To mark or not to mark, that is the question

Last week’s post discussed the Shakers and their rules about signing an individual’s work. When the issue of Shakers signing their work is raised, it is often accompanied by a quotation from the “Millennial Laws or Gospel Statutes and Ordinances Adapted to the day of Christ’s Second Appearing,” as they were revised in October, 1845. Section twelve, “Concerning Marking Tools and Conveniences,” article four, states, “No one should write or print his name on any article of manufacture, that others may hereafter know the work of his hands.” This rule has usually been interpreted to mean that Shakers were not allowed to sign anything they made. Let’s consider, however, what that rule means if we interpret, “articles of manufacture” to mean items made for sale to the outside world rather than objects made to be used in the community. It is known that many products made for sale were marked with the initials of the office deacons responsible for conducting business with the outside world and later the names “Shakers” or “United Society” with a community of origin were used to mark Shaker work.

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Die Stamp, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1683.1

The object pictured here, a die stamp, cut to mark the initials “D. M.,” was used at Mount Lebanon to mark various Shaker products sold to the outside world. Spinning wheels, reels, tubs, pails, hand cards, and dippers with these initials identified them as the work of the Shakers. This stamp contains the initials of Deacon David Meacham, Sr. (1744-1826), the office deacon at the time the stamp was first used. Other communities followed this example using their deacon’s initials on some products they sold. The initials “F. W.,” (Deacon Francis Winkley) marked spinning wheels, cooperware, and seed packages sold by the Canterbury, NH, Shakers; ‘’D. G.,” (Deacon Daniel Goodrich) appears on bent-wood measures and hand cards made at Hancock, MA, and “J. H.” (Deacon John Holmes) is found stamped into spinning wheels made at Sabbathday Lake, ME. By mid-century the name “Shaker” appeared more commonly on Shaker products. After the Civil War, the full names of deacons began to appear on Shaker products. Deacon Levi Shaw’s name appeared on rug whips made at Mount Lebanon’s North Family and Deacon Dewitt Clinton Brainard’s name appeared on a variety of products produced at Mount Lebanon.

It is not known if this is this “D. M.” stamp was the only die used to mark products at Mount Lebanon or if there were several of these in use. Robert F. W. Meader, a past director of the Shaker Museum, once said he had seen a reference in a Shaker journal to the serif on the “M” on the die having been accidentally broken off. Some stamps found on Shaker objects have the serif – some do not. The die appears to have been hand forged and lacking any mark indicating who made the die, it is not know if it was made by the Shakers or by a die cutter in the world.

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“D. M.” Printed with Die Stamp on Face of Clock Reel, ca. 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6440.1. The person who used the die stamp to mark the face of this clock reel used it with ink or paint as one would printer’s type rather than as a stamp to incise a the mark.

As for things made by Shakers intended to remain in their own homes and workshops, it should be understood that while anonymity was required for products made for the world, Shakers were not anonymous within their own families and communities. It was certainly not necessary to know who made what for the family, but people did – it was no secret. If someone wanted to know who made the case of drawers in their retiring room it’s likely someone would remember, and probably approximately when it was made. A tremendous amount of information about the built environment must have been retained in the minds of the 50 to 100 members of each Shaker family. In the midst of this kind of shared knowledge the act of putting one’s name on something they made made little difference – most family members would know who made it anyway. Why some cabinetmakers such as Brother Orren N. Haskins signed a number of things he made and others such as Brother David Rowley did not, had less to do with “Gospel Statutes and Ordinances” than it did with individual psyches. In nearly every case when a piece of furniture is found signed by its maker – the signature is on the bottom or back of a drawer or on the back of the piece rather than where it is easily seen.

The Millennial Laws cited above also includes in section twelve an article stating, “It is not allowable for the brethren to stamp, write or mark their own names, upon any thing which they make for the sisters,” or vice versa. While the logic of forbidding behavior that might be intended to curry special favors or affection from a member of the opposite sex seems perfectly reasonable in a celibate community, it is possible read into this rule permission to put one’s name on things made for the family in general or things made for personal use. A third article in the same section says, “The initials of a person’s name are sufficient mark to put upon any tool, or garment, for the purpose of distinction.” In this statute the Shakers are discouraging unnecessary work and the opportunity for unnecessary embellishment in how one marks things. Clothing, linens, woodworking planes, and garden tools are examples of things that may need to be identified as to the person who used it. The collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon strongly reflects an adherence to this statute in the markings found on tools and textiles.

Whether the above is perfectly accurate or not in its argument concerning marks of manufacture and ownership, it is at least our desire to encourage a broadening of the discussion of those rules and sayings that are so often quoted to show that Shaker always or always did not do something.

 

 

Jas. X. Smith

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Jas. X. Smith’s Stamp in Wood, ca. 1950, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Die stamps were standard tools used by cabinetmakers to mark their tools, especially when they worked in a workshop where their tools might become mixed up with those of other workers. This set of stamps was used by James X. Smith to make his mark “Jas. X. Smith” and “New-Lebanon” on his cabinetmaking planes and other tools. While it is common to find initials stamped into the ends of woodworkers’ hand planes and occasionally a full last name, it is less common to find the owner’s whole name and place of residence marked. Brother James X. Smith was a member of the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Born in 1806 in Norwich, New York, his father, also James had unsuccessfully tried to become a Shaker at New Lebanon in the 18th century. Failing this, he dedicated himself to the work of farming and met with considerable success. He married and had eight children, including James X. Smith. Although comfortably rewarded by his labor, he never found spiritual peace. In a complex series of steps having to do with his earlier experience with the Shakers and with his duty to his wife and family, James Sr. and most of his family united with the Shakers at New Lebanon in 1816. By 1843 Brother James X. Smith was serving as the assistant elder at the Second Family. In 1858 he was moved to the Center Family where he worked in the herb business. Two years later he was appointed the Elder at the East Family, but due to poor health was sent to the Church Family where he led a productive life until he died in the faith in 1888.

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Die Stamps made by Benjamin C. True, Albany, NY for Brother James X. Smith, New Lebanon, NY, 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1403, 1950.1404

The stamps Brother James used were made by and purchased from die-cutter Benjamin C. True of Albany, NY, and marked “B. C. True, Albany.” True was active in the 1830s with a shop on Beaver Street. The process of making dies was challenging—carving very small letters into iron that is hard enough to be driven repeatedly into hard wood without damaging the die. The process involves forging the general shape of the die at the blacksmith’s forge, then annealing or softening the iron by heating it to the temperature at which it is no longer attracted to a magnet – somewhere around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – and then letting it cool very slowly. Done properly, the iron will be soft enough to be worked with small chisels, files, drills, and engravers’ tools. The die-maker works with letters in reverse so they will make a right-reading mark. Once the die is cut, it is hardened by bringing it evenly back to around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and quenching, that is, quickly cooling the iron. Done properly the die will withstand repeated use.

Earlier this week Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon sponsored a tour of the current Shaker exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met,” on view through June 25,2017. The exhibition, curated by Alyce Englund, Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts, features Shaker pieces once owned by pioneer collectors and scholars of Shaker history, Edward and Faith Andrews, along with other Shaker items from the Met’s collection; examples of American furniture contemporary with Shaker pieces; and modern pieces inspired by the Shakers, including a 1958 screening of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring ballet. The Museum’s Director of Collections and Research, Jerry Grant, was invited to join Englund in discussion of the objects in the exhibition.

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Work Stand, Made by Brother James X. Smith, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1843, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

One of the extraordinary pieces in the exhibition is a six-drawer work table from Mount Lebanon made in 1843 by Brother James X. Smith while he lived at the Second Family. Brother James used the set of dies to stamp “Jas. X. Smith New-Lebanon N. Y.” across the dovetails of one of the piece’s drawers. The work table is unusual in that it is of panel-and-frame construction at a time when Shakers would usually have made such a piece with wide pine boards to make the sides. The front legs and the boards between the drawers are framed with beading. Brother James edged with top with a strip of wood to keep things from rolling off and marked the front strip to be a 32 inch measuring stick. In anticipation of discussing this piece, Grant brought photographs of Brother James’ stamps for Englund. The Met was unaware of the existence of these stamps and the knowledge of them enhances the story of this particular piece of Shaker furniture.

 

The music was very fine: Brother Elisha’s piano-violin

In the mid-1860s a local “Professor of Music” encouraged the singers at the Shaker Village at Canterbury, New Hampshire, to explore the study of music in order to improve the presentation of their traditional songs. The result was a change from the unique letteral notation the Shakers used for transcribing the melodies of songs to the more generally used round-headed notes, the introduction of singing in parts rather than only in unison, and the eventual introduction of instrumental music by way of organ and piano. Some Shakers believed these and other changes were necessary in order to keep pace with the times and continue to attract converts.  

In the midst of this transition, an inventive Shaker brother, Elisha D’Alembert Blakeman, struck out on a course that he thought would help attract new adherents through music. Brother Elisha was born in 1819 in Clyde, New York. His father, Elisha Sr., a medical doctor, became acquainted with the Shakers at Sodus Bay when they were in need of his medical expertise. When Elisha’s mother died in 1830, his father and Elisa Jr. both united with the Shakers. They eventually moved to Mount Lebanon, the senior Blakeman at the North Family and younger at the Church Family. At age 15, young Elisha began learning  the trade of cabinetmaking. With an inventive, occasionally whimsical mind and a readiness to serve the community, Brother Elisha created and patented a fly-trap; designed “a self-regulating ventilator for lodging rooms &c – to be set under or over the sash of the windows – operated by the wind”; and, when the family’s water power failed, built a swing to which a churn was attached so “one, two or more, then get into the swing, [and] have the delicious pleasure of a swing, while the churn is bringing forth butter.”  Late in the 1860s Brother Elisha, most likely very familiar with a “monochord” used by the family to set the pitch for their songs, set out to make an improvement in the instrument  that would make it not only a useful tool but an instrument which could accompany singers.

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Piano-Violin, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1869, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12948.1

The monochord that the Shakers used in setting the pitch for songs was developed by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs to regularize the performance and presentation of Shaker music from family to family and community to community. Brother Isaac’s monochord was a simple instrument consisting of a string stretched over a hollow box that would reverberate when placed on an empty chest or a table. The pitch of a given song could be set by holding a wooden block down on the string at a marked interval and striking the string to produce the sound. Brother Elisha improved this simple instrument by adding metal keys to replace the wooden block and substituted a violin bow for the pluck of a finger to give the instrument a sweeter sound.

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U.S. Patent 114,520 for an Improvement in Piano-Violins by E. D. Blakeman, 1871, U. S. Patent Office.

In 1871 Brother Elisha sought and received a patent for his improved monochord under the name “Piano-Violin.” The patent was secured by Munn & Company, editors of Scientific American and patent agents. Brother Elisha continued to make improvements on his instrument to the point that on May 6, 1871 he gave a concert on his “new instruments, ‘Piano-Violins.’ The two built of chestnut wood in tune with each other, and my old big cherry, built two years since which carried double base—for the first trial of the three in harmony, the music was very fine.”  Following the publication of the patent, Brother Elisha received inquiries from people who wanted to be agents to sell his new instrument. To promote its usefulness he gave demonstrations to school teachers to encourage its use as a teaching tool. Brother Elisha, convinced he could benefit the Church with his new instrument by giving concerts to attract new members, approached the Ministry for permission to do so. The Ministry did not support his offer. The allure of manufacturing and selling his piano-violin combined with his disappointment in not being able to use the instrument to further the Shaker Church, caused Brother Elisha to leave his Shaker home in March of 1872.

Whether Elisha Blakeman went on to manufacture his piano-violins has not been determined. He did live nearly three decades after leaving the Shakers, dying in Chillicothe, Ohio on April 11, 1900.

The Piano-Violin in the collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is the only one known to have survived. It is, of course, possible that there are others in various collections of musical instruments that have not been connected with their Shaker origin. The Museum’s instrument can be traced to Sister Sadie Neale at Mount Lebanon.

 

 

Why didn’t the Shakers talk about having their pictures taken?

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Photograph of Eldress Anna White, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2017.24190.1.

Recently Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired a carte-de-visite of North Family Eldress Anna White that was created by the Notman Photographic  Company in Albany, New York. In addition to this image the Museum holds two other Notman photos, one of North Family Eldress Antoinette Doolittle and one of that family’s businessman, Brother Levi Shaw. Despite the hundreds if not thousands of photographs taken of Shakers in commercial photographers’ studios, information about these experiences are woefully under-recorded in Shaker records.

William Notman, a Canadian photographer based in Montreal, was both a successful photographer and a successful businessman. Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826 and moved to Montreal in 1856. Already established as a photographer, he set up a studio in the town’s business center shortly after his arrival. He experienced considerable success, including receiving a good medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. (As an aside, his work with the Centennial Exposition included producing photographic identification cards for those working at the Exposition, and in doing so became the father of the modern “photo-ID.”) Following on his success in Philadelphia, he decided to open a studio in Albany, New York, in 1877. It was this studio that was visited by the three Shakers from the North Family.

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Photograph of Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11977.2

The two eldresses seem to have made the trip at the same time. Their cartes-de-visite are nearly identical with the exception of the portrait itself. In both cases the oval image is embossed – rising above the background card. Both images have a number written in pencil at the upper right-hand corner of the back of the card – on Doolittle’s card the number is “5003” and on White’s, “5004,” suggesting they are the sequential negative numbers from which the prints were made.

Notman’s Albany studio was in operation between 1877 and the mid-1890s. Although primarily owned by William Notman, the studio employed local Albany photographers to do the artistic work. When Notman died in 1891 his son took over the business and the studio began to falter. While it is possible to date these photographs with a decade – the studio began operating in 1877 and Doolittle died in 1886 – there is no indication in North Family records that the two eldresses set off to Albany together to have their portraits made. On the back of Eldress Ann White’s card someone has written the date “Ca. 1880” which seems to be a reasonable guess.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.12238.1

The carte-de-visite of Brother Levi Shaw is not an embossed image but resembles the other photographs in every other aspect. The penciled inscription of the negative number reads “3082” on his photograph, suggesting that it was done earlier than those of the two eldresses.

We are interested in knowing about other photographs of Shakers created at Notman’s Albany studio and, of course, any mention of Shakers traveling somewhere with the intention of having their pictures taken. If you have any information to share, please do so in the comments below.