Doris Ulmann’s portrait of Brother William Anderson

A number of photographers are well known to Shaker scholars for their portraits of Shaker brothers and sisters and views of Shaker villages. Very few of these photographers, however, are well known among those who study the history of photography.

One exception is Doris Ulmann. In the late 1920s Ulmann, an amateur photographer from New York City, sought out the Shakers of New Lebanon in her quest to record American “types” – people in their everyday costume doing their everyday jobs. Ulmann had been well educated at the Ethical Culture School and Columbia University; was well married to physician and amateur photographer Charles Jaeger; was well off, with a house on Park Avenue, two cooks, a dressmaker, nurses, and a chauffeur; and was well trained as a photographer, studying with Clarence H. White at Columbia and and then as one of his first students when he opened his own school of photography. Ulmann raged against the modern tools of photography – light meters, roll film, and miniature cameras. Instead she worked exclusively with large glass plate view cameras with lens caps rather than shutters – occasionally using pin-hole plates, declaring she was her own light meter. This would have be all well and good had it not been for the fact that these are the tools of the studio photographer and Ulmann increasingly sought her subjects outside the studio.

Ulmann was small of frame and suffered from a digestive disorder that eventually took her life at the age of 52. Although her first sitters were doctors, writers, and members of the intellectual and creative aristocracy, in 1925 Clarence White died, Ulmann divorced, and she took to the road with her camera to make portraits of people in their natural surroundings. She is best known for her work photographing the Appalachians of western North Carolina, the Gullah Islanders, Dunkards, Mennonites, and in 1926 and 1927, some Shakers at the Second and South Families at Mount Lebanon. How she came to seek out the Shakers is unclear; while in Columbia County in the late 1920s, however, she also did several portraits of Edna St. Vincent Millay at her home in Austerlitz, New York. It is a chicken-or-egg kind of question as to whether the Shakers brought her to Millay or vice versa.

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Photograph, Doris Ulmann [Elder William Anderson], South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1926. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6446.1.

In the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, a photograph of Brother William Anderson, done in his 86th year, was made by Doris Ulmann. She photographed Anderson several times, apparently in two separate years: 1926 and 1927.

The Museum’s copy of her 1926 photograph of Anderson was apparently a gift from her to him. It is signed on the backing mat by Ulmann and on the window mat, in Anderson’s hand, is written, “William Anderson, 86 Years Young.”  Ulmann routinely gave her sitters copies of their portraits. The photograph of Anderson in the Museum’s collection was given to the Museum by Thomas E. Kelly of Lenox, Massachusetts. Kelly received the photograph directly from William Anderson. In the photograph Anderson is wearing a straw hat and holding a large book. In another version of the photograph Anderson appears in profile with his hat off and his hands on the open book. Still a third version of the photograph in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, shows Anderson facing the camera with his hands apart on the open book with his hat hanging in the background.

William Anderson was born in New York City on February 20, 1841. William’s father, Samuel, left his wife and children to go Canada. William and his younger sister, Martha Jane Anderson, came to the North Family at Mount Lebanon in 1855. Martha remained with the North Family her entire life while William moved to the East Family in 1866 and when that family closed in 1872, he moved to the Church Family, where he had charge of the seed business for twelve years. In 1884 he became a member of the South Family, where he remained until his death in 1930. Brother William managed the Shakers’ chair manufacturing and made a specialty on the Shaker farm of growing potatoes to sell in the local markets. Williams served as the Family Elder. He was known for his strong bass voice at Shaker meetings even though as a child he has suffered an accident that left his hearing imperfect and, in fact, in his later years nearly was totally deaf. As described in a newspaper obituary, “With his long white hair reaching in curls almost to his shoulders, his whiskers, his Shaker hat and long coat, in style in the ‘70s, he was a veritable patriarch of old.” That is certainly the image of Elder William that Ulmann was able to capture for us.





No carpenter or joiner: Elder Bushnell’s blanket chest

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Blanket Chest, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1 Photo by Alan Lavallee.

In June 2001 the antique firm Courcier and Wilkins of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts purchased a red painted two-drawer blanket chest. The piece had suffered moisture damage to several of its feet and, in hopes of salvaging the piece for resale, Courcier and Wilkins made arrangements to have the feet restored. When the cabinetmaker doing the restoration turned the piece upside down to work on the feet, he found an inscription written on the bottom of the drawer slide supporting the upper drawer. The inscription read:

“1866 Richard Bushnell Maker North Family Shaker Village Mt Lebanon N.Y. The first chest he ever made being no carpenter or joiner and now in the seventy-six year of his age – 1866.”

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Blanket Chest (detail of inscription), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1. Photo by Robert Wilkins.

Although no carpenter or joiner, Elder Richard (1791-1873) certainly did a fine job at being one. The chest is well made and very much in the tradition of similar pieces made at Mount Lebanon. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, at that time in negotiations to acquire the North Family property, understood how important this particular piece would be in telling the story of that family and particularly of one of its most important members.

Richard Bushnell was born in Saybrook, Connecticut on November 19, 1791. He moved to New York City and learned the trade of making horn combs. When finished with his apprenticeship he set out toward Utica, New York to find a farm and a circumstance for himself. His travels brought him to New Lebanon, where he lodged for the night at a local hotel. He asked who lived in the beautiful hamlet he could see on the hillside. The hotel-keeper cautioned him about the “fanatical followers of Ann Lee,” but the curious twenty-two-year-old ignored her warning and went the next day to see for himself. The village impressed him with its order, cleanliness, and quiet – “there were no dogs, no loafers, no drinking saloons.” Elder Calvin Green noticed the “serious and thoughtful” young man at the public meeting and later investigating the grounds of the village. He invited him to rest and become acquainted with the Shaker faith.

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“Group of Shakers (detail),” Stereograph, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1953.6118.1. Photo by James Irving. Elder Richard Bushnell is the man sitting in front of the fence with his hat on his knee.

Richard’s visit shaped the rest of his life. He quickly accepted the Shaker faith, put his business affairs in order, and in 1813 became a Shaker. As a Shaker Brother Richard was quickly identified as a strong force in the North Family. In 1821 he was appointed the family Trustee and six year later the Second Elder under Calvin Green, whom he replaced in 1832. Bushnell was known for his strong leadership, his frugal care of the family’s resources, and his hard work. In 1850, he set out 1,200 locust trees in “the Grove” for the Shakers to harvest as fence posts to use and to sell. Many of the locust trees still growing in the North Family are volunteers from Elder Richard’s first crop. In 1858 Bushnell resigned his Eldership at the North Family to stand as the Second Elder in the Lebanon Ministry, but “due to a nervous disorder” he never took up residence at the Church Family. He was apparently resistant to assume his new role in the Ministry and it was eventually decided he would remain at the North Family and take up making seed boxes. In 1861, working at the North Family Saw Mill, he cut off some fingers with the buzz saw, but apparently continued to be able to work with wood as evidenced by the blanket chest featured here.

Eldress Anna White wrote of Elder Richard Bushnell that he “was a spiritual father of the purest and holiest type, beloved by his family and held in highest confidence and esteem in the whole region where his life was spent,” and Elder Frederick Evans, who succeeded Bushnell as the North Family Elder, wrote, “A brother who I esteem as one of the best men now living upon the earth.”


The history of a sign

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[sign], Second and South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1870-1920s, pine, paint. 1950.1095.1

This sign directing people to where they could purchase the well-known Shaker chairs has had a more varied life than one would guess at first glance.
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Stereograph, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. 1953.6117.3

By the mid-nineteenth century most Shaker families at Mount Lebanon had an Office from which they conducted public commerce; most of these Offices also housed a store where the public could buy Shaker products. The public road that ran through Mount Lebanon was peppered with signs that read Office & Store. The North, Church, Center, Second, and South Families all had signs like this one. This particular sign appears to have had three incarnations over the years as its purpose and location changed. It was apparently first mounted on the door cap, the wedge-shaped porch roofs used on Shaker buildings to protect their doorways and steps, of the Second Family’s Office and Store.  It is painted to read OFFICE & STORE and appearance and location is preserved in a stereograph probably dating from the 1870s.



[Sarah Collins in Front of the Chair Shop], Mount Lebanon, NY ca. 1910. 2012.023252.001

By the 1920s the sign appears in several photographs at the South Family, where it hung above the door of the Brethren’s Workshop where chairs were sold. By this time the word OFFICE had been modified to read CHAIR, the “and” or “&” removed and the word STORE possibly touched up but mostly unchanged.
When William F. Winter was photographing buildings at Mount Lebanon in the 1920s for the New York State Museum (later to be incorporated into the Historic American Buildings Survey’s photographic documentation of Shakers at Mount Lebanon), the word STORE had been painted over with the word SHOP. That remains the sign’s message.

Cloak cutting counter

cloak counter from assouline book

Counter for Cutting Cloak Material, 1850s. Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY. Pine, maple pulls, brass tacks, red paint. 1950.382.1

This counter was last used by Sister Emma J. Neale in the Mount Lebanon workshop where she directed the manufacture of the famous Shaker cloaks. It is likely the same counter at which she was photographed (below) working in the cloak shop in the early 1900s.

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[In the Cloak Workshop], Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1905. 1957.008964

The counter is more than ten and a half feet long and over a yard wide, allowing for a substantial amount of material to be rolled out and cut. Its size and the arrangement of drawers is unusual and a good demonstration of the Shakers’ precision and their adherence to utility in all their designs. The counter has sixteen drawers, no two of which are the same size, instead increasing in depth from top to bottom and in width from left to right. The topmost drawers are very shallow and barely noticeable under the lip of the counter-top. No doubt each drawer had its own individual purpose.

Brass round-headed tacks are located along the edge of the top: one foot from the left end and at three foot (one yard) intervals along the length of the counter, allowing quick measurements of cloth. The counter has substantial wooden rollers built into its base, making it possible to pull the counter out from the wall in order to work on both sides. It is finished on the back and ends with vertical beaded boards to give the piece a finished look from any aspect. The finish appears to be a single thin coat of red paint.

Emma Neale was eight years old when she and her five siblings joined the Mount Lebanon community in 1855. By 1901 she was one of the trustees (administrative and spiritual leaders) of the community. At the time the Shakers were in serious debt due to the purchase of land for an ultimately unsuccessful community in Florida, and she launched “E.J. Neale & Co.,” a cloak manufacturing company. She was a shrewd businesswoman, managing the family’s finances and selling  cloaks and other fancy goods until she was overtaken by ill health in 1940. She died in 1943, having spent 88 of her 96 years as a Shaker and 58 of those as a trustee.