“We have a set of new dishes on our table…they are pretty and costly we know.”

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Round Serving Bowl, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1961.13237.1

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was recently given a shallow 4 and 7/8’s-inch-diameter bowl made by the Union Porcelain Works (UPW). The bowl is decorated with a green border, small flowers, and the words, “Shakers  Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” These three additions to the Museum’s collection of twenty-eight other pieces of Mount Lebanon porcelain give cause to revisit this subject.

An 1887 entry in a sister’s diary from Mount Lebanon’s Church Family mentions some new dishes bought for the family. She wrote, “We have a set of new dishes on our table [this] morning, marked Shakers, Mt Lebanon, they are pretty and costly we know.” In the early 1950s Shaker Museum Curator Phelps Clawson catalogued the first two piece of this china acquired for the collection. He repeated information believed to have been supplied by a Shaker at Mount Lebanon indicating these dishes had been used initially by the Shakers for daily meals, with later versions sold to visitors as souvenirs. There was speculation in the antiques world that these pieces were made solely as souvenirs since it seemed unlikely that pride-averse Shakers would have found dishes marked with their name suitable. Clawson’s notes, however, are supported by photographic evidence in the Museum’s collection showing pieces of this china on the table in the family’s dining room.

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Church Family Dining Room, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1960.12527.1

Further examination of Shaker records expanded the sister’s initial comment about the new dishes. Church Family trustee, Brother Benjamin Gates and family deaconesses Sisters Cornelia French and Mary Hazard went to New York City on October 12, 1886 “on business concerning dishes for table use; to be made by Order.” Exercising their duty to see to the domestic concerns of the family, they placed their order for new china with the Union Porcelain Works, once located in the Highpoint (now Greenpoint) section of Brooklyn, New York. The manufacturer of the dishes is clearly identified by the UPW trademark on the bottom of each dish. The trademark on the Mount Lebanon dishes include the numerals “12” and “86” or “1” and “87” indicating that they were made in either December 1886 or January 1887 – a period that fits perfectly between the date the Shakers went to New York and the date the dishes appeared on the family’s table. Only two pieces in the Museum’s collection, two shallow saucers, bear the 1887 date, suggesting that most of the order was completed in 1886, although the Museum’s collection contains most, but not all of the types of dishes made for the Shakers.

UPW began producing hard paste porcelain in the mid-1860s and was the first company in the United State to achieve long-lasting success producing china. Porcelain is made of kaolin, a white clay, and feldspar, a mineral that when heated to a high temperature forms a glassy cement that permanently binds the clay and makes it translucent. In the 19th century only a small number of manufacturers in the United States produced porcelain that compared favorably with European imports.

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Cup and Caucer, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8257.1 (cup), 1950.3985.1 (saucer)

At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Charles de Busy, a French member of the International Jury, described the porcelain of Greenpoint (UPW) as “second to none in quality of paste and hardness of glaze.” While some of the pieces were described as “heavy,” de Busy said that “thinner pieces, such as tea and coffee cups, … would figure honorably among the production of Europe.” The pieces in the Museum’s collection bear this out – the serving bowls being heavy and opaque while the cups and their saucers are lighter with a translucence associated with quality porcelain.

To date, no documentation of the cost of the new dishes has been discovered, but an entry in another Shaker sister’s diary suggests that it was not cheap. She wrote, “We have a surprise of great value, on our breakfast table; a set of new dishes. Porcelain ware marked for us Shaker &c. … We hope it may be long ere we need another set.” In the mid-1880s the Church Family at Mount Lebanon had nearly seventy members. Considering that there were probably dinner plates, luncheon plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dessert bowls, and cups and saucers for each member of the family as well as three sizes of oval serving bowls, large round serving bowls, syrup and water pitchers, and relish plates included in the set, the sheer number of pieces could have been well over five-hundred.

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Relish Dish and Small Pitcher, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8254.1 (relish dish), 1957.8253.1 (small pitcher)

It was originally hypothesized that the variety of decoration grouped themselves into three distinct patterns. Since then it has become clear that the decoration is much less organized. The green border and the words “Shakers Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” appear to have been done by printed decal-like transfers while the floral and botanic decoration was hand-painted. The transfer decoration was a common offering of Union Porcelain Works as they made large quantities of what they called “thick” and “half-thick” dishes for hotels – usually decorated with a colored band and the name or logo of the hotel. Why the Shakers opted not to stop with this common offering is a mystery. The management of UPW did offer workspace for amateur painters who wanted to be trained in porcelain decorating to come for supervised practice. It may have been that the wide variety in the painted decoration on the Shakers’ dished was a result of having this group of would-be-painters do that work for little extra cost.

We are pleased to hold such a fine representation of dishes used by the Mount Lebanon Shakers and hope that over the years some of the missing forms and some better examples of forms we have will be added to the collection.

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A four ton trip hammer

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Forge, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2016, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph.

In the winter of 1846 the First and Second Order of the Church Family determined to build a new blacksmith shop, one of stone with waterpower that would operate a lathe, drilling works, a grindstone, bellows for the forge, and a trip hammer. The shop was to be built 34 feet by 44 feet and located in the corner of the Deming Lot at the northeast corner of the land bordered by the main road that ran through the village (now called Darrow Road) and the road that runs downhill to the Shaker gristmill (now called Ann Lee Lane on the east end and Cherry Lane on the west end). The shop still stands and is now a private residence. The 1845 Shakers’ census notes that there were three blacksmiths in what is now called the Center Family – Brothers Arba Noyes, James Vail, and George Long.

Construction was largely done by members of the Second Order with considerable help from hired Irish laborers who did much of the digging for the pit for the waterwheel and laid up most of the stonework. By mid-summer the wheel pit, the drain to carry away water from the wheel, and the masonry work were completed. In the early fall, the hired labor returned to build the dam to create the pond to supply water to power the shop. The dam is still standing and pond is on the east side of the road.

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Interior of the Church Family Forge with the Trip Hammer in its Original Location, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. John S. Williams, Sr., photographer.

The decision to include a trip hammer in their new blacksmith’s shop was bold, but one that greatly increased the Shakers’ ability to fabricate and manufacture items out of iron. Trip hammers of many designs have been used for a couple of thousand years. The basic principle is that some kind of power is applied, in some manner, to raise a hammer larger than can be lifted by a man so that when it is dropped it will come down with more force than a man can exert alone. Trip hammers, in addition to forging iron, have been used for hulling and grinding grain, pounding rags for papermaking, and crushing iron ore to make it easier to extract the metal from the rock. In blacksmithing, trip hammers are often used to draw out flat sheets of metal from an iron bar and to shape a piece of square iron rod, for instance flattening the end of an iron bar to make a shovel and or making round ends on a square bar to make an axel for a wagon.

The Shakers documented their new trip hammer in their journals. In January 1846, Center Family Elder Amos Stewart experimented with a model for a windmill, hoping that he could use wind power “to tilt a triphammer.” This attempt, although it would have saved building a dam for the shop, apparently failed. The next month, Brother Hiram Rude, the family mechanic, went to Lee, Massachusetts to see a “gang of Triphammers.” The Shakers frequently went to visit businesses and factories to stay abreast of new technologies. Apparently in the next few weeks a design for the hammer was drawn up and casting patterns made for the metal parts. Elder Amos and Brother Peter went to Albany to see about castings for the gearing for the hammer. It was nine months later – after the new shop was finished and its forge fired up – that Elder Amos and Brother Braman Wicks, a carpenter from the Church Family, began working again on the gearing to drive the hammer. In July, a tree was cut for the frame to hold the hammer. Apparently by winter that year the Shakers were rethinking the design of the trip hammer. Elder Amos and Brother Hiram went to Cohose, New York, to look at another trip hammer and two days after that trip they had settled “upon the form for a Hammer & spoke for castings in Troy.” This final design was completed and the trip hammer seemed to be in use shortly after that.

While trip hammers were associated primarily with iron work, the Shakers appeared to have another idea for using it quite early on – maybe even before they began planning to built it: pounding black ash logs to break down the bond between the tree’s natural growth rings. When the growth rings are separated, they are easily peeled off in long strips and become the treasured materials from which baskets are woven. Most basket makers would do this work by pounding a log with a sledge hammer. For the Shakers, the ability to more efficiently produce basket weaving material meant that they could greatly increase their production of all kinds of baskets. In November of 1847, Elder Daniel Boler of the Church Family worked “at the blacksmith shop preparing trip hammer for pounding out basket stuff.” The Shakers were so dependent on having basket materials prepared by machine that in  1863, when apparently their own trip hammer was not available, they took ash logs to Bromley King’s forging shop in Waterford, New York, to get them pounded.

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Trip Hammer on xhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca.1985, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Paul Rocheleau, photographer.

This trip hammer is among the largest and heaviest non-architectural objects made by the Shakers. It is over fifteen feet long, six and a half feet high, just over four feet wide, and is thought to weigh around four tons. The machine has two hammers – a large one at one end and a small one at the other end. It was powered by a waterwheel connected by a belt to the wooden drive pulley. Once the hammer got up to speed and the massive cast iron flywheel was rotating to preserve its inertia, one or both hammers could be engaged.

Watch a trip hammer demonstration from Thomas Ironworks, Seville, Ohio 

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Interior of the Blacksmith’s Shop Exhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca. 1955, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. C. E. Simmons, photographer.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s acquisition of the trip hammer has some tales and legends associated with it. In the 1940s John S. Williams, Sr., the museum’s founder, heard that the Shakers were breaking up the equipment in the blacksmith’s shop in preparation for selling the building. He appealed to have the work stopped until he could move the hammer and the forge and bellows to the museum. It was war-time in America and the scarcity of trucks made it difficult to find someone who could move such a heavy piece of equipment. Fortunately, Williams’s good friend Albert Callan, the owner of the Chatham Courier newspaper, had a new printing press being delivered around this time and once the delivery of the press was complete the truck headed to Mount Lebanon to move the trip hammer. Once loaded, they then had to find a route back to the Museum that did not involve crossing a bridge that could not bear the weight of the truck and hammer. Somehow it all worked out and the trip hammer has been at the Shaker Museum ever since.

The Brethren’s Workshop

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. September 23, 2016. Rrom the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

This past summer and fall, photographer Benjamin Swett spent time at Mount Lebanon photographing the landscape and interiors. On his initial visits, he found himself drawn by the way light moved and changed in the corridors, stairwells, and rooms of the building known as the Brethren’s Workshop, and he began to explore the different effects of light on interior spaces. “Studying these effects on the interiors brings one closer to the states of mind of these now-remote people, and spending time with the architecture puts the deliberate, practical, yet simultaneously spiritual and otherworldly mind-set of the Shakers into an accessible perspective,” Swett said.

The 1820s were an amazing time for the Shakers. Their missionary work, both in New York and New England, and as far afield as Kentucky and Ohio, had brought large numbers into the Church. In response to this rapid growth, over the next decade the Shakers embarked on a construction spree, designing buildings to be larger and more substantial than prior ones, building out of stone and brick instead of wood. Between 1824 and 1837, the Shakers built a new meetinghouse, a stone grist mill, a brick workshop, and a brick trustees’ office at Mount Lebanon; the round barn and a new brick dwelling house at Hancock; a brick trustees’ office at Watervliet; and one of their most ambitious and substantial projects – the Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield, NH. When one places all of these buildings and more not mentioned on a timeline, a clear story emerges about the Shakers’ momentum during this time and their feeling of being a church for eternity.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Buildings Survey, N. E. Baldwin, photographer.

In the midst of this boom, in 1829, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon’s North Family built a men’s workshop and family wash house, later known at the Brethren’s Workshop. The new workshop had a large over-shot waterwheel in its cellar that powered a variety of machinery. Despite the masculine name, probably thirty percent of the building was used originally by North Family sisters to wash, dry, and iron clothes. (Workshops for men and women in the same building were not uncommon, even though the Shakers were generally separated by gender.)

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Brick Shop (interior of seed shop), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey, Charles C. Adams, photographer.

The Brethren’s Workshop has three stories, with a basement and a sub-basement and a substantial attic. The building functioned on all six floors, with nearly 17,000 square feet of usable space. The lower cellar housed the bottom of the wheel pit for the two-story water wheel, a cistern for water collected for laundry, and probably some equipment for washing, dying, bleaching, and soap making. The upper cellar housed the main power shaft for the waterwheel and connected through line-shafts and pulleys to heavier woodworking machinery, as well as the wash room for the laundry. The first floor was apparently used for smaller water-powered machinery for men’s work and the ironing room for the sisters. Much of the second floor was occupied by the North Family’s seed shop (pictured above) where they dried, cleaned, sorted, stored, and put up garden seeds into envelopes and wooden boxes for distribution by the family’s peddlers. The third floor held a shoe shop and probably workshops for the family elders and a variety of other industries: hat making, printing, tailoring, and whip making. The attic provided space for drying clothes in rainy and winter weather and probably for drying garden seeds. The Brethren’s Workshop was fitted with an elevator, or more accurately a dumb waiter since it did not transport people. The counterbalanced lift could bring wet clothes from the wash room to the attic for drying and back down to the ironing room when needed. There was no access to the lift from the floors associated with men’s work so apparently was primarily for the use of the sisters.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Historic American Buildings Survey, A. K. Mosley, delineator.

Over time the activities in the Brethren’s Workshop changed. In the late 1870s the Shakers relocated their family laundry to the south end of the 1854 Wood House leaving unused space in the workshop. Some of that space was immediately put to use storing potatoes and cabbages. In the late 1880s an apple storage cellar was constructed in the sub-basement of the building. Little by little shops were abandoned. The North Family brothers stopped making their own shoes and hats. The seed business was discontinued and that shop was used for making rug whips. When the rug whip business ceased, that shop, like several others, was left untouched and used for storage. Over the years people lived in the Brick Shop as well. Hired men were also housed in the building in the twentieth century.

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Slate roof and soffit repair, 2011.

The Shakers left Mount Lebanon in 1947 and by the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair. In 2002 part of the building became home to a team of historic preservation architects who spent a year doing research and writing an historic structures report on all of the North Family Buildings as part of a Save America’s Treasures grant. In 2004 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the North Family site. For two weeks during the summer of that year the museum, with the help of fifteen teenagers enrolled in the Landmark Volunteer Program, cleared the building of non-Shaker items that had collected there over the years. In 2011 and 2012 the museum, funded by the 1876 Foundation and in collaboration with Boston’s North Bennet Street School’s preservation carpentry program, completed extensive repairs to the Brick Shop’s slate roof, chimneys, gutters, leaders, and leader-heads, and unusual plaster covered soffits.

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. October 3, 2016. From the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is working on ways to open this building up to the public in 2017, beginning with Writings on the Walls, tours that look at graffiti left there by the Shakers and those who came after them. In the meantime, Swett’s photographs of the Brethren’s Workshop are on view at the Shaker Bar in Hudson, NY. Join us this Saturday, November 19, 2016 for a reception for the artist. All are welcome. Members show their membership cards for a free drink. Prints are provided courtesy of BCB Art and these limited editions are for sale at the gallery and at the Shaker Museum | Museum’s online store.  A portion of the proceeds from each sale benefit the museum.

 

Reproducing a ca. 1820 rocking chair

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Rocking Chair, Enfield, Connecticut, ca. 1820s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1993.1.24.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has partnered with Tappan Chairs in New Hampshire, to offer a limited edition handmade reproduction of one of the rocking chairs in its collection.

This rocking chair, a fine example of the work of early chair makers at Enfield, Connecticut, is typical of Enfield rocking chairs – made of figured maple with stretchers of a courser grained wood (probably hickory), with front posts and three-inch diameter mushroom-shaped handholds turned from a single piece of wood, four back slats, minimally shaped rockers that do not protrude beyond the front posts, and finials at the top of the back posts that are typical of Enfield chairs.

 

The shape of the finials used on Enfield chairs is very similar to those found on chairs made at Watervliet, New York. On the former they are somewhat flatter at the tip, and the neck, just above the cylindrical post, is thinner and more delicate. This thin-necked finial may have been a problem as chairs were tipped over and finials broken, or perhaps the chair makers anticipated this might happen. Either way, a number of Enfield chairs have quarter-inch iron rods inserted from the top of the finial about five inches into the post to strengthen the neck. When we first examined the example at hand we found that where we might expect to find the top end of an iron rod there was only wood. We tested it with a magnet and found no attraction. The initial conclusion was that the Shakers had inserted a wooden dowel through the finial to strengthen it. It seemed unlikely, however, that a wooden dowel, even one of a wood slightly stronger than hard maple, would have improved the strength of the neck enough to make it worth the trouble. Finally, with a stronger magnet held at the neck of the finial, it was clear, as the magnet clung to the neck, that there was indeed an iron rod inside the finial – however, in this case the top of the iron rod had been covered with a small wooden plug rather than being exposed as on other Enfield chairs. In The Shaker Chair by Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman (The Canal Press, 1984), page 81, the authors illustrate the Enfield finial strengthening with an X-ray, which we reproduce here.

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Reproduction Enfield, CT Shaker Rocker – Limited Edition – From Tappan Chairs

Tappan Chairs, located in New Hampshire, has been in nearly continuous existence since the 19th century and uses traditional methods and equipment. Adam Nudd-Homeyer, proprietor and chairmaker, made multiple study trips to collections storage at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in order to create an accurate but modern version of the Enfield rocker. The finished product features pinned joinery, scribed mortises, mushroom-topped front posts, and filed slats. Made from authentically stained and sealed maple and ash, and seated with a natural rush bottom, the only variations from the original are a slightly larger seat area and longer rockers to prevent tipping.

Only 20 reproduction rockers are available and each is numbered and stamped. The first in the edition was auctioned at the museum’s annual gala in August, 2016. A portion of the proceeds from all sales benefit Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. To order for local pick-up in the Old Chatham, New York area, please contact the museum at 518-794-9100. To choose a different finish or a woven tape seat, and for all orders that must be shipped, visit the Tappan Chairs website.