Photography begins as part of $750,000 grant-funded digitization project

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Set-up for collection digitization, March, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon

In 2016 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received a $750,000 grant from The Henry Luce Foundation to create an online digital catalog of its collections. Work has been ongoing entering data about the museum’s object, archive, and library holdings and in March of this year, photography of the collections began. Boston-based photographer John Mulligan spent a week at the Shaker Museum’s Old Chatham campus, and photographed about 300 objects. He will continue this work one week per month over the next year, producing high quality digital images of the collection.

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Oval boxes waiting to be photographed as part of the digitization project at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, March, 2017.

Planning for photography began in February. Though staff at the museum have long created reference images of objects as part of the process of cataloging, it is not practical (or even, perhaps, desirable) to capture a high quality image of every piece in a collection that numbers over 56,000 objects. Staff had to ask: Which objects should be photographed by the professional, and for which do in-house images suffice? A number of factors come into play.

First the collection must be considered in terms of broad categories defined by both form and function. From these, objects are selected that comprise representative examples of the type. For example, included in the category of case furniture are chests of drawers, blanket chests, cupboards, and tailor counters.  The range of activities associated with hat manufacture are represented by hat and brim molds, bonnet molds, patterns used to cut pieces of woven material into bonnet sections, and samples of woven straw and palm leaf. A survey of hand tools would include a selection of woodworking tools such as planes and cutters, metalworking tools such as punches and casting patterns, and leatherworking tools such as awls and shoe lasts.

Within specific object types, a number of criteria are considered as well. In examining each of the museum’s 75 or so oval boxes, the first group of objects that were photographed, staff asked: what is the significance of this object, or what story can it tell in terms of provenance or association? Special attention is paid to pieces with inscriptions, particularly names, such as the box labeled “Frederick W. Evans 1857” on the lid header. Does the box have particular aesthetic value in its paint color or finish, or type of wood used, when compared to the others? Is it unusually well executed when the cut of the swallowtails, the pattern or placement of the tacks, or the fit of headers to the rims are considered? It’s also important to be sure that as many Shaker communities as possible are represented, so that eventual visitors to the museum’s website can compare boxes made at Mount Lebanon, NY, Canterbury, NH, Sabbathday Lake, ME, and more.

The goals of the photography project are the same as that of the digitization project overall: to provide a powerful research tool for students and specialists of Shaker history; to facilitate access and promote loans and exhibitions of the works and objects; and to ensure that visitors to the website can explore the museum’s rich holdings from anywhere in the world. The project is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2018. Stay tuned to the museum’s blog to keep abreast of new developments.

Writings on the Walls: The Brethren’s Workshop

Brethrens Workshop

The Brethren’s Workshop, or Brick Shop, circa 1920’s. North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York. Photographer: William F. Winter. Source: Historic American Buildings Survey.

The buildings of the North Family are full of clues pointing to past uses by the Shakers, from slots in floors and ceilings for belts that once powered machinery, to the peg boards that still line the walls of many rooms. One of the most widespread and mysterious of clues at the site involves the wealth of writing, recording, and material remnants on the walls of the site’s oldest extant structure, the Brethren’s Workshop, built in 1829.

In 1985-6 Dr. Michael Coe of Yale University and Dr. Ernest Wiegand of Norwalk Community College led the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village Archaeological Project to document, inventory, and assess structures and items found at the North Family historic site. A segment of that project focused on “superficial and subsurface archaeological field investigations at several sites,” which included graffiti found in the Brethren’s Workshop. The report included a catalog of graffiti, with measured drawings, research, and condition reports.

In the summer of 2016, the “Brethren’s Workshop: Writing On the Walls” project was launched to fill in the narrative gaps surrounding the wall remnants through research and new photography. The result was a new graffiti catalog building upon the original, with narrative analysis detailing what these historic remnants tell us about the Brethren’s Workshop and the people who worked and / or lived there. Support for the project came from a Vision Grant from Humanities New York.

The Brethren’s Workshop, or “Brick Shop” as it was called by Shakers, was constructed in 1829, when the corner stone was laid on April 27. From that point through the North Family’s closure in 1947, the workshop was home to Shaker Brothers and Sisters, hired workers and their families, and has been host to carpenters, teenage trespassers, archaeologists, guided tour groups, and exhibitions.

In its earliest days, the Workshop was used as space to do laundry by Sisters, and by Brothers as the center of their broom-making, fruit-selling, and seed businesses, the latter of which eventually grew into a major operation with trade routes in every direction from New York City to the western frontier. Over time, the range of trades plied inside the Workshop expanded to include shoemaking, constructing coffins, cabinetry and other woodwork, printing, carpet beaters (also known as rug whips), poultry, and likely more beyond the recorded history.

Hand print in black ink

Hand print in black ink, found on the third floor’s printing shop room.

In the basement floors, coffins, eggs, fruits, and vegetables were stored, in particular a “nice apple cellar” recorded as built on November 5, 1891. This supported the apple-selling business, whose remnants appear in the basement’s northwest and east spaces. On the first floor, woodworking went on in the carpentry shop. The second floor was used for a variety of purposes, including making carpet beaters and brooms, but the primary work there was the seed business, and seeds were stored, counted, and packaged for sale there. Based on graffiti and interviews with a former hired man who resided in the workshop, chickens may have been kept on the second floor. Finally, the third floor contained the printing and shoemaking shops. Most of the graffiti and markings found in the workshop reflects this layout.

Brother Curtis White with a hired man in the kitchen garden

Brother Curtis White (left) with a hired man in the kitchen garden, circa 1930s. The workshop can be seen in the background.

Shakers were not alone in undertaking all of these different types of work. Especially following the Civil War, the Shakers experienced labor shortages due to loss of (primarily male) members and therefore employed large numbers of hired men, or “hirelings,” in various supplemental roles; in 1893, the North Family journal records 11 male and 31 female resident Shakers.

Hired men were housed both in the upper floors of the nearby Farm Deacon’s Shop, but also in the Brethren’s Workshop itself, including in some cases with their families; Ashly Pratt, a former hired man who was interviewed in 1986, described arriving around 1922, moving into the workshop and joining three other hired hands and families. He described cold, bare conditions, having only cold running water for washing, and a portable chemical toilet. Other hired men’s families included the Face family (one of whom, Elroy, would go on to become a Major League Baseball player and pioneer modern relief pitching), the Gallaghers, and the Griswolds. Also living in the workshop were visitors to the North Family.

Wallpaper remnants

Wallpaper remnants, found on the second floor.

One notable example of a visitor living temporarily with the Shakers is that of Peter Neagoe, a Romanian writer and artist who’d spent a portion of his younger years at the North Family, where he apparently designed marketing material for Shaker products. Later, he and his wife stayed in the workshop several summers intermittently from 1912 through the 1920s, and eventually purchased a home in New Lebanon. It is likely that it was the Neagoes who were responsible for the wallpaper found on the workshop’s second floor, as the Family journal records Neagoe making renovations preparatory for his wife’s arrival.

The story of the Brethren’s Workshop is of the many different people who called it home, Shaker and non-Shaker alike: their lives, their work, and their marks left at the North Family. The building housed generations of Shakers, and later non-Shakers, who worked together to make the North Family operate as an efficient and prosperous economic enterprise. The marks, sketches, designs, and recordings all tell a very clear story about its utilitarian use.

This month, members of the public are seeing the results of the project and exploring these remnants of the past up close and personal. A tour will occur on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 3PM. You can register for the tour online here. Following both programs, the full report will be made available for download online.

 

“The rooms are all numbered, but not with any Showy sign or label”

The Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

The Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871, Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon, Accession Number: 1960.12583.1. James Irving, Photographer

No single Shaker building provided a physical environment that harmonized more perfectly with the Shakers’ vision of what it meant to live outside the common course of the world than the “Great House” – the Church Family Dwelling – at Mount Lebanon. The architecture, furnishings, personal accessories, and conveniences of daily life were the pinnacle of Shaker design as it reflected the Shakers’ spiritual life. “It is advisable for the center families in each bishopric, to avoid hiring the world to make household furniture…” states Part four, paragraph twenty-eight of the “Millennial Laws,” as revised in 1845, and it can be assumed that as the living quarters of the most central of all families in the most central of all bishoprics, the Great House was carefully furnished with little hint of worldly style and fashion. We will never know for certain, however, because on February 6, 1875, Charles Harris, a disgruntled employee at the family’s medicine shops, burned it all down. Harris set a fire that burned eight buildings at the Church Family and nearly destroyed several others, including the 1824 Meetinghouse. Later in the month he burned down the Herb House as well. As a result, even though the Shakers made every effort to save their belongings, we know of very few objects that can absolutely be associated with the Great House. Harris eventually was convicted of the crime, jailed, and died in prison at his own hands,

Selection of Paper Labels for Marking Objects in the Great House

Selection of Paper Labels for Marking Objects in the Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1833, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.376.1

One object in the collection of Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon related to the Great House is a box of paper labels with numerals and letters printed on them. The box and its contents were made in 1833 by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs (1793-1865). Brother Isaac, a resident of the Great House for all of his adult life, was a fastidious brother with a passion for order. He described how the paper labels were used in a December, 1833, letter to Elder Benjamin Seth Youngs, at South Union, Kentucky: “the rooms are all numbered, but not with any Showy sign or label—then we have large figures printed on paper about an inch in depth for which I made some types on purpose which we paste onto the furniture, chairs, brooms—store things, &c. &c. that belong to the several apartments which helps much to keep things in their place.” A few objects have surfaced over the years with Brother Isaac’s numbers pasted on them, including two books in the Museum’s collection, but most of the items must have burned. The books most likely survived by having been taken elsewhere before the fire. One, a Holy Bible printed by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1802 is marked on the cover with the numeral “9,” and a copy of Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee (1827) in a blue paper binding is marked with a numeral “7” label.  It is interesting to note that room “7” was Brother Isaac’s room until he was moved to another room in 1840. The box itself was likely kept in Brother Isaac’s workshop rather than in his retiring room, and thus survived the fire.

vHoly Bible and Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee

Holy Bible (Worcester, 1802) and Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee (Albany, 1827), Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.3319.1 (Testimonies) and 1950.3312.1 (Holy Bible). John Mulligan, Photographer

The box itself is neatly made. About the size of a Shaker seed box, it is hand dovetailed with a lid with cleats to keep it from warping. It is divided into thirty-six compartments. On the inside of the lid, Brother Isaac inscribed, “December 10, 1833,” and is signed with his distinctive pencil flourish that includes this initial, “i. n. y.”

Compartmented Box with Numbered Labels

Compartmented Box with Numbered Labels, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1833, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.376.1. John Mulligan, Photographer

In a eulogy to Brother Isaac written by Brother Elisha Blakeman in 1866, he describes this very useful Shaker brother: “His mechanical genius was remarkable. In him was combined, The Carpenter, Cabinetmaker, Clock and Watch-maker; which obligation he filled to the last. He many years did the Tayloring, and when needed, could turn Machinist, Mason, or anything that could promote the general good. Very many of our little conveniences which added so much of our domestic happiness owe their origin to B[rother] Isaac…”(1)