker furniture, like Ellsworth Kelly’s table, was made during the Era of Manifestations, the period of Shaker revival from 1837 into the 1850s, which saw the expansion of the Shaker precepts, known as the Millennial Laws, to include material details such as varnish, paint colors, and mirror size, as well as religious doctrine. The constraints of these edicts also underscored the importance of every action as an occasion for spiritual reflection: “[The Shaker] discarded the superfluous to discover a fundamental for which he was taught to labor in all his habits. Ornament detracted. Instructed in ‘gospel simplicity’ and restricted by the Millennial Laws, the believer framed simple furniture as an exercise in perfection.” (Lyn 114). In contrast to the flowing tracery and applied embellishment of, for example, the contemporaneous Hepplewhite style, the Shaker search for the fundamental resulted in a graceful balance of form and function, in which subtle variations in scale and proportion took precedence.

This search is also what must have drawn Kelly, at the time unaware of the Shakers, their beliefs, and their style, to this table, almost 150 years later. To describe the table in the abstract, is to match it to almost any work by Kelly: a series of expansive, undifferentiated, geometric planes delineated by regular proportions and arranged with a delicate attention to spatial perception. It even contains the 1:3 triptych motif that echoes throughout his oeuvre, whether in the early joined panel painting Train Landscape (1953) or one from the year after he acquired the table, Blue Yellow Red III (1971). The year previous, in “Notes of 1969,” he had written “Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom; there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything” (Kelly). For Kelly, as for the Shakers, there was no need to invent or embellish, whether on an article of furniture, or the fleeting beauty of shadows. Slicing, wedging, to describe an eye endlessly isolating and calibrating, compressing and combining, none of these words are limpid enough for the confident but unaggressive assuredness of his forms. One might as well pick a fight with a stone. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers, the last surviving Shaker community, summarize it thus: “The Christian’s task is to live in the present moment and not to store for tomorrow the bread that comes from heaven.” (Sabbathday Shakers). To dwell in the moment, in laboring, looking, perceiving, painting, is paramount.

Kelly’s attention to the moment is also what accounts for another anecdote from his early days in Chatham. Having pulled over to photograph the curving slope of a hill under snow, he received a ticket from a passing highway patrolman, baffled at Kelly’s reasoning for documenting an apparently featureless expanse. Where the inattentive might see monotonous absence, for Kelly there’s always some there there. For Kelly, art was immanent, something that could be peeled off almost effortlessly from the everday, like shavings from a Shaker’s plane.  He continues, in Notes of 1969: “It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same: anything goes” (Kelly). Even in the smallest crook or emptiest view, there is always ample material to develop. A magpie of forms, his work plucks the missing piece of the world, the overlooked, the not-yet-seen, and gives it back to us. Forty-odd years later, he would muse, reflecting on the kinship between the Shakers and his own work: “People say ‘Oh, you’ve taken so much out.’ And I say, ‘I just haven’t put it in.’ And that’s very much a Shaker idea. They didn’t put too much in to begin with. So this what you have: form.”

Line and Curve: The Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear Shaker Collection from Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon with Prints by Ellsworth Kelly is on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT from July 13 – December 31, 2018. The exhibition was developed by the Shaker Museum and Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, NY.

Works Cited 

 Kelly, Ellsworth. “Notes of 1969” in Ellsworth Kelly (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1980), 30 – 34. 

Ray, Mary Lyn. “A Reappraisal of Shaker Furniture and Society.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 8, 1973, pp. 107–132. 

Sabbathday Lake Shakers. “Our Beliefs” Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village website.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. “Kindred Aesthetics: Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Ellsworth Kelly & Jack Shear” Online video.





“Very Precious”

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The Kentucky Revival or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America, Agreeably to Scripture-Promises, and Prophecies concerning the Latter Day: With a Brief Account of the Entrance and Progress of What the World Call Shakerism, Among the Subject of the Late Revival in Ohio and Kentucky. By Richard M’Nemar. Cincinnati, OH: From the Press of John W. Browne, 1807. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962.12000.1

This book and its author, Elder Richard McNemar, are significant to the history of the Shakers. Four or five editions of the book were published by the Shakers prior to the Civil War and McNemar has been the subject of two biographical works: A Sketch of the Life and Labors of Richard McNemar (1905)by John Patterson McLean, and Richard the Shaker (1972) by Hazel Spencer Phillips. 

Richard McNemar was born in 1770 in Tuscarora, Pennsylvania, and moved around considerably with his family. He was the youngest and though he worked his father’s farm as needed, was allowed to get a decent education. By age 18 he became a teacher. His quest for more education put him in association with ministers in the Presbyterian Church. Learning Latin, Hebrew, and Greek by the time he was in his early twenties he was preaching sermons in and around Cincinnati, Ohio, and by the turn of the nineteenth century he had located in Western Kentucky near what eventually became the Shaker community of South Union. McNemar and several other Presbyterian ministers ran afoul of the church by endorsing a free will doctrine in opposition to church teachings. He, with others, was dismissed from his pulpit. A new movement, a revival, was taking place in the area, largely initiated by the Reverend John Rankin. It was known by physical phenomena. Fascination with “The bodily agitations or exercises, … called by various names: —as the falling exercise—the jerks—the dancing exercise—the laughing and singing exercise, etc.,” brought together tremendous crowds. Too large for meetinghouses, these gatherings were held outside in large camp meetings. The first significant camp meeting was held under the direction of McNemar at Cabin Creek, Kentucky. It lasted four days. When these meetings were reported in the press and the Shakers read the reports, they determined to send three missionaries from New Lebanon to investigate and see if there might not be an opening for them to share the gospel of Christ’s second appearing. When the missionaries arrived in the neighborhood of the revivals, they knew that in order to have a chance of establishing Shaker communities in that area they must make converts of the most influential of the revival preachers. They set their sights on McNemar and in the early spring of 1805, they found him at Turtle Creek, Ohio (what eventually became the Shakers’ Union Village) and were successful in their effort. In fact, McNemar brought nearly his entire congregation with him into the Shaker Church. 

The Kentucky Revival or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America

The Kentucky Revival or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America, (title page) … By Richard M’Nemar. Cincinnati, OH: From the Press of John W. Browne, 1807. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12000.1. Staff photograph.

McNemar wrote his history of the Great Kentucky Revival during his first two years as a Shaker. McNemar himself comments to his readers (whom he likely expected to be Shakers), “You have been probably waiting for something to be published from this quarter, and may be a little surprised to find the Kentucky Revival our theme; as it is generally known that we profess to have advanced forward into a much greater work. Admitting this to be the case … we believe it [the Kentucky Revival] was nothing less than an introduction to that work of final redemption which God had promised, in the latter days. And to preserve the memory of it among those who have wisely improved it as such, the following particulars have been collected for the press.” It is not unreasonable to think that McNemar was working on such a history prior to his introduction to the Shakers. This seems supported by McNemar’s inclusion of some extraneous materials with the book. 

McNemar’s history of the Kentucky Revival appears in chapters one through four of the book. A second part of the book with separately numbered chapters one and two appear under the subtitle, “The Entrance &c. of Shakerism.” Following this short introduction to the Shakers, McNemar includes an essay titled, “A Few Reflections”; an appendix “Containing a short account of a work of the good spirit among some of the neighboring Indians”; and finally a separate book bound with the Kentucky Revival titled, Observations on Church Government by the Presbytery of Springfield to Which Is Added, the Last Will and Testament of that Reverend Body.” 

The Kentucky Revival or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America

The Kentucky Revival or, A Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America, (detail of presentation inscription) … By Richard M’Nemar. Cincinnati, OH: From the Press of John W. Browne, 1807. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12000.1. Staff Photograph.

The copy of the first edition of The Kentucky Revival (1807) in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is identified on its library label by its Shaker owners as – “Very precious.” It is not only the first edition, it is the first bound publication of the Shakers. In addition it is a presentation copy from the author to the leader of the Shaker Church at the time of its publication, Mother Lucy Wright. The front free endpaper bears the following inscription: “This Book is a present to Mother from Richard. It is written according to the sense of the people in this country – many expressions that are well understood here among the people at large, on account of the many overturns in religion that have been here, may appear dark and mysterious to many people in the Northern States.” 

The Museum’s copy of The Kentucky Revival was retained by the Lebanon Ministry. When Mount Lebanon closed in 1947, it was sent, along with many other treasured books and manuscripts, to be kept by the Canterbury Ministry. There it was added to the community’s Shaker Library by Elder Irving Greenwood and Sister Aida Elam in the 1930s. It was acquired by the Museum in 1960 as the Shaker Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr., started to gather materials for a new library collection. 



Speaking of sieves

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon holds in its collection a generous variety of sieves. The smallest, under two inches in diameter, with a mesh of finely woven silk, was used to sift out impurities from medicinal powders. It is the largest sieve in the collection, however, that is the topic of this discussion. At nearly 40 inches in diameter and with a mesh of woven rawhide set at an average of an inch and a half apart, there are not a lot of things that would not fall through its holes. Sieves with a larger woven mesh are called riddles – from a Middle English term meaning “coarse sieve.” In fact when this riddle was acquired in the fall of 1950 from the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, it was explained that it had been “used for sifting corn husks which were used to stuff mattresses.” Corn husks, like straw, were commonly used to fill bags of coarse cotton ticking to make a hard mattress that was used on top of the ropes woven between the sides, head, and foot of a bedstead. The more firm the mattress, the less the ropes could be felt. Generally either a thin mattress of wool batting or, if available, a featherbed, would overlay the mattress for more comfort. Those who could not afford the softer options to cover the mattress had to make do with the lumpy feel and crinkly sound of sleeping directly on the corn husks. 

Corn Husk Sieve, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850

Corn Husk Sieve, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.4166.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

It was standard, at least once a year, either to change the stuffing in the corn husk mattresses or merely “riddle” it to remove any dirt and bugs that had accumulated. At the North Family at Mount Lebanon as late as 1883 the Shakers must have still been using corn husk mattresses. In a journal kept by the gardeners it was noted that in the spring of that year: “All the teams drawing coal from the depot. The rest of us were cultivating & hoeing vegetable oyster in the First garden, helping the Sisters about riddling beds & cleaning house, washing wheat, grafting, &c.” “Riddling beds” would have involved bringing the mattresses outdoors, emptying the contents into a large riddle, like the one from Canterbury, shaking the contents until all the unwanted debris had fallen free, re-stuffing the mattresses, and returning them to their proper bedstead.

Corn Husk Sieve (detail of rawhide mesh), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850

Corn Husk Sieve (detail of rawhide mesh), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.4166.1. John Mulligan, photographer.




No. 10 Sieve

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Seed Loft Sieve, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962/13809.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Sieves of all sizes were made, sold, and used by the Shakers at Mount Lebanon beginning as early as 1810. They were made with bentwood rims of ash, elm, and maple. The rims were fitted with a woven mesh of horsehair, iron wire, or brass wire. The size of the sieve rim and how tightly the mesh was woven determined how the sieve was intended to be used. Intent, as with many other tools, is frequently violated and sieves should probably be seen, like screwdrivers, as multi-purpose tools. For example, sieves intended to clean wheat could have just as easily been used to screen the dust from charcoal at a blacksmith’s forge. The sieve featured here, however, was assigned a particular use. It is clearly marked, “Seed Loft No. 10,” indicating it was very likely used in the Seed Loft of the Brick Shop at Mount Lebanon. In a 1931 photograph of the northwest room on the second floor of the shop, several sieves are shown hanging from peg rail. Although the numeral “10” written on the side of the sieve suggests the Shakers had a large number of sieves, the number probably refers to the size of the woven mesh mounted in the sieve and therefore indicates the related size of seeds that could be cleaned with that sieve. The sieve has a mesh woven with ten wires to the inch. Although there are a number of standards used to describe the size of openings in woven wire (or hair) screening, some taking into account the thickness of the wire and the size of the opening between the wires, in the 19th century the number of wires per inch was a common way of describing woven screen – for example, a sieve with a 4-mesh might be appropriate for cleaning corn seed or beans, a sieve with a 32-mesh would be more appropriate for cleaning mustard seed.

Seed Loft, Brick Shop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1931

Seed Loft, Brick Shop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey, Charles C. Adams, photographer. Retrieved from:

Sieves were used to remove unwanted materials – chaff, dirt, weed seeds, bugs, mouse droppings, etc. – prior to seed being stored or packaged. In the cleaning of seed, sieves were used in two different ways. Starting with a sieve with a mesh larger than the size of the seed being cleaned, the seed was poured into the sieve. The sieve was rotated – some say an elliptical motion is best – and occasionally given a shake to let the seed drop through to a container while larger pieces of stalk and seed pods remain behind. Once the larger materials are removed a sieve with a mesh smaller than the seed being cleaned is used. The seed is poured into this sieve and it is again rotated and shaken, but this time the detritus falls through the mesh leaving the clean seed ready for final inspection and packaging.

An undated publication in the Museum’s collection titled, Annual Wholesale Herbalist’s Catalogue of Medicinal Plants, and Botanical Remedies, issued by A. Warner of New York City, includes several pages of offerings of “Garden Seeds, … Raised by the United Society of Shakers,” to which is appended an offering of “Shakers’ Sieves.” The variety of sieves made and sold by the Shakers listed here provides insight into the uses of other sieves in the Shaker Museum collection.

“Shakers’ Sieves,” Annual Wholesale Herbalist’s Catalogue of Medicinal Plants, and Botanical Remedies

“Shakers’ Sieves,” Annual Wholesale Herbalist’s Catalogue of Medicinal Plants, and Botanical Remedies, sold by A. Warner, Wholesale Herbalist, No. 112 John Street, New York, ca. 1850s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon:  1982.19231.1



‘Tis the season for gardening

It is that time of year again – time, or past time for planting gardens. The North Family at Mount Lebanon generally began planting their gardens with hearty plants in early May. The amount of vegetables planted both for seed production and to feed the largely vegetarian family was staggering. For example, on May 12, 1886, the keeper of the garden journal at the North Family noted that the gardeners:

Finished covering the Yellow Danvers Onions in the North Garden & set out The Yellow Dutch along the north wall in the West Sand knoll lot; they filled 10 rows with one row of White Elephant Potatoes next [to] the wall; this finished the onion setting; sowed 14 rows of Parsnips lower side of First garden. Began planting Potatoes in the Upper Cabin lot, plowing the South garden, &c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c., Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.990.1. Staff photograph.

These rows could be up to one hundred feet long. To keep the rows straight and spaced properly, the Shakers, like many others, used string to set their seeds, onion sets, and seed potatoes. The two string reels in the Shaker Museum’s collection were likely used for this purpose. Both reels seem to have been made by the Shakers. One reel could be set on the ground and anchored with a weight. The string was drawn out of a mouth that kept the string near the ground. The second reel had an iron spike at the end of its shaft to allow it to be anchored in the ground. Both reels have crank handles to rewind the string. 

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c.

String Reel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, mid-19th c., Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.1220.1. Staff photograph.

While the reels certainly could have been used for planting, another possible use for such reels should be mentioned. The Shakers – all four families that raised garden seeds for sale – would have grown onions with the intention of letting them go to seed so they could offer onion seed to their customers. The seed pods grow at the top of the stalks and when the pods become full they tend to bend the stalks over. That works well for the onion trying to reseed itself, but is not so great for gathering the seed. The Shakers “lined their onions,” that is, they ran two lines of string along either side of the stalks to keep them from falling over. The keeper of the North Family garden journal mentioned that on June 24, 1880 they weeded the parsnips, “having finished the Onion lining,” and about a month later recorded that they were “raising the onion lines.” Apparently by the end of June the onions had grown enough to need to have the stalks supported and by the end of July the lines needed to be raised higher. By the beginning of September they had “finished cutting the Red Onion put it in the garden house lofts.” Since generally onions are “pulled” to be eaten, this must refer to the cutting and drying of the onion seed. 

Agriculture was such an important part of the Shakers’ daily life; it is always enjoyable to find objects in the Museums’ collection that are related to that work. Good luck with this season’s gardens. 


An Ice House and a Fruit House

1848 jul 1: Build an Ice house north end of the wood house. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

1866 jan 27(?): Buy in conjunction with Chh. County Right of Nee’s(?) Fruit House cost $2000. N.F. takes 1/3 ‘ $666.34. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

1866 jan: Take old Blacksmith Shop for Ice House fill from Lower Pond. Put in 95 loads of Ice in 1866. [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

1867 jan Fill new Ice House & Blacksmith Shop 70 loads.  [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

1869 jan 1: Finished Fruit House.  [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

1891 dec 16: Begin to renovate Ice House. Great job. take out all the packing and put it on Asparagas bed. On Currants, and all round K[itchen] G[arden]. Take out all the insides — floors, timbers. Draw boarding from the East Farm to board up with. Does nicely. Put on a Tin Roof. And a Barn(?) Cap.(?). [NN, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 20] 

Last weekend, in conjunction with the opening of the its 2018 summer season and in celebration of the Town of New Lebanon’s bicentennial, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon presented a lecture on the North Family Dwelling House – a building that was built the same year the Town of New Lebanon was incorporated. The Dwelling (1818-1973) is the most significant structure to disappear from the landscape at the North Family but it is not the only important structure to have been taken down for one reason or another. Around 1963 a building generally referred to as the Ice House had fallen into disrepair and, since there was no apparent repurposing would make it useful, Darrow School had the building leveled. “Ice House” does not fully describe the function of this building.

Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939

Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Building Survey, Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer. Retrieved from:

The Ice House was built in the summer of 1841 as a blacksmith shop and was used for that purpose until a new blacksmith shop with a water-powered triphammer was built between the stone buttresses on the west side of the Brick Shop in the spring of 1864. The 1841 blacksmith shop, a one-story stone building, was converted to an ice house in 1866, and the North Family brothers filled the new ice house in January 1866 with 95 loads of ice. But the family had bigger plans for the building. That same January the family journalist noted that the family would, “Buy in conjunction with Church [Family] ____ Rights of Nee’s Fruit House.” The rights cost $2000 and the North Family paid one-third of that. The “Nee’s” Fruit House refers to a fruit house invented and patented by Benjamin M. Nyce in 1856 and patented in the fall of 1858. The patent (Letters Patent Number 31977) reads: 

My invention relates to a means for preserving fruits, vegetables, or other organic perishable substances; and it consists of a room or chambers guarded externally by walls impervious to moisture or other atmospheric changes, and provided at its upper part with an insulated ice-reservoir, and having within its interior a means of mechanical or chemical agitation of the contained air, thus bringing it in contact with absorbents of moisture, with which the chamber is provided- as chlorides of calcium, magnesium, or other similar substances- my purpose being to keep the interior ingress of moisture and heat.

Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1938

Fruit House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1938, Historic American Building Survey, Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer. Retrieved from:

The North Family was heavily invested in raising fruit for their family and for sale. By this time they were also eating a vegetarian diet and relied heavily on fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. They were cultivating grains, had built the Great Stone Barn in 1860 to provide a sufficient supply of milk, butter, and cheese, and now had turned their attention to better preserving their fruits and vegetables. Nyce’s Fruit House appeared to be a viable solution to being able to keep fruits and vegetables palatable for a longer period of time. Nyce’s industrial Fruit Houses had been built in Philadelphia and his home town of Cleveland and had received mixed reviews. In principle, by sealing out as much air as possible, providing an absorbent material to remove moisture (this had to be changed regularly), moving the air around the room, and keeping a supply of ice over the fruit room to supply cold air, he achieved some success in extending the time that fruits and vegetables remained fresh. The agricultural press expressed reservations, saying that while apples benefitted from such storage, pears, for example, did not do as well. The Shakers, however, appear to have been satisfied with their Fruit House.

Shaker buildings often contain little innovations that are not apparent from the way the Shakers named them or how architectural historians interpret them. Unfortunately when they are taken down – for whatever reason – all we have to work with is what little information is left in the written record. For some reason, however, when the Fruit House was dismantled, someone made a decision to preserve – possibly for some future use – the doors and door frame to the storage chamber. The doors are about six inches thick as prescribed by Nyce and appear to be filled with sawdust or chaff. They fit tightly into the frame and the edges are layered with cloth to seal out air and moisture. The doors were discovered in the cellar of the Brick Shop, having apparently been placed there by Darrow School when the building was dismantled. 



It’s all in the details: Identifying the community of origin for Shaker furniture

At the Spring Shaker Forum held at Enfield (NH) Shaker Village this April, Robert P. Emlen presented an illustrated lecture on a design detail associated with Shaker woodworkers from that community: a small ring made by wood-turners at the transition point between a square piece of wood and where it becomes round (figure 1 below). There are any number of ways to handle this transition, from the abrupt change shown in figure 2, to merely creating a rounded shoulder on the corners of the square as in figure 3, or in some cases Shaker turners even took a more decorative approach as demonstrated in figure 4, a table made late in the nineteenth century by Elder Henry C. Blinn at Canterbury. The decision about how to make this transition was likely left up to the turner, but once a method for making the transition was used it was likely to become a trademark of that turner and a model to be copied by apprentices. While it is not possible to associate this detail with a particular woodworker, it is possible to use it to begin to identify in which Shaker community a piece was made. 

Emlen pointed out that the detail shows up on documented Enfield table legs, bed legs, work desks, and even on newel posts in the Great Stone Dwelling. The three-drawer side table in the Shaker Museum |  Mount Lebanon collection provides a good example of this design detail. It was acquired by the Museum in 1954 directly from the Shakers at Canterbury and identified at the time as the work of a Canterbury cabinetmaker. We now assume the table was, in fact, made at Enfield and brought to Canterbury when the Enfield community closed in 1918. By 1954 its journey to Canterbury was probably long forgotten. While this is a perfectly logical explanation for the discrepancy between the design detail and its assumed origin, it does offer an opportunity to take a look at the complexity of identifying the origin of a piece of Shaker furniture. If a piece lacks a pencil, pen, or crayon inscription stating that it was made by a particular Shaker, at a particular Shaker community, on a particular date, there are several possibilities that might explain an apparent disparity between where a piece of furniture appears to have been made and where it was found. 

Side Table, Enfield, NH, Ca. 1850

Side Table, Enfield, NH, Ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1954.6954.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Some cabinetmakers are known to have moved either temporarily or permanently from one community to another. They likely worked at their new home in the style they had originally learned. This is probably the case with Brother Samuel Turner, who began his Shaker life at Mount Lebanon, moved to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and later returned to Mount Lebanon, where he died. Furniture he made after his return to Mount Lebanon shows some influence from his three decades of life in Kentucky. Members of the Shaker ministry who worked as cabinetmakers moved among the communities in their bishopric and often maintained workshops at each village. Elder Giles Avery at Mount Lebanon is thought to have made work desks while at his workshop – most likely Elder Freegift Wells’s workshop – and probably made work desks at Lebanon as well. This movement of the ministry from place to place might explain some of the confusion in identifying differences between furniture made at Hancock, Massachusetts, and some that is thought to have been made at Enfield, Connecticut. A third possibility is that cabinetmakers made furniture that was intended to be sent to another community. This might happen following a fire or other devastating event that put a community in need of more furnishings than it could easily supply. 

This little discrepancy between where the three-drawer side table was acquired and where it was probably made how difficult it can be to positively identify where a piece of furniture was made, let alone who might have made it.  


A Joke on the Shakers

Many objects in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection beg to have their stories told. The photograph of a drawing titled “A Quiet Shaker Game” may very well be one of the most mysterious such objects. The illustration shows three Shaker brothers and two Shaker sisters engaged in a card game in a Shaker retiring room.  One brother – probably Brother Walter – has knocked over his chair and spilled his cards as he apparently wins the game exclaims, “Down with the Joker!” A third sister looks in to see what is going on from an adjacent room or hallway while the family elder appears from another room excoriating the group with a forceful, “It’s after 9 o’clock! They can hear you at the South Family!” 

Photograph, “A Quiet Shaker Game—,” Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1880

Photograph, “A Quiet Shaker Game—,” Mount Lebanon, New York, ca. 1880s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1966.15951.1.

The scene is, of course, ridiculous in contrast to what we know of Shaker life. Brothers and sisters did not gather in bedrooms to play cards. That said, there is much in the illustration that indicates that the artist was quite familiar with Shaker life, including details of the architecture and furnishings inside the Shakers’ private spaces. The ever-present pin board surrounding the room has appropriate items hanging there– hats, bonnets, and brushes. The clothing and brothers’ haircuts are appropriate to the assumed period of the illustration and the inclusion of the chamber pot under the bed and a broom leaning against the wall show a familiarity with Shaker spaces. The location of the game at Mount Lebanon is also not divulged in the illustration except to be clear that it was some distance from the South Family.  

fig 2

Photograph, Henry Terry Clough, ca. 1890s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1966.16069.48. Francis P. Sherman, Bedford, MA, photographer. Sherman was active at 174 Union Street, the address on the mount during the 1890s.

There is so much more that is not known. The original illustration has not surfaced and the photograph may have been made long after the illustration was created. What is known, in addition to the mere “reading” of the illustration, is that the photograph was a gift to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in 1966 by Albert H. Clough (1902-1988) of Lebanon Center, New York. Albert, who is best remembered locally as having served as a New York State Trooper from 1927 until 1952, was the son of Henry Terry Clough (1862-1923) and Julia Mintie (Minta) Dalton Clough (1872-1959). Henry and Julia were Shakers who, although raised as Shakers from their early days, determined in 1890 to leave their Shaker home at Mount Lebanon, marry, and make their way in the outside world. They moved to New York City where Henry successfully established himself in the jewelry business. They eventually had five children and in 1909 returned to live, as a married couple, in a residence provided by the Shakers at Mount Lebanon.  Henry’s business skills were put to use as the manager of the Shakers’ medicine business. Henry was an amateur photographer and a number of his photographs of Mount Lebanon as well as his collection of images of Mount Lebanon by other photographers, were donated to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon by his wife. It seems highly likely that Henry was the one who took the photograph of the illustration of the quiet Shaker game, and although it will probably never be known, could have been the artist as well. As Brother Henry, Clough would have had intimate knowledge of the interior of Shaker spaces and as a dissatisfied brother, may have had a desire to poke some fun at those whom he was about to desert. 



The founding of New Lebanon, a new dwelling house, a canning kitchen

A lot was going on in Columbia County in 1818. On April 3rd, the town of Ghent was carved out of the towns of Kinderhook, Claverack, and Chatham, and 18 days later the town of New Lebanon was created by dividing the town of Canaan in half. In early February, the town of Canaan had circulated a petition concerning the proposed division. North Family Elder Calvin Green recorded in his journal that, “They request the [Shaker] Brethren to advocate it, which they think proper to do, accordingly, a short preamble is written in favor of it & signed by 102 names.” While the townsfolk were awaiting a decision on the division, the North Family Shakers were gathering timbers for building a long contemplated new dwelling house and on July 7, 1818, Elder Calvin recorded in his journal that, “We this day raise the long talked of house.” 

fig 1

First Dwelling, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1955.7468.1. James E. West, photographer.

As the 1820s were a period of a great increase in membership at the Mount Lebanon community, the new dwelling was soon too small to house the new members entering the Shaker faith. In 1835 the North Family built a second dwelling house, called the Second (or Lower) House. It provided rooms for visitors, new inquirers, and members of the family who were ill. The Second House relieved the overcrowding of the main dwelling for a while but it was still necessary by 1843 to build a three story 40 x 42 ft. addition to the 1818 building. When completed, the addition provided two large bedrooms (probably able to accommodate four or five Shakers each), a new larger meeting room for family worship, additional attic storage, and on the ground floor, a waiting room in which Shaker sisters assembled ten minutes prior to being called to take their seats at their dining tables, a sisters’ stairhall, two pantries and a preserving or canning kitchen. The addition of a canning kitchen reduced congestion

in the main kitchen, where the sisters prepared the daily meals.

Canning Kitchen Sink, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840s

Canning Kitchen Sink, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2750.1a-h. John Mulligan, photographer.

The object at hand, an 81 7/8” by 22 ½” by 4” cast iron sink, mounted on top of two double-door pine cupboards, was acquired by the Shaker Museum sometime between when the Shakers left the North Family in the fall of 1947 and the opening of the museum in July 1950 and is the sink that was used in the canning kitchen. It seems likely that this sink was assembled around 1843 when the new kitchen was finished. The base for the commercially made cast iron sink appears to have been made up from two pieces of earlier furniture. The right end of the base was once a tapered legged table. The table had its top removed and a shelf mounted several inches above the floor. The whole of the table was then covered with vertical boards and two doors mounted on its front. A second piece, part of a small work counter, was attached to the left end of the table to complete the base for the sink. This joining of two pieces accounts for the inconsistent appearance of the legs and the variation in the proportion of the doors.   

Canning Kitchen Sink, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939

Canning Kitchen Sink, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Buildings Survey, Retrieved May 1, 2018 from: Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer.

In November and December, 1939, Nelson E. Baldwin, a photographer working for the New York State Museum visited the North Family Dwelling and made, among others, three photographs of the interior of the canning kitchen. With the architectural details and furniture placement captured in those photographs and a floor-plan drawn by Troy, New York, architect A. K. Mosley in 1939-1940, it is possible to place the sink in its original location in the canning kitchen. Mosley’s floor-plan also shows that the canning kitchen had its own entrance, making it unnecessary to bring vegetables from the gardens through the rest of the house.  It was also equipped with a small lift or elevator that lowered and retrieved canned goods from a cold cellar directly beneath the canning kitchen. 

Ground Floor Plan, Dwelling, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939-1940, Historic American Buildings Survey

Ground Floor Plan, Dwelling, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939-1940, Historic American Buildings Survey, Retrieved May 1, 2018 from: A. K. Mosley, delineator, Amended by Museum staff.

The canning kitchen and its sink were critically important to the North Family Shakers being able to put up enough food for the winter. The fact that the family was for so long totally vegetarian made the storage of vegetables all the more important. The North Family Dwelling, vacant for over a decade and thought to be a fire hazard, was dismantled in the spring and summer of 1973. Fortunately the building is well documented in architectural drawings and photographs.  

The Dwelling House initially raised in the summer of 1818, expanded in 1843, and again in 1863, will be the subject of an illustrated presentation by Jerry Grant, Director of Collections and Research at the Shaker Museum, at 2 p.m., Saturday May 26, 2018. The talk will be part of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s community event, which will include live music, face painting, food, and more! All are welcome, but parking is limited. Register in advance and purchase a meal ticket.