This red-painted flour chest in the Shaker Museum collection was acquired from the North Family at Mount Lebanon, a fact that’s backed up by a 1938 photograph of the interior of the North Family’s Wood House. In that photograph the flour chest sits behind, and is nearly obscured by, a table saw and a grindstone. The giveaways that this is the same chest are the four visible hinges on the top of the chest indicating that the lid is split into two sections, and the rather prominent casters used to roll the chest. These features, along with its general dimensions as they appear in the photograph, provide strong evidence that it is the same chest.
Each of the chest’s lids cover two partitioned compartments. The undersides of the lids are labeled in hand-painted letters: Rye, Middlings, Course Flour, and Fine Flour. All were used in baking. Rye flour is mixed with wheat flour to make rye bread. Middlings are the parts of the wheat kernel – the bran and sometimes the germ – that are often sifted out of milled wheat flour. Middlings are occasionally added back into bread for additional fiber and protein. Coarse flour usually refers to whole wheat flour – sometimes called Graham flour after Sylvester Graham, a 19th century advocate of vegetarianism, temperance, and eating only whole grain flours. Fine flour is what is left when all of the bran and germ are sifted out of milled wheat.
Elder Frederick W. Evans, North Family Elder for 57 years, is known to have been very particular about bread and how and from what it was made. In 1877 he wrote a letter to Brother Albert Lomas, editor of the The Shaker, commenting on making bread:
The wheat is the starting point. The wheat must be home ground, or you will not have homemade bread. We might as well go to Moody and Sankey for pure Christianity, as to go to a worldly miller with our wheat to grind; much less to buy the flour to make Shaker whole wheat, or coarse ground, unleavened bread.
He follows this caution with a recipe for Shaker whole wheat bread.
The Church Family built a substantial grist mill in 1824 and for years was able to produce flour for all the Mount Lebanon Shaker families. For a number of years they employed millers from the outside world and often had trouble keeping them. It may have been that by the time Evans wrote his commentary on wheat bread he was concerned that the millers were not supplying the family with proper flour for Shaker bread. Sometime in the early 1880s the North Family created a small grist mill inside their 1854 Wood House. By this time the family had largely switched to coal for heating and some of the Wood House was available for other functions. At the south end of the building the Shakers created a new modern laundry. The new laundry required power for the new machinery they installed. That power came from piping water under considerable pressure from a reservoir they had built in 1875 to supply hydrants to protect the family from fire. This water source was extended into the cellar of the Wood House to operate a ten-horsepower Baccus Water Motor. The Shakers soon found additional uses for the power supplied by the water motor – one of which was to power the equipment necessary to operate the grist mill.
The grist mill was constructed vertically in small rooms adjacent to the laundry and directly over the water motor in the cellar. The rooms were also next to an “elevator” that was used to take damp laundry from the wash room in the cellar to the attic when it needed to be dried indoors. While the date the Shaker built their grist mill is not known, it is known that on February 6, 1884, a carpenter “finished the wheat bins in the wood house loft.” The wheat bin is located in the Wood House attic directly over the room on the second floor where the grindstone was located. The bin could be filled from bags or barrels of wheat brought up the elevator and could be released down a wooden chute from the bin directly into the hopper of the grindstone. Flour and its more undesirable by-products traveled from the grindstone through another wooden chute to the room directly below where they were fed into a sifter or bolting machine that separated middlings from fine flour. For coarse flour, the ground wheat was not bolted, leaving all of the bran and germ in the flour – much to Elder Frederick’s liking. Both the grindstone and bolting machinery were powered by the water motor. The various flours produced in the mill needed to be stored in separate bins – therefore there was need for a large flour bin in the Shakers’ wood house.
It is not known when the milling equipment was removed from the Wood House. It was apparently gone prior to 1940 when A. K. Mosley measured and drew the Wood House floor plan for the Historic American Buildings Survey. There is considerable evidence still intact in the building that supports the description of the grist mill. A tin-lined square funnel in the floor of the wheat bin is open directly to where it appears the grindstone was located. Holes in the floors remain where belts from the water motor traveled to operate both the grindstone and the bolting machinery, and the wooden chute that once brought ground wheat into the bolting machine remains in place. The disposition of the equipment has yet to be discovered.
The last blog post addressed the value of carefully assessing apparent duplicate copies of hand-printed photographs. At the discretion of the photographer, slightly different parts of a negative might be printed, resulting in two photographs that at first appear to be identical but may, in fact, contain different information. This was common, especially during the early years of stereographic photographs.
An additional stereograph in which this is apparent also provides an opportunity to look at how written documentation can be used to narrow down a possible date for a photograph and an opportunity to think about how much influence the Shakers had some on the photographs that a photographer was allowed to take.An article in the July 2008 issue of American Communal Societies Quarterly, published by the Richard W. Couper Press at Hamilton College, discussed a stereograph (Fig. 1) titled “Group of Shakers” created by James Irving, an itinerant photographer from Troy, New York. The stereograph depicts seventeen members of the Mount Lebanon North Family posed in front of the sisters’ entrance of the First Dwelling. In the discussion, the writer makes a valiant effort to identify all of the Shaker brothers and sisters pictured in the image. This stereograph includes Sister Catherine Allen standing at the far left in both of the images. In a copy of this stereograph in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection (Fig. 2) Sister Catherine Allen appears at the far left of the left-hand image but only a slight glimpse of her shoulder is included in the right-hand image. In yet a third version of this stereograph (Fig. 3), the photographer printed the image in such a way as to exclude all but the slightest sliver of Sister Catherine’s cheek and shoulder. It is printed, however, to show more of the vertical height of the First Dwelling House and less of the grass in the foreground – apparently an artistic decision.
Hamilton College dates this stereograph to 1871. It certainly was made between August 1869, the time when James Irving first photographed Mount Lebanon, and 1873, when several of the Shakers pictured either left the Church or passed away. One piece of documentary evidence possibly substantiates the 1871 date. With the identification of the Shakers in the photograph it becomes apparent that three of the four members of the North Family’s Elders’ Order are present – Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, her assistant Sister Anna White, and Brother Daniel Offord (missing is Elder Frederick Evans). In June, 1871, the Lebanon Ministry “opened the gift” that Elder Frederick should go on a missionary journey to England. He left his home at the North Family on June 19 that year and did not return until early September. It seems highly likely that Elder Frederick would have been included in this “Group of Shakers” had he been available. It may be that Richard Bushnell – seated with his hat on his knee – was included in the photograph as a “stand-in” for Elder Frederick since he had been Evans’s predecessor as family elder. In support of the possibility that this photograph was made during Elder Frederick Evans’s absence is the fact that a North Family journal noted that on July 10, 1871, “Irvin[g] the Troy Photographer and woman are here.” If Bushnell is considered as Elder Frederick’s “stand-in” then it is also interesting to note that all four of the Shakers who were or had been members of the Elders Order are seated – three behind the fence and Bushnell in front of the fence – while all the other Shakers are standing. The seating arrangement – Eldress Antoinette Doolittle seated behind the fence on the far left is facing Sister Anna White, her helpmate, and Brother Daniel Offord is seated on the far right behind the fence facing the spot where one can imagine Elder Frederick could have been seated to complete the vignette. The interesting question arising from this arrangement is whether the Shakers orchestrated the seating arrangement or Irving understood the Shakers’ leadership system and knew the family members well enough to make the seating decision.
Since the invention of photography, decisions made by the photographer about printing and mounting affect the final appearance of the image, sometimes introducing variations in images made from the same negative. Institutions often collect multiple versions of what appear to be the same image, for the stories told by these variations.
Derobigne Mortimer Bennett, a Shaker brother who left the Church in the 1840s, is best known as one of the most prominent freethinkers of the late nineteenth century. As the founder, editor, and publisher of the weekly journal The Truth Seeker, Bennett was such a prolific writer that he could have filled every page of The Truth Seeker with his own writing. He was so verbose, in part, because he would often write a sentence and, not quite liking how he wrote it, rewrite the sentence, maybe several times – each time letting all previous iteration of the thought stand for publication.
In a similar vein, James Irving of Troy, New York, an early itinerate photographer who was responsible for a large body of work that provides valuable documentation of the Watervliet and Mount Lebanon Shaker communities, would apparently make several photographs of the same scene, and, being unable to decide which image he preferred, print several versions of the same subject.
Irving’s first photographs of Shaker subjects were stereographic views. The earliest stereographs date from 1868 at Watervliet and 1869 at Mount Lebanon. At the end of January 1870, the Shakers at the Church Family noted in their family journal that, “James Irving, of Troy comes to Lebanon and brings a large number of pictures he has taken of New Lebanon Shaker Village.” The Shakers, apparently pleased with his work, purchased stereographs from him to sell in their stores. In April, 1871 they bought, “20 1/2 Doz Stereoscopic views of J. Irvin[g] – $33.00.” He continued to photograph the Shakers through the 1880s, creating both stereographs and the increasingly popular cabinet cards.
One of Irving’s earliest stereographs is of the Shaker and biological sisters, Cornelia Charlotte Neale and Sarah Neale. This image was likely taken at the North Family at Watervliet, where both of these young Shakers lived by the mid-1860s. Irving created at least three different versions of this view and, while he may have had a favorite, printed, mounted, and sold all three versions (Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig 3). In these three versions of Irving’s photograph of the Neales, one can almost hear the him giving instruction to his sitters, “Sister Sarah, please lift your right hand to your face – good – now Sister Cornelia, you do the same with your left hand – perfect – and let’s just try one where both of you keep your arms crossed in your laps – bravo!”
This example provides a good example of why institutions might collect what may appear to be multiple copies of the same photograph – they are not always the same photograph — in the examples above another reason for collecting duplicate copies of photographs is apparent. It seems to be common in the production of stereographic views that the printing, cutting, and mounting of an image may be different enough that one version may contain information not present in another. In this example, the persons doing the printing, cutting, or mounting chose in one case to include the ceiling of the Church Family’s girls’ school, while at some later or earlier time a decision was made not to include the ceiling. Occasionally, people on the edges of the photographs appear or disappear.
In Irving’s iconic photograph of Mount Lebanon’s North Family Stone Barn, one version includes three Shaker men standing with the barn in the background. A wagon has apparently just entered the picture from the left. In a second image, the wagon has moved on, one of the men seems to have walked back to lean on the picket fence, and two Shaker sisters have joined the scene. In this case, it appears to have become a photograph of the North Family’s Elders Lot – Elder Frederick Evans and Brother Daniel Offord with Eldress Antoinette Doolittle and her helpmate, Sister Anna White.
When Irving began creating photographs in the cabinet card format, his photographs became more consistent. However, one example (Fig. 8), a scene in which he gathered brothers and sisters from the Church Family on the south steps of the Meetinghouse for a “group shot,” provides another example of how duplicate photographs may provide insight into the working habits of a photographer. In one version of this scene, the little girl seated on the step appears to have moved her arm. Probably sensing that this may have spoiled the image, Irving asked his subjects to “hold that pose” while he reloaded a glass plate into his camera and made a second image. The second image (Fig. 9), except for the little girl’s arm not being blurred, is so close to the first one has to be amazed that the Shakers could hole their poses so precisely. Careful examination does show slight changes in the sitters’ positions, but not so much that, without the blurred arm, anyone would think the photographs were created from two separate plates.
There is reason to be careful not to assume that because two photographs look the same they are. Only when institutions collect multiple copies of these images – or make them readily available online – can these comparisons be made.
When doing an historic evaluation of something made by the Shakers, three questions are standard: Where was it made? When was it made? Who made it? The sewing desk discussed here provides answers to two of these questions. On the bottom of lowest right-hand drawer is written: “These two sewing desks were made from Mother Hannah’s Butternut trees grown South of Ministries Shop. Were cared for her when saplings. Desks made by Elder Henry C. Blinn.” Knowing this desk and its missing mate were made by Elder Henry, we also know they were made in the Church Family at Canterbury, New Hampshire, where, at 14 years old, he became a resident, remaining there until his death in 1905. Narrowing down the date the desk was made, however, is more challenging.
Sewing desks of this form – a case of drawers with a pull-out work surface and a gallery of small drawers for tools and odds and ends – became popular among the Shakers around 1860. They were made in a similar form in nearly every eastern Shaker community for the next three decades. Stylistically this piece seems to have been influenced by the increasing decorative elements of the Victorian Era – the use of a variety of decorative woods, applied walnut moldings, and white porcelain drawer pulls. Museum records and authors who have included the piece in their publications, however, have generally dated the piece around 1870, seemingly earlier than the style would dictate. One clue to the date that Elder Henry made the desk may lie in the inscription. If it can be determined when Mother Hannah’s butternut trees were cut down, that would supply a “no earlier than” date.
Mother Hannah Goodrich, born in 1752, was one of the original members of the Shaker Community in Hancock when it was gathered in 1790. She was sent with Father Job Bishop to lead the newly formed community at Canterbury, New Hampshire in 1792. She remained there until her death in 1820. At some time, according to the inscription, she took some interest in cultivating butternut trees. The oily nuts from the butternut tree are edible. The trees can be tapped for syrup in the same manner as maple trees. The nut can be pressed for oil and parts of the tree are used medicinally. Most likely, Mother Hannah encouraged the cultivation of the trees to use the shells of their nuts for dying cloth. Butternut dyed cloth was very common in early Shaker clothing. Whatever the reason for growing them, the inscription establishes their historical significance among the Shakers. Elder Henry drew a map of his village titled, “Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848.” On this map he includes the buildings, roads, walks, fields, orchards, and a few significant trees in the village. He depicts a row of trees along the main road by the family’s Office and the fir trees planted around the newly established outdoor feast ground – Pleasant Grove. Two trees, south and slightly east of the Ministry’s Workshop, appear to have some special significance as they were also included in the map. Could these have been Mother Hannah’s butternut trees? They are south of the Ministry’s Workshop. Butternut trees are slow growing trees and rarely live to be more than seventy-five years old. Had Mother Hannah’s trees been saplings when she first came to Canterbury, they would probably have been harvested in the late 1860s, making lumber from the trees available to Elder Henry in the early 1870s, whereas had she planted and cared for them in the last few years of her life they probably would have been harvested in the late 1880s, pushing the date when their lumber was available to Elder Henry to around 1890.
Two photographs in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection may help to unlock the mystery of when the trees were harvested – should the dates of the photographs be determined. Both photographs were by the Kimball studio in Concord, New Hampshire. Since photographers from that studio worked over a broad time period, that information is not particularly helpful in narrowing down the date. The first photograph shows the Canterbury Meetinghouse and the Ministry’s Workshop (then also its residence) with some Shakers, including Elder Henry himself, standing and sitting in the yard. Just behind the Ministry’s Workshop, the upper canopy of a tree can be seen. Again, could this be one or both of Mother Hannah’s butternut trees? A second photograph taken from the south looking across what Elder Henry called the “Meeting House Field,” one can see on the far right part of a tree that has a canopy similar to that of a butternut. Elder Henry located the two trees shown on his 1848 map on the south side of what appears to be either a fence or a lane bordering the northern side of the Meeting House Field. The tree shown in the second photograph also appears to be on the south side of a fence along that side of the field.
Elder Henry Clay Blinn was a very busy Shaker. In addition to serving in the Canterbury leadership he was a printer, the editor of the Manifesto, a dentist, a beekeeper, an author, a tinker, a teacher, and a tailor. It is not clear whether he did much cabinetmaking in his early years. In an addendum to his “Autobiographical Notes,” published in In Memoriam. Elder Henry C. Blinn, 1824-1905, the author mentions, “That he might have all the care needful in his decline, apartments at the Infirmary were kept at his disposal; though he was never better pleased than when able to spend the day at his carpenter’s bench, engaged in light cabinet work, a favorite occupation.” It may have been during these less busy days that he had time to do some “light cabinet work.”
Of course, even knowing the date that the trees were harvested does not date the making of the desks – the lumber may have been dried and stored for years or decades before it was used. Even knowing that none of this information provides a conclusive answer to the question of when Elder Henry would have had access to the lumber from Mother Hannah’s butternut trees, it has been an interesting investigation in using documentary evidence to try and answer the haunting question of “When was it made?” Of course, any information on dating the photographs, or the date that Mother Hannah’s trees were cut down, will be appreciated.
This work desk from the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is one of three known examples of this distinctive furniture form. Although the three extant versions vary somewhat in size and construction details, they are all so similar that it’s safe to assume they were either made by the same craftsman or by two cabinetmakers, the second of whom took his design inspiration from the first.
The first of the companion work desks of this style is in the collection of the New York State Museum, was acquired at Watervliet, New York, in 1930, and has been attributed to Elder Freegift Wells of that community. This example has four graduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers in the upper gallery. The case is of panel and frame construction with each side having two panels. The other example, in the collection of the Art Complex, Inc. in Duxbury, Massachusetts, has four slightly graduated drawers in the bottom portion of the case and nine drawers in the gallery. It is also of panel and frame construction, but its sides are made up of three rather than two panels. The example in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon (fig. 1) has three ungraduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers of equal size in the gallery, unlike the other two examples that have small drawers that vary somewhat in depth. It is of panel and frame construction with sides composed of four panels each rather than two or three panels as in the other examples. All three of these desks roll on casters – the desk at the Art Complex has ball-bearing casters and the other two are fitted with casters with small wheels. The two desks with four drawers below have locks on the second and fourth drawers from the top. The three-drawer desk has a lock on each drawer. None of the drawers in any of the galleries have locks. All of the lower drawers in all of the desks are dovetailed together and all of the gallery drawers are nailed together.
Elder Giles B. Avery, a member of the Mount Lebanon Ministry, worked from time to time in what had been Elder Freegift Wells’s Watervliet workshop. Elder Giles noted in his diary that in June and July of 1880 he was “still at Watervliet engaged on some ladies beaureaus [sic] for sale,” which suggests that the work desks described in varying detail above were possibly the work of either Elder Freegift or Elder Giles or both of them at different times. Elder Giles completed four of these “work beaureaus” for sale. A new document may shed more light on how Shaker cabinetmakers may have used the early work of one cabinetmaker as the pattern for new pieces of furniture. A document titled “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureau,” is folded and taped in between pages of a book of recipes in the library of the Western Reserve Historical Society (Shaker Collection, manuscript number XI B 7). The handwriting is distinctly that of Elder Giles Avery. The recipes are dated from 1881 to 1883 – an appropriate time for Elder Giles to have had a “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureaus” to paste in his book.
The description of the parts – the stuff – does not provide conclusive proof that any one of the work desks was made by Elder Giles rather than Elder Freegift. Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” – what cabinetmakers today would probably call a cutting list – most likely describes rough dimensions that would change some as the lumber is smoothed and the pieces prepared to be joined together. That said, the most telling detail that can be extracted from the cutting list is that the pieces being made by Elder Giles had four larger drawers with drawer fronts that ranged from 6 1/2, 5 1/2, 4 1/2, and 3 1/8 inches high from bottom to top – graduated in a manner most consistent with the work desk in the collection of the New York State Museum. Although this desk was attributed to Elder Freegift Wells by the Shaker living at Watervliet at the time it was acquired, it is a reasonable supposition that rather than knowing it was, in fact, made by Elder Freegift, it was merely of the style of work desk that he was known to have made for the community.
While these three distinctly similar yet different pieces of furniture and the existence of Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” and entries in his diary about making “ladies work beaureaus”, and a clear statement by the Shakers that Elder Freegift made this type of desk fails to provide full understanding of who made any one or all of these desks, it does provide an interesting study of how one Shaker woodworker may have been guided in his work by his predecessors. It can clearly be seen in trades such as chair making, oval box making, and basket making, that although a consistency of style and design is maintained over time and from community to community, differences in the finished products show that whereas intended function may have altered them, so to may have the whims of the maker.
Of course, it will be helpful for other examples of the Elders Freegift and Giles to come to light – and there is always hope that one or the other might have left his name or mark behind to help us better understand how these pieces are related.
There is no Shaker cabinetmakers’ pattern book – no collection of drawings for cabinetmakers to follow when it was determined that the community needed a new cupboard, table, case of drawers, candlestand, counter, chair, and so on. When a new piece was needed, for example a case of drawers for extra linens to go in the deaconesses’ storeroom – woodworkers were mostly likely asked for a cabinet with four full drawers and six half drawers with a cupboard above. After the first cabinetmakers had worked out the details of an acceptable Shaker design for furniture, those who followed had examples to copy for style – size varied by available space and need. If sketches or lists of pieces that needed to be cut for a new piece were made, they were likely made on scrap wood or paper and popped in the kindling bin when the piece was completed.
Of course, when the same piece – an oval box rim, a candlestand leg, a chair rocker – was to be made repeatedly, it made sense to make patterns that could be used to trace and therefore duplicate the shape of that piece. Some examples of patterns survive in Shaker collections. In the same way, when the same operation had to be repeated over and over – cutting a chair rocker on a shaping machine – it made sense to make jigs that made these repeated actions more efficient. Some examples of jigs also survive in Shaker collections.
A remarkable example – a set of patterns and jigs for making revolving chairs – survives intact, or nearly so, in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Around 1860, revolving chairs are thought to have been made for sale at Mount Lebanon in the same factory at the Second or South Family where other Shaker chairs were made. The revolving chair (now commonly called a “revolver”) was made to be used at a desk or table where the person seated, instead of sliding a standard chair across the floor and either scratching the floor or wearing out a carpet or floor cloth, could simply pivot in his or her chair to reach an adjacent surface. Revolvers were never made in a great quantity and only a few dozen examples survive. There are a number of unique Shaker chairs and stools that have revolving seats. These appear to have been made for use in the community rather than for sale and most often were made with a four-legged Windsor-style base that had been fitted with a metal or wooden device to allow the seat to rotate. The revolvers made using the jigs and patterns in the Museum’s collection have a distinctive design. They consist of a turned, bottle-shaped pedestal mounted on low-arched feet; a solid metal rod, or occasionally a threaded rod that allows the height of the seat to be adjusted up and down; and a back support generally made of eight wooden upright spindles held together at the top by a semi-circular crest-rail.
There are three pieces that help the chair-maker fashion the seat for the revolver. The round seat appears to have been turned on a lathe and one of the pieces is the same length as the diameter of seat. It has one straight edge and one edge that is slightly curved. The piece is marked in pencil, “Sweep of seat of swivel chair” and in another place, “1 1/8 on outside edge.” The sweep of the seat is the shape of the concave top of the seat and the “1 1/8” is the thickness of the seat at the outside edge. Checking this on the revolver in the Museum’s collection, they match perfectly. The second piece used to make the curved spindle back for the seat is a straight thin board. On this piece is written, “8 spindles | boring dimensions” and under that, three points marked with a pair of dividers. Between the center point and the mark to its left is written, “Top rail” and between the center mark and the mark on the right, “Seat.” The first of these measurements is 2 1/2 inches – the distance between the spindles on the crest-rail; and the second is 2 inches – the distance between the spindles where they are fastened to the seat. The third piece is a slanting board with a short dowel protruding from its top. It was made to be attached to a drill press. When properly positioned, a matching hole in the center of the bottom of the seat fit over the dowel and the seat was ready to be rotated as eight holes were bored at the correct angle and the correct distance from the edge of the seat for the vertical spindles.
In addition to these pieces used to shape and assemble the seat, a pattern for the arch of the legs of the revolver is drawn on the top of the slanting board. This drawing gives the height of the legs at 3 1/8 inches and the thickness of the legs at 1 1/4 inches. The arches were constructed with a compass set at a radius of 6 inches. This drawing was converted to a butternut pattern (2018.2.2) to be used to trace the arch of the revolver legs. Boards with the leg arch drawn on them were then sawn by hand or with a bandsaw. A crisscrossing half-lap joint was then cut. The legs were then worked to their desired shape and then joined to the bottom of the turned pedestal.
One interesting discovery made while examining this set of patterns and jigs was an inscription written on the slanting board. It reads, “Round seat for adjustable Warren stool.” In 1849, Thomas E. Warren of Troy, New York, patented a chair with a rotating seat. The seat was mounted on eight C-shaped springs that connected the base to the bottom of the seat, allowing the person sitting in the chair to move and turn in any direction. According to a catalog entry for a Warren chair in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (2009.27), his “centripetal spring chair” could be considered a forerunner of the Chadwick/Stumph Aeron chair developed a century and a half later. Whether the Shakers were inspired to make their revolvers by seeing revolving chairs made at Warren’s American Chair Company or whether any chair or stool that rotated was generically called a Warren chair at that time is a mystery yet to be solved.
In February 1835 Elder Freegift Wells at the Shaker community at Watervliet, New York, finished cutting out paper seed bags for the season. These bags, or “seed papers” as the Shakers called them, were soon filled with the 1834 crop of garden seeds and offered for sale through merchants who agreed to sell them on commission. That year Elder Freegift “cut 100500 bags besides near 200 large bags for pounds & half pounds.” While that number may seem staggeringly large, at Mount Lebanon between 1834 and 1840 nearly one million bags were cut, printed, and filled with seed. That was about twice Elder Freegift’s production. The raising and selling of garden seeds had become very profitable for a number of Shaker communities.
During the “Period of Mother’s Work” in the late 1830s and 1840s, in which many Shakers received communications from the spirit world, the spirit of Father Joseph Meacham cautioned Believers that the garden seed business was leading Shakers in a dangerous direction. He said in October, 1841:
A seed garden for sale is not the thing for the first Church on Earth, you will never gain the riches of heaven in this way. Yea, … to me this great garden [i.e., the Church Family’s seed garden] is a garden of pomp, pride and worldly superfluities, not the garden of heaven….you have missed the matter in thinking you can get an easier living by raising garden seeds to sell, than by your other trades and manufactures, which Father planted for the honor and beauty of Zion, and which you have let run down, and some entirely run out…. But is it rather because the rising generation are running to machinery, conveniences, superfluities, pomp, pride, aspiring for extensive trades, and much money making. I can tell you, there is no promise in a great deal of cash.
Father Joseph Meacham, spirit, “Recorded October 19th & 21, 1841,” Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH, Shaker Collection, mss. no., VIII:B131.
Although Father Joseph recommended that the Shakers of the time go back as much as they could to earlier trades – “the making of Tubs, Pails, Brooms, Boxes, Brushes, Dippers, Whiplashes, Leather, Wheels and Reels,… which are plain and neat, representing the people of God,” (1) the seed business continued to be an increasingly profitable business through the Civil War in a number of Shaker communities. At that time, non-Shaker seed merchants began taking an increasing cut out of the Shakers’ “easier living.” Many of the Shaker seed businesses never recovered.
Some of the success of the business should be credited to small inventions such as the seed bag chisels featured here. These examples from the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection made an important contribution to saving labor and speeding up production. The Shakers figured out that it was quicker to cut a number of pieces of paper to a given shape with the whack of a chisel than to try and cut them out individually with knife or scissors.
These bag chisels were designed and made by the Shakers. In a journal kept by Elder Freegift Wells at Watervliet, New York, the preparation for cutting bags was recorded in some detail. In December 1834, Elder Freegift and his apprentice and nephew Thomas Wells were “sawing out a large white pine block to cut seed bags upon.” In January the next year Elder Freegift turned “some screws and legs for the cutting block,” and in a few more days he had “got the new cutting block ready to use.” The next day he noted that he was in his shop, “grinding up chisels for cutting seed bags &c.” and after cutting out around 5,000 bags over the next few days he began “grinding on a new bag knife [i.e., chisel].” It is not known if the first one needed improving or if it worked so well he made another one to further speed up production.
The seed bag chisel makes a cut with a jog in it. When the cut seed paper is folded at the proper place near the middle it leaves tabs on the three open sides. When two of these tabs are folded and glued the blank becomes a bag with one open side ready to receive seeds and to have the final tab glued and folded closed. The illustration of how to make a seed bag shows one way seed bags were made.
It is not known whether the Shakers cut the seed bags to size before or after printing them. It is likely that seed bags were cut and pasted on two sides – then printed as needed – then filled and sealed on the third side. It would have been quite efficient to cut seed bag blanks prior to printing. A pile of long strips of paper of the proper width to make the desired size bag could have been laid out on the cutting block and then the chisel used to cut them at the proper set intervals to create the folding tabs. A bag made for Large Flat Dutch Cabbage at the Second Family at Mount Lebanon in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon clearly indicates that bags were cut and pasted prior to printing – this bag was printed on the wrong side with the decorative border overlapping a folded edge, something that could not happen if the bag blanks were printed prior to folding. On the other hand the Japan Musk Melon bag most likely produced by the Church Family was printed prior to folding. This example could have been printed as a single bag blank or could have been printed in a strip of bag blanks and cut at the appropriate place with the seed bag chisel. It appears that all options were used.
“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.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.
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.
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.
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: http://www.hoxsie.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-search.cgi?search=albany&IncludeBlogs=11&limit=10&page=12
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.
Our guest blogger this week is Maxwell Taylor-Milner. His writing has appeared in YST Publications, Bard 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.
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.
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.