Miniature books

Cabinet Card, Elder Henry C. Blinn

Cabinet Card, Elder Henry C. Blinn, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1890, W. C. G. Kimball, Concord, NH, photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8531.1.

In the spring of 1849 Elder Henry Clay Blinn, the caretaker of the boys at the Church Family at Canterbury and beginning in 1843 the community’s printer, was given a manuscript to print. The book, The Divine Book of Holy and Eternal Wisdom, was dictated by an angel to Sister Paulina Bates at Watervliet, New York, and at nearly seven-hundred pages was the most ambitious printing project ever done by the Shakers. To accomplish this arduous job the community purchased a new printing press and a large quantity of new type. Elder Henry was released from his responsibilities with the boys and with ample help the work was completed the edition of 2,500 copies in six months. At the end of the work, Elder Henry returned to the care of the boys and to teaching school. This job gave him the knowledge and equipment to print about anything.

It appears that at this time, Elder Henry, fortified by this experience, took on a project that seems the polar opposite of the massive volume he had just completed. This book, a true miniature volume (2 1/8” x 1 7/8”, 128 pages) is titled, A Little Instructor. It was aimed at the youth of the community with his hope that, “these few choice pieces, … will be the means of doing some good to those who are willing to receive instruction in the days of their youth.” Elder Henry used the diminutive size of the book to make the point, surely appreciated by the youngsters, that “We should never despise any thing because it is small, without first making ourselves acquainted with its properties,” and that his readers should “feel assured that it is not the size that makes the value, and that little books, like little boys and gifts, sometimes contain much good sense.” The book begins with an “Address to Young persons” written by Hugh Blair (1718-1800) followed by a poem by David Bates (1809-1870) titled “Speak Gently.” Essays on a variety of moral topics by well-known writers such as Isaac Watts and Oliver Goldsmith are interspersed with articles of interest to youth on single celled animals, elephants, whirlpools, mocking birds, and the hippopotamus.

The Little Instructor (pages 28/29

The Little Instructor (pages 28/29), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1849, Elder Henry C. Blinn, printer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962: 13440.

Elder Henry followed the printing of The Little Instructor with an even smaller book, Dew Drops of Wisdom, a collection of aphorisms – one for each day of the year – printed in 1852. That year Elder Henry was moved into the Elders Order at Canterbury and ceased for the rest of his days to have care of the boys.

While it may seem frivolous for Elder Henry to have printed books in miniature, in fact, by this date miniature books had become popular as a way to engage children in reading. In the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon there are two other, non-Shaker miniature books. Both books have an association with Elder Henry in that they were part of the Canterbury Ministry’s library and one bears Elder Henry’s bookplate. One book, Gift of Piety; or, Divine Breathings, was published in Boston by G. W. Cottrell at an unknown date, and the other, The Golden Vase: A Miniature Gift, was published by J. M. Fletcher of Nashua, New Hampshire in 1851. Both books are similar in content and moral lessons to those delivered in The Little Instructor.

 

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The fleshing beam: Not for weak stomachs

Agricultural pursuits were by far the most important economic engines supporting Shaker families and communities. Shaker farms produced food for the Shakers as well as excess products that were sold. In addition to farming, most Shaker families ran businesses that were designed to provide cash income for the families – cash to purchase the things that the Shakers did not or could not produce for themselves. Many of the products of these businesses – baskets, oval boxes, chairs, coopered-ware, cloaks, yarn swifts, palm-leaf bonnets, etc. – have become popular with antique collectors and essential elements in museum collections. While amazing numbers of these products survive today, there were important industries – sometimes gritty industries – that provided substantial income for some Shaker families but left little physical evidence of their importance. One of the grittiest of these industries was the tanning of hides. The Shakers in several communities operated large and profitable tanneries. The Church Family at Mount Lebanon may have had one of the most important and most successful of all of these operations. The Tan House still stands within earshot of the Meetinghouse but has been repurposed as a meeting hall and performance space for the Darrow School, the current occupants of the property.  The 32 tanning vats in the cellar have been filled in and cemented over and little other evidence of the building’s original purpose is evident. 

Fleshing Beam

Fleshing Beam, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.13021.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

In 1961 the Darrow School held an auction of Shaker materials to raise funds for the planned conversation of the 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library the following year. The object discussed here, a fleshing beam from the Tan House at the Church Family, was purchased by the Shaker Museum at that auction. 

The Beam House.

The Beam House. Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 2. Nürnberg 1550–1791. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317b.2°, from http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/75-Amb-2-317b-77-r/data, accessed October 10, 2017

In brief the tanning process alters the structure of an animal skin to slow its decomposition and make it more durable – sometimes adding color at the same time. The process always begins with an animal – animal skins (hides) were generally obtained from a slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse hides were quickly removed from the slaughtered animal and cured in salt or in the winter frozen to keep them from decomposing. Once they arrived at the tannery they were first taken to the beam house. Here the hides were soaked in lime water to soften hair and any remaining tissue. Following a soaking, the wet hides were placed on the fleshing beam where they were scraped with special knives on both sides to remove all hair and tissue. Once cleaned, the process of tanning – converting the skin to leather – could begin.  There are about as many ways to tan a hide as there are different kinds of animal skins.  There are both chemical and vegetable methods of tanning. The Shakers generally used tannins, organic compounds from which the trade of tanning takes its name, obtained from tree barks. The explanation of this chemical process is better left to chemists. 

The fleshing beam, however, is a relatively simple tool that has changed little since its inception. It is a plank held up with two legs. Tanners prefer that their beams be held at about a forty-five degree angle and that they be sturdy. This beam is made of curly maple with a black locust inlay – the locust being very moisture resistant. It is supported on chestnut legs and has layers of cloth, paper, and straw to pad the upper end. The person using the beam stood at its high end, draped the wet hide over the beam, held it in place by pressing against the padded end of the beam, and scraped the skin with a knife in a downward motion. 

Edward Deming Andrews wrote in The Community Industries of the Shakers (1932) that, “One of the most prosperous industries at the community of New Lebanon was the tanning of leather and such affiliated occupations as saddle, harness and shoe-making.” A small tan yard and tan house were set up there around 1787. The business was greatly improved when the current Tan House was built in 1834 and outfitted with efficient water-powered equipment. The related trades of saddle-making, harness-making, shoe making, braided horse and ox whips, and pads for a thriving business in hand cards for carding wool, provided these items for the family for sale at market.

While the Museum holds a number of tools related to the trades that made things from  leather, there are relatively few tools in the collection that bear directly on the tanning industry. The fleshing beam is an unlikely survivor. 

 

 

 

Splitting wood in the 19th century

Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter

Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1883, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950-1118.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Maintaining a sufficient supply of seasoned wood for heating and cooking occupied a considerable amount of time and space for the Shakers at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. The brothers and hired men would begin getting in logs from the mountain wood lots in February and March. By 1830 the Shakers used a circular saw located outside their Brick Shop, powered by its waterwheel, for cutting the logs and what they called “small wood” (branches) to proper firewood length. The logs were then split by hand and carted to one of several wood houses to season under cover. The work of splitting more than one hundred cords of firewood every year was made much easier in the early 1880s when the North Family purchased a Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter. An advertising brochure published sometime after 1886 carried two testimonials from the Shakers, one from the Canterbury Shakers dated around 1878 and the other from Elder Frederick W. Evans during the winter of 1883. Both highly praised the machines. Elder Frederick visited Canterbury in June, 1878, and likely saw their Hildreth splitter in operation at that time. In the winter of 1883, he wrote  in his testimonial, “I bought it for a Canaan Family. They had a lot of some fifty cords of wood sawed up. It was an exceptionally hard lot to split, – mostly Elm. It was their opinion that the machine would fail to do the job. They set it up and put it to work. The foreman stood and watched the operation for a little while, then turned on his heel and said, ‘That will do! It splits any thing put under it.’”

On March 21, 1883 the brothers from the North Family went down to the Upper Canaan Family to watch the machine in operation. As the original intention was that the machine would be shared between the Upper Canaan Family and the North Family, on March 29, 1883 the machine was brought from the Upper Family and put near the firewood saw at the Brick Shop and powered by the waterwheel. It “worked splendidly.” Two days later, however, the splitter broke and had to be taken to Pittsfield, MA, for repairs. The next year the splitter was set up inside the north end of the North Family Wood House and powered by the ten-horsepower Backus water motor the North Family used to operate the machinery in the laundry in the other end of the building. In the floor of the Wood House, where the machine once stood, the Shaker cut two square recesses either to keep the machine from moving across the floor or to level it – or both. The precise location of the machine is preserved by these recesses. 

Advertising Brochure, Hildreth’s Patent Wood Splitter

Advertising Brochure, Hildreth’s Patent Wood Splitter Manufactured by Hildreth Bros. Harvard, Mass, ca. 1886, Hancock Shaker Village: 4244.

The Hildreth Brothers of Harvard, Massachusetts, manufactured these machines. They were made in several different sizes ranging from the smallest – the one the Shakers purchased, capable of splitting wood up to 17 inches long — to one that would split wood 50 inches long. The Shakers paid $240 for their machine. The patent for the splitter (U. S. Patent No. 205550 issued July 2, 1878) was held by its inventor Edwin A. Hildreth, and witnessed by Stanley B. Hildreth and M. G. Hildreth – likely the “Brothers.”  The promotional brochure for the machine suggests that “Parties testing these splitters on rock maple wood from one to two feet in diameter, and so hard that it was with great difficulty that a hand axe could be made to enter it at all … work[ed] so easily and rapidly that, as they expressed it, ‘the boys had hung up their hand axes and would swing them no longer.’” Operating between 125 to 175 strokes per minute the double splitter could split ten to 18 cords of firewood per day or up to eight to ten cords of kindling. 

[An aside: In 2010 the elementary school in Harvard, MA, was renamed the Hildreth Elementary School to honor the gift of six acres of land and half the construction cost of a school built in 1904. The Hildreth family – Edwin A., Stanley B., and Sister Emily E. – were the donors.] 

Although the Museum’s Hildreth wood splitter has not been used to make firewood since the 1930s, there are still some of these machines in operation – mostly being demonstrated by old-time machinery enthusiasts. To watch one of these splitters in operation follow this link and remember that while the machine in operation here is working at a speed of about 60 strokes per minute, the machine was intended to operate two to three times that fast. 

 

Reconstructing the history of a cupboard

As frequent readers of this blog already know, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is photographing and electronically cataloging its collection in order to create an online catalog that will be shared with the public beginning in 2018. The project, funded by a $750,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, provides the opportunity for staff to re-examine many pieces from the collection.

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA, ca. 1820s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10448.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

Such is the case with this three-door cupboard. The cupboard was obtained in 1958 from the ironing room located in the Shakers’ Machine Shop and Laundry building at the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts. As the cupboard was being photographed recently, it was possible to examine its construction closely and verify that the piece was originally built into the fabric of the room from which it was removed. It appears that the tongue-and-groove boards used to close in the back of the cupboard were not original to the piece because these boards were likely destroyed during removal. The boards on its back and proper right end were replaced by the Shaker Museum with recycled Shaker boards and it is hard to discern whether the piece ever had a proper back and right end.

fig 2

Ironing Room, Laundry and Machine Shop, Church Family, Hancock, MA, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey,  HABS MASS,2-HANC,14—12, William F. Winter, Jr., photographer.

Photographs of the ironing room taken in 1931 by William F. Winter, Jr., now in the collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey, show the cupboard in its original location. A quick trip to Hancock Shaker Village and an examination of that location provided further information on the history of the piece. The wall against which the cupboard was built in retains a rail with iron hooks. There are two cuts in this rail – one that allowed the left end of the cupboard to fit tight against the wall and one where the board dividing the two compartments was likewise fit against the wall. A short piece of rail mounted on the wall against which the right end of the cupboard butted also has a cut out that allowed the front of the cupboard to fit against that wall. This evidence – the cuts in the rail and the Shaker-replaced back boards — strongly suggest that the piece was not originally built for this location and that it very well may have been moved there from another building and installed against the wall. In its original location the back of the cupboard may have merely been the wall against which it was built – explaining why the Shakers had added tongue-and-groove boards to create a back. 

fig 3

Interior View of Ironing Room, East Wall, Church Family, Hancock, MA, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, staff photograph.

It is relatively rare to be able to connect a piece of built-in furniture with the building and the specific location from which it was removed. Often the demolition of the building was the reason the piece was available in the first place. This cupboard, with the Historic American Buildings Survey photographic documentation of its last Shaker location and the existing evidence from the building, now has a much clearer history.