From a spirit communication, an iconic logo emerges: How a Shaker gift drawing inspired CBS

For those of us who have come to know and admire the Shakers, the moment when Anthony McGill’s clarinet opened the first discernible strains of Simple Gifts at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, there was a moment of pleasant recognition. As he was joined by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montero to fill out John Williams’s arrangement of the Shaker song, it was probably all that the audience could do not to sing along: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free…”

“Simple Gifts,” written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Bracket at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, is among the most recognizable contributions the Shakers made to American popular culture. The song has been heard as a memorable theme in Aaron Copeland’s score for Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, and with a slightly modified tune and new lyrics by Sydney Carter for his song, Lord of the Dance. Carter’s adaptation was then used as a driving force in Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance Irish step dancing extravaganza. Simple Gifts has been performed and recorded by Judy Collins, Jewel, and Weezer. It was even sung by the Ingalls family in their little house on the prairie and by a 10-year-old Jodie Foster in an episode of the TV show, Kung-Fu.

In 1959, when CBS Television began using Aaron Copland’s adaptation of Simple Gifts as the introductory theme music for its documentary news series CBS Reports, they were probably unaware of the network’s prior history with the Shakers. In the decade before, the number of homes with televisions skyrocketed. As television was on the brink of becoming more popular than radio, broadcast networks were under increased pressure to supply new shows and to brand themselves visually as they had done in radio with voice and music. The story of branding CBS Television was the Shakers’ first “appearance” on this new media.

William Golden began working at CBS in 1937 in the promotion department. Within three years, based on his earlier work in the art department at House & Garden magazine and a good relationship with Frank Stanton, then head of CBS’s research, he was promoted to the company’s creative director. In 1950, in response to the need for more effective graphic images for television, Golden was asked to develop a new logo. The story of how Golden developed the now universally known CBS “eye” logo is a little muddled with extraneous recollections from some of his co-workers about the stimulus Golden received from “hex signs” on Pennsylvania German barns. However, the path to his idea for the logo leads back to a Shaker gift drawing.

Shaker gift drawings are works on paper made from the early 1840s to the late 1850s that graphically record spiritual visions, or to the Shakers, spiritual “gifts.” These inspired drawings were created by a number of untrained artists and have become an important part of American folk art. Fewer than two hundred of these drawings survive. A number of them were included in the 1935 exhibition, “Shaker Handicrafts,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, ten years later, were presented in an article in The Magazine Antiques titled, “Shaker Inspirational Drawings.” By 1950, artists and designers in New York City were well aware of these unique Shaker drawings.

Around the same time William Golden began his quest to develop a new CBS logo, Alexey Brodovitch, famous as the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, took on a new project – the publication of a magazine dedicated totally to graphic design. The magazine, Portfolio, was published without advertising, supported only by the subscriptions of those with a love for graphic design. Although Portfolio lasted only three issues, it achieved a reputation as the most significant publication on design during the twentieth century. The first issue of the magazine included an article titled, “The Gift to be Simple,” (incidentally, part of the first line of the Shaker song, Simple Gifts) that featured a drawing, untitled and undated, attributed by style and choice of symbols to Sister Sarah Bates of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection). It is a detail of the “all-seeing eye” selected by Brodovitch from the upper center of the drawing that caught Golden’s attention. Luckily for Golden, Brodovitch chose to reproduce the eye from a black and white negative and printed it as a high-contrast image, accentuating the difference between the iris and the pupil. Golden, seeing the potential in the image, handed off the concept for the eye logo to Kurt Weihs, who was able to refine the drawing for its intended use. Weihs was the one who appears most clearly to remember the connection between the CBS Eye and the Shaker drawing in Portfolio magazine. The missing link in the story is how Alexey Brodovitch came to do an article about Shaker gift drawings in the premiere issue of Portfolio.

Sister R. Mildred Barker, from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine in making a point about the real significance of the Shakers in the world, said she did not “want to be remembered as a chair.” Shaker genius, however, expressed itself in many forms – design, invention, social justice, theology, and even the simple chair. The story of the development of the CBS Eye is one example of how the Shakers unintentionally inspired creative impulses in the outside world. In this case, Shakers experienced a spiritual vision. The vision was recorded by a scribe who created a tangible symbol of the all-seeing eye of God held aloft by the wings of an angel. The creative director for CBS used that inspiration to create an image in which the television network makes a case that it is an “eye” that will always be “looking at the world.”

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“[T]he first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.”

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon recently received a small collection of photographs made in and around the town of New Lebanon, New York by an as yet unidentified photographer. Among the photographs is a print of Brother Levi Shaw (1819-1908) standing behind a McCormick binder at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. This photograph was published on page 115 in The Shaker Image by Elmer Ray Pearson and Julia Neal (1974). The caption for the photograph includes a notation written on the original photograph, from which the published copy was taken, that reads: “Br. Levi Shaw of North Family, Mount Lebanon, N. Y. Arranging to buy the first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.” In the second annotated edition of The Shaker Image, prepared by Dr. Magda Gabor-Hotchkiss, she identifies the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, as the owner of the original image bearing that inscription. The Historical Society does not supply either a date or photographer for their copy of the image.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24192.1

The McCormick binder was part of a long line of grain harvesting machines developed by Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884). His original mechanical reaper was a horse-drawn machine that cut grain and gathered an appropriate amount together to be hand-tied into a sheaf with a piece of twine or straw. A number of sheaves, usually twelve, were leaned against each other with grain at the top to form a tent-like structure called a stook or shock. When fully dry, the sheaves were taken to the thresher to have the grain removed from the straw and the chaff from the kernels. McCormick’s reaper was first marketed in 1831 and was a huge improvement over the use of sickles, scythes, and cradles for harvesting grains. In 1884 the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company offered its first machine that added a binding operation to the cutting and gathering done by the reaper. The machine, a reaper-binder, or usually just called a binder, had been invented in 1872 by Charles Baxter Withington.  Many improvements were made by various mechanics before McCormick’s machine was available in 1884. McCormick’s binder used twine and a knotting mechanism to tie the grain into sheaves. The sheaves were dropped on the ground to be gathered into stooks.

An attempt to date this photograph has netted inconclusive but enlightening results. The McCormick company’s first offering of a binder in 1884 and Brother Levi’s death in 1908 provides a wide bracket for dating this photograph.  Records of daily events at the North Family tell us that in 1891 the Shakers purchased a binder on August 1st – “Buy Reaper & Binder $145.” This is the first mention of purchasing a binder in the records to which we have access. If we assume that the comment from the copy of the photograph from the Western Reserve Historical Society is correct, then it is possible that the photograph dates from 1891. However, the binder purchased in 1891 may have been made by another company and the inscription is wrong. Few of the photographs in the collection from which this photograph came are dated. Of the ones that are dated, the earliest is 1894. An inquiry to the “askmccormick” reference desk at the Wisconsin Historical Society resulted in the information that the font style used on the McCormick name plate on this binder was used between 1898 and 1903. We will have to be satisfied with a circa 1900 date for the photograph until documentation of the date the North Family purchased specifically a McCormick binder is discovered.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder at the Shaker Swamp Meadow, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24193.1

In addition to the rather well known image of the Brother Levi and the McCormick binder at the North Family, a second, and possibly previously unknown photograph is included in the collection that shows Brother Levi and the binder working in the North Family’s swamp meadow. This piece of land runs along the east side of New York Route 22 just north of the Shaker’s stone grist mill. The field has now reverted to swamp but after the Shakers had under-drained the land they grew hay, grains, potatoes, onions, and even planted an orchard on the land. This photograph shows the binder in cutting and binding mode whereas the first photograph shows it in transport mode.

While the creator of this photograph has not been identified it seems likely that it was a local man named Will S. Potter or possibly someone in his family. Potter made a number of photographs of the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Most of them were reproduced as postcards in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Many of these postcards had titles, locations, and sometimes Potter’s name written on the negative so that when printed it created a white hand-written description on the postcard. Some of the images in the collection from which the binder photographs came had titles written in a similar manner. These written titles are consistent in style to Will Potter’s postcards but the handwriting is different, causing us to think that possibly someone such as Potter’s wife or photographic assistant may have done the titles for the postcards – if indeed Potter is the photographer. More about that another day.