A Shaker “Ne plus ultra”

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 1870s, the Shakers at Hancock manufactured expandable/collapsible yarn swifts for sale.  Among other occasional uses, swifts processed skeins of yarn into balls for knitting or crocheting.  A knitter faced with this task could ask someone to spread his or her arms and hold the looped skein as it was slowly wound off into a ball, or lacking a willing assistant, could place the skein over the slats of a swift, expand its slats (much like opening an umbrella), and, with the skein held securely, wind a ball of yarn without help.

It appears that, like oval box making in other Shaker communities, at Hancock swift-making fell to the community elders as it was work that could easily be put aside when their administrative duties took precedent. Elders Grove Wright (1789-1861) and Thomas Damon (1819-1880) are the two names associated with Hancock’s swift business and both are known to have been accomplished woodworkers. The number of swifts made by one or both of these two brothers averaged over 900 pairs per year between 1854 and 1860.

 

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

All of the pieces necessary for assembling a swift were turned on a lathe with the exception of the slats that held the yarn. Each swift required one or two of each of the turned pieces, but required twenty-four slats for the swift to be completed. Producing nine hundred swifts required over 21,000 slats. That arduous task apparently set Elder Thomas on the road to making a machine that would lighten this burden. His solution was to design and build a machine that took a rough-sawn piece of wood, smoothed its flat sides, made it the required thickness and width, and slightly rounded its edges – all with a single pass through the machine. His planning and construction of this machine paid off, for on October 10, 1854, he recorded in his diary that he, “Started a new machine for planing & edging Swift slats, it worked charmingly and bid fair to be the ‘Ne plus ultra’ in that line.” The remaining work of preparing the slats was relatively easy. Once the ends were rounded and it had holes drilled in it, it was ready for assembly. While we do not have production statistics for swifts made in years prior to 1854, when this machine was put in service, it is likely that the number greatly increased.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

In the woodworking industry, machines similar to Elder Thomas’s machine are called four-sided molding machines and are commonly used to make decorative moldings for houses and furniture. The Shakers’ four-sided molding machine was purchased by the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon from the Hancock Shakers’ workshops in 1958.

 

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Mail bag

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

On October 1, 1861, a post office was established at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. Elder Richard Bushnell was appointed the first postmaster. The creation of this post office caused the Shakers to change their village name from New Lebanon to Mount Lebanon so as not to confuse their post office with the one in the town in which they lived. This office operated at the North Family until the fall of 1863, when the Elders there requested it be removed, saying, “they cannot abide it there any longer on account of advantages that young believers take of it, in their mail matters also, on account of the great gathering of company there on that account.” [1] Apparently the post office was too great a social draw and the Elders disapproved. As a result, the post office was moved to the less central Church Family Office where it was managed by one sister or another until it finally closed in 1930.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Prior to the establishment of their own post office, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon made use of the local post offices in New Lebanon and Lebanon Springs, collecting their mail and bringing it back to the village for distribution. The object at hand, a heavy leather cylindrical carrying case lined with brown linen, and just over twenty inches long and eight and a half inches in diameter, was used to retrieve the Shakers’ mail. Sisters at Canterbury, NH recollected that it had once belonged to Elder Frederick Evans at the North Family and was used by him for that purpose. This style of bag, sometimes called a portmanteau, was used by the Post Office Department in the mid-1800s to transport mail because it is nearly weatherproof. The large outside leather flap straps down over a small oval door that also can be tightly buckled. On the top front of the outer flap the words, “NEW. LEBANON. NY. FEBy. 1848.” are blind stamped in the leather.

The mail bag was purchased from the Canterbury Shakers by H. Phelps Clawson and donated to the Museum in 1953. Clawson was the Museum’s first curator and was responsible for the initial cataloguing of the Shaker collection assembled by museum founder John S. Williams, Sr.

[1] “A Register of Incidents and Events [Kept by the Ministry], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, 1849-1890, New York Public Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 4, p. 168.

Jugs and pots

It is generally accepted that the Shakers in the eastern communities purchased rather than made their crockery. With the exception of pipes – both for water and for smoking – that seems to hold true even though several communities were near ample supplies of good quality clay. Watervliet and Mount Lebanon, New York, however, were both close enough to the major pottery hubs of Albany, Troy, and Fort Edwards, New York, as well as the potteries in Bennington, Vermont, to never want for a supply of jugs, pots, jars, and pitchers.

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Stoneware Jug, Church and Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1853-1866/7, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.653.1

In Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s collection of stoneware acquired from the Shakers at Mount Lebanon there are four pieces that lack the name of the manufacturer but in its place have been stamped, “FROM | E. FOWLER |NEW LEBANON N. Y.” Brother Edward Fowler (1800-1878) was both a Shaker Trustee and had charge of some of the Shakers’ medicinal manufacturing. One of the jugs has several labels attached to it that read, “Fluid Ext. | White-wood Bark | Lariodendron (i.e., Liriodendron),” suggesting that this particular jug was used either to store or sell extracts from the bark of the tulip poplar tree. Two of the pieces in the collection are jugs of a four gallon capacity, one is a jug that holds three gallons, and the fourth is a six-gallon pot. The decoration of the three jugs was clearly done by the same “painter,” while the decoration on the remaining pot is quite different in style. The cobalt slip glaze used in the decoration on all of these pieces is very heavily applied, to the point that on the jugs it has bubbled and on the pot it has partially chipped off. The interiors of all the jugs and the pot are glazed with a dark brown slip. This feature, known in the upper Hudson Valley as “Albany Slip” allows the suggestion that all were made in the Albany area rather than in Bennington.  Further searching for the maker of these pieces was aided by the on-line catalogue of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, wherein is listed a butter pot marked, “FROM | E. FOWLER |NEW LEBANON N.Y.” However, this pot also bears the stamped inscription, “ALBANY. NY |3.” This mark is associated with the Albany Stoneware Factory that operated on Hamilton Street in that city between 1853 and 1866/7. The pot in the Winterthur collection is decorated with the same design as the three jugs in the Museum’s collection.

The impressed stamp found of all of these pieces was apparently applied with a tool similar to a bookbinder’s type holder in which individual pieces of lead printing type or brass debossing type can be arranged, tightly-mounted, and used to press whatever is written into clay before it is fired. On one of these pieces, the six-gallon pot with the different decoration, Edward Fowler’s last name is misspelled, “Fowlre,” suggesting that this pot was not made at the same time as the others – an observation that may explain the difference in its decoration. The Museum’s collection includes a number of jugs and pots that were made by the Albany Stoneware Factory and bear their mark, but only these four pieces are marked with Brother Edward’s name.