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

fig 1

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: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ny0109.photos.115496p/resource/

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: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny0538.photos.115433p/

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: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny0538.photos.115434p/

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: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/no0110.photos.115422p/resource/ 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: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ny0110.sheet.00006a/resource/ 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. 





Cataloging the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon Stoneware Collection 

In the fall of 2017, Coco Raymond, a student at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, interned at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Ms. Raymond’s interest in ceramics and learning about museum work made her a natural fit for a project cataloging the Museum’s collection of commercially made stoneware owned and used by the Mount Lebanon Shakers. Ms. Raymond wrote this blog. 

Stoneware Vessels in the Attic of a Building at Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1930s

Stoneware Vessels in the Attic of a Building at Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1930s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8564.1. This photograph was made as part of the New York State Art Project in the 1930s. These photographs eventually became part of the Historic American Buildings Survey.

The Shakers owned many ceramic vessels. At the Mount Lebanon community, stoneware jugs and crocks were generally made at local commercial potteries – and there were plenty of those in the area. The only clay products the Shakers at Mount Lebanon made themselves were smoking pipes and pipes for draining wetland. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon holds a collection of sixty pieces of stoneware – most of which were used at Mount Lebanon.

The Shakers had considerable need for these vessels. Jugs, holding from one to ten gallons of liquid, were used to store and sell medicinal extracts and distilled liquids such as witch hazel. Crocks were traditionally used for putting up pickles and preserving other foodstuffs. Large jugs fitted with bung holes at the bottom were used as water coolers that could be taken to the brothers working in the fields.

Stoneware Crock, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850,

Stoneware Crock, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.702.1. John Mulligan, photographer.  This three gallon crock stored Juglans cinerea, that is, an extract from the butternut tree used as both a dyestuff for coloring cloth or as a medicine with a mild cathartic effect.

Most of the vessels in the Museum’s collection were produced between the 1840s and the 1860s. The New York stoneware industry was at its peak from 1830 to 1890. The New England ceramic industry began on a smaller scale in the late 17th century with the production of redware, a type of red stoneware commercialized in America in 1625. The golden age of New England and New York pottery was mostly in the 19th century, but lasted until 1943 when  Hilfinger Pottery in Fort Edward, New York closed. The work produced in New York and New England during this period was stylistically influenced by German Pennsylvanian potters and English potters. Unlike redware, the materials used to make stoneware are not naturally occurring in New England, so New England potteries had to transport clays from New Jersey and New York. Stoneware was preferred over earthenware due to fears of poisoning from lead glazes commonly used on earthenware vessels. Almost all of the stoneware jugs owned by the Shakers feature a salt glaze, which was popular due to its resistance to acidic foods and the natural sealant the salt glaze provides.

Stoneware Jug, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1861-1885

Stoneware Jug, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1861-1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.714.1. John Mulligan, photographer. This jug was made by Satterlee & Mory at Fort Edward, NY. It contained Chelidonium majus, or greater celandine, a preparation used for liver diseases and general digestive problems.

Many early stoneware vessels had an inner coating of ochre, but this material fell out of use after the discovery of a material called Albany slip found in the Hudson River in the early 1800s. This rich dark brown slip was used to coat the inside of almost all of the jugs, crocks, and coolers in the Museum’s collection. The jugs are decorated with slip-trailed or slip painted cobalt motifs, most commonly in the shape of flowers, plants, or occasionally, birds. Several feature tornado-like zig-zags or spirals. Some of the designs have bubbled and chipped as an excess of cobalt slip will react with the salt glaze layered on top of it. Most of the pieces lack variation in the relatively simple shape of the vessel’s body, indicating a focus on functionality over aesthetics. The jugs are generally straight with a slight swell at the chest before the shape reduces to a narrow neck. The coolers are visually similar to the jugs with the addition of a bung at the base and much taller and thicker handles to support the vessel’s considerable weight. The crocks are less curvy, with a thick lip and two lug handles on the sides. Their lids are most often plain save for the occasional layer of Albany slip or glaze. A few feature unusually ornate reliefs of flowers or grapes, most likely from a press mold. Almost all of the pieces feature a maker’s stamp, which was pressed into the wet body with an overlay of cobalt slip.


“American Pottery History.” n.d. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.corzilius.org/Narratives/PotteryInAmerica.htm.

“Antique Redware | Pottery & Porcelain Price Guide | Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide.” n.d. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://www.kovels.com/price-guide/pottery-porcelain-price-guide/redware.html.

“Exraordinary [sic] Shaker Herbalist Account Book & Diary.” n.d. M & S Rare Books. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.msrarebooks.com/4DCGI/w_BookDetailS/20951.

Grant, Jerry. “Jugs and Pots.” Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon (blog). October 5, 2016. https://shakerml.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/jugs-and-pots/. Accessed December 15, 2017.

Mansberger, Floyd. “Nineteenth Century Pottery Production In Illinois.” n.d. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://illinoisarchaeology.com/ceramics/Roberts%20Volume%20Paper.pdf.

Ketchum, William C., Jr. Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650-1900. Second edition. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Untangling a collection puzzle

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

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

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

Lamp and Wick holder, Canterbury, NH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




An ingenious time saving device

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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