The earliest oval boxes: A conundrum

The simple oval-shaped bentwood box ranks high on the list of iconic objects associated with the Shakers. These boxes are pleasing to the eye and the hand. They are often colorful, painted in reds, oranges, greens, blues, browns, and yellows. They were typically made in more than a dozen different sizes ranging from around two inches long to well over a foot, and many of them were made to nest one inside the other. In addition to their varied physical attributes, these boxes served a variety of uses: in the kitchen and pantry they held salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, herbs, and spices; in the sisters’ workrooms they held sewing notions; and in the brothers’ workrooms they held tacks, nails, screws, dry paint pigments, and on and on. Many of the oval boxes used by the Shakers are inscribed with the names of those users as well as names of the makers, dates, and descriptions of how they were used. All of these attributes make these boxes particularly interesting to collectors and particularly useful to the Shaker Museum in telling Shaker stories.

Craftsmen in any Shaker community may have made boxes for use in their community, but not every Shaker community had an industry that produced boxes for sale to the outside world. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon, Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake, Alfred, and Union Village did, at various times, produce boxes in quantities great enough to make notable sales to the outside world. Around 1850, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs at Mount Lebanon collected information on some of the industries at Mount Lebanon – including the oval box industry. He noted that at Mount Lebanon, boxes were first made for sale at the Church Family around 1799, making this one of the earliest Shaker businesses. This continued until after the Civil War when the business was moved to the Second Family. There it was carried out with varying success into the 1930s. Between 1822 and 1865 over 77,000 boxes were made at the Church Family. Much fewer were made at Mount Lebanon after 1865. Other communities with box industries did so in a manner close to what had been established at Mount Lebanon, but none of them matched the quantity of boxes made. Brother Delmer Wilson at Sabbathday Lake continued making boxes into the 1950s and some boxes were made by Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in this century.

While oval boxes may seem complex their manufacture is pretty straightforward. Shakers called the bent parts of the box the rims. The flat boards fit into the rims were called the heading. The narrow arch-shaped overlapping ends of the rims were called swallowtails (often just called “fingers”). Box rims were bent to shape using steam and a shaping form. They were tacked through the swallowtails to keep them bent in an oval shape. To do this copper tacks were driven through the swallowtails to secure the rims. When dry, the heading was cut to fit into the rims and secured with points – small copper, iron, or wooden wedges driven through the rim into the edge of the heading. No glue was used to secure the parts together. Most of the thousands of boxes the Shaker made followed this formula. Though the shape of the swallowtails and the pattern the craftsman chose for nailing them to the rims may differ, the choice of copper, wood, or iron points may be determined by available materials, and the skill with which the boxes were finished may vary widely, the construction of these boxes is predictable.

There are a small number of oval boxes that have been attributed to the Shakers by their general appearance that diverge in several ways from the standard boxes described above. They are sometimes called “tucked-finger” boxes for a reason that will soon be apparent. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has five examples of these boxes in its collection; they have several distinctive characteristics that easily identify them:

  • First, the shape of the oval of the box is a very rounded compared to the more elongated elliptical shape of most Shaker boxes.

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.5a,b (left); 2016.5.6 (right). Staff photograph.

  • Second, the narrow ends of the swallowtails, rather than just being tacked down, are inserted through small slots in the rim and then tacked to the rim – therefore, “tucked-finger.”
  • Third, the tacks at the end of the swallowtails are the only copper tacks used in the boxes. All of the rest of the fasteners used to secure the swallowtails are wooden pegs.

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fourth, the fastening of the rims to the heading is done with wooden points. This is done in an unusual pattern. Usually, points are spaced fairly evenly around the box rim, but on these boxes five to eight points (depending on the size of the box) are used to secure the heading just to the left of the center of the rims. These are in addition to the points that are spaced evenly around the rest of the rim.

    fig 5

    Detail of Points Fastening Box Rim to Heading, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fifth, the pine heading material used in these boxes is generally of very tight-grained old-growth pine.

    fig 1

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • And sixth, a number of these boxes are decorated or have remnants of decoration. Boxes can be painted a single color, painted to have a fancy grain pattern, painted with floral or other designs, or painted with a scene.

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

Several of these divergences in construction and materials from the common boxes made by the Shakers suggest that these boxes were made quite early – the use of tight-grained pine and the frugal use of copper tacks may indicate the boxes were made at a time when old-growth pine was still standing on Shaker land and when the making of copper tacks was a laborious and expensive process. The extra effort of inserting the ends of the swallowtails into the box rims suggests that the makers did not fully understand that this was unnecessary to make the boxes structurally sound. All of this, plus the general scarcity of these boxes, points to the possibility that these boxes were the earliest products of the Shakers’ oval box makers – the prototypes of what would become the iconic Shaker oval box.

A problem with these observations emerges with the realization that none of these boxes, to date, has a solid provenance connecting it directly to the Shakers. This, then, is the challenge: to try to establish a clear connection between extant examples of these boxes and the Shakers. Four of the five boxes in the Museum’s collection were collected in New York State in the general vicinity of Watervliet and Mount Lebanon but not directly from the Shakers.

As always, we appreciate observations and comments that might help with a better understanding of the origin of these boxes.



A Shaker Thanksgiving

No Shaker to date has taken up blogging; however, if blogs have a precedent in the publishing world, then the column “Notes about Home” in the Shakers’ monthly publication The Manifesto was a prototype. Launched in 1889, the column contained informal communications from individuals updating their fellow Believers on what was transpiring in other families and villages. Eventually renamed “Home Notes,” the column continued in a monthly blog-like fashion until The Manifesto ceased publication in December of 1899.

In recognition of this Thanksgiving season we share a “Notes about Home” communication from then Brother Walter S. Shepherd at the North Family, Mount Lebanon describing that family’s Thanksgiving Day in 1893. He wrote:

Photograph. Elder Walter S. Shepherd, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Photograph. Elder Walter S. Shepherd, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1922, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1959.11387.1.

“You all, we presume and trust, had a good, earnest, Thanksgiving meeting, and partook of a good Thanksgiving dinner. We enjoyed the day very much, as we were very kindly invited by our Canaan friends [referring to the Upper Canaan Family, the Lower Family having closed in 1884] to spend the day with them, which we did, arriving there about 9 a. m. Held a good, free meeting, and partook of a beautiful vegetarian dinner. You will say it must have been a vegetarian dinner if it was beautiful, for who would think of describing a table set out with pieces of dead animals and birds, as beautiful? Our table truly was beautiful and replete with good vegetables, breads, sauces, jellies, fruits, nuts, etc., and yet some will say they cannot give up the use of flesh as food as they have nothing to take its place. This excuse indicates, we think, a lack of faith and resolution. However, the treat of the day was the afternoon meeting. We were entertained by the members of the ‘Ethical Floral Circle’ who meet once a week under the guidance and training of Sister Emily Offord. Their motto is ‘Cultivate the intellect. Improve the mind. Refine the manners.’ And we can truly say they give evidence of progress towards their motto. The young Brethren and Sisters, boys and girls, did themselves great credit. It was a surprise and a treat. We reached home about dusk, having spent a memorable Thanksgiving Day.” (1)

Of special note in Elder Walter’s account of their Thanksgiving Day are his descriptions of the North Family Shakers’ vegetarian dinner – sans Tofurky – and his mention of the Ethical Floral Circle. The North Family began eliminating meat from their diets in the 1830s. Elder Frederick Evans was the most outspoken advocate of the meatless diet – although the sisters around this time were forceful in their desire to not have to deal with the mess of greasy carcasses. Eventually the entire family gave up meat and by the time of the 1893 Thanksgiving dinner had been meat free for decades. The most accessible account of the North Family’s history with the vegetable diet appeared in Sister Martha J. Anderson’s Social Life and Vegetarianism published in 1893. The Educational, Ethical, Floral Circle, is described by Sister Emily as being:

Cabinet Card. Sister Emily Offord, Upper Canaan Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Cabinet Card. Sister Emily Offord, Upper Canaan Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8986.1.

“Educational, because it affords opportunities for education. Ethical, because good manners and morals, culture and refinement are included. Floral, because each member is designated by a flower name symbolic of brightness, cheerfulness and innocence. The circle denotes equality as all have equal opportunities, equal advantages and are equally compensated by making equal exertions. They hold meetings bi-weekly in which very interesting original articles are read, poems and dialogues recited, and one subject discussed verbally at each meeting. Music vocal and instrumental is added. One of the members is chosen to preside over the meeting whose duty it is to make out a written programme which she gives out at each meeting assigning a task suited to the age and ability of each one.” (2)

The Circle included all of the young children in the family and was a part of a larger movement among the Shakers to introduce self-improvement groups – taking care of the spiritual and intellectual as well as the physical bodies of its members. Sister Emily, a teacher of the young girls was particularly well suited to supervise this group.

Elder Walter and Sister Emily shared an English heritage. Sister Emily was a member of the extensive Offord family that included her father William Sr., her brothers William, Jr., Daniel, and Nathaniel, and sisters, Ann, Rhoda, and Miriam. The family began coming to the Shakers in 1850 with the last two, Daniel and Emily, arriving in 1856. Elder Walter came to the Shakers in 1888 as a direct result of Elder Frederick Evans’s second missionary trip to England a year earlier. Elder Walter signed a probationary covenant at the North Family in 1888 and was appointed to serve as second elder in 1892 but was soon sent to Enfield, Connecticut to serve as second elder of the South Family there. In 1917 as the Enfield community was closing Elder Walter moved back to the North Family at Mount Lebanon, eventually being appointed to the Lebanon Ministry where he served until his death in 1933.

We wish you all a happy Thanksgiving – with or without meat on the table.

  1. Shepherd, Elder Walter S., “Notes about Home, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y., North Family,” The Manifesto 24 (January, 1894), p. 18.
  2. Offord, Sister Emily, “Notes about Home, Canaan, N. Y.,” The Manifesto, 23 (May, 1893), p. 120.



New discoveries at the Second Meetinghouse

The Second Meetinghouse, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

The Second Meetinghouse, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12581.1. James Irving, photographer.

In 2004 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon became the steward of the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ 1824 Second Meetinghouse. The Second Meetinghouse was erected at a time when Shakers had experienced an amazing period of growth and felt confident in their future. As a result, they began building some of their most substantial and innovative buildings. The Meetinghouse is one of those, designated as one of New York State’s most important examples of vernacular architecture.  Although owned by the Museum, the Second Meetinghouse sits on land owned by Darrow School, a private high school that occupies nearly two dozen Shaker buildings. The Museum leases the Second Meetinghouse to the school and the school uses the building as its library.

fig 2

Interior of the Meetinghouse Sanctuary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962.14010. 1. Nelson E. Baldwin, photographer.

The history of the construction, modification, and use of the Meetinghouse is told in a pamphlet published by and available from Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon titled, Noble but Plain: The Second Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon.  At the time of its publication in 1994 there were several unanswered questions about the building. Since that time, one of those questions, relating to the Second Meetinghouse floor, has been answered and the answer can now be added to that history.

In 1795 the Marquise de La Tour Pin de Gouvernet visited the Shakers at Watervliet, NY, and kept a journal in which she described the Shaker public meeting she attended. She wrote:

I was seated at the corner of the chimney, and my guide had enjoined silence, which was all the easier for me as I was alone. While keeping absolutely silent, I had the opportunity to admire the floor which was constructed of pine wood, without any knots, and of a rare perfection and whiteness. Upon this fine floor were drawn in different directions lines represented by copper nails, brilliantly polished, the heads of which were level with the floor. I endeavored to divine what could be the use of these lines, which did not seem to have any connection with each other, when at the last stroke of the bell the two side doors opened, and I saw enter on my side fifty or sixty young girls or women,…I then observed that the women stood upon these lines of nails, taking care not to cross them with their toes.

The meetinghouse in which she observed the Shakers is long gone and the shiny nails with it. A new meetinghouse built at Watervliet in 1848 does not appear to have any such markings or they have been sanded away over the years. The Shaker meetinghouse at Canterbury, NH, built in 1792, does, however, have lines marked in a manner similar to those described by the Marquise. These lines used both shiny nails and different colored wooden pins set flush with the floor. At Canterbury there are eight diagonal rows of nails and pegs — four on the brothers’ side of the room and four on the sisters’ side — radiating from a central point along the back wall of the sanctuary toward the front wall. There is also one distinct line, parallel to the back wall of the sanctuary, that crosses all of the other lines. Their purpose was apparently the same as those at Watervliet: to mark the proper position for brothers and sisters to stand as they prepared for dances used in worship.

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,”

Hand-Colored Lithograph, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,” in the 1824 Meetinghouse, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1835, Published by D. W. Kellogg, Hartford, Connecticut, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1. This illustration shows the Shakers arranged in the dance formation called the Square Order Shuffle.

In 1787 Father Joseph Meacham succeeded Father James Whittaker as the leader of the Shaker Church. He held this position until his death in 1796 and in that role worked tirelessly to bring the Shakers into “gospel order” – regulating all aspects of Shaker life, including the manner and type of dances used in worship. In 1787 he introduced the Square Order Shuffle. This dance required strict organization – rank and file – and it is likely that the introduction of markings on meetinghouse floors came around this time. As Father Joseph lived primarily at Mount Lebanon it seems logical that floor markings used at Watervliet and at Canterbury had their origin in the house in which Father Joseph lived and frequently worshiped at Mount Lebanon. That building, the first meetinghouse, built in 1785, still stands but shows no indication of pegs or nails to define lines of the floor today.  Now a private home, the floors have been repeatedly refinished and modified. If there were brass or copper tacks used as markers they very well may have been refinished away. For years, one of the unanswered questions about the 1824 Meetinghouse was whether its floor had pins or nails that identified dance positions.

In the 1950s the Meetinghouse was used by Darrow School as a gym and in 1962 it was converted into their library. While a library, the floor was covered with carpet and inaccessible for study. Several years ago, the old carpet was removed and new modular carpeting installed. It was a monumental job – removing books and book shelves and the rest of the library furnishings. For a brief moment in this process the floor was exposed and Shaker Museum staff were able to inspect the floor. On the day of the visit, staff walked into the sanctuary and directly to the middle of the room. Looking down at the painted jump circle for what had been, until the end of the 1950s, the center of a basketball court, a rather large dowel, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, was easily seen by the distinct color of the dark end-grain wood showing through the yellow pine. One could imagine that this was the spot where the Shakers’ public preacher stood as he addressed the Sunday morning crowd of visitors from the outside world.

Encouraged by finding that peg, Museum staff scoured the rest of the floor and found it still retained wooden pegs aligned in four distinct lines. Two of the lines are defined by twenty three-eighths-inch pegs set about two and one-half feet apart. These lines run east and west across the width of the room. They are equidistant from and about six feet from the peg in the jump circle. Two other lines defined by five-sixteenths-inch pegs begin near the center of the back wall of the sanctuary and diverge from each other toward their respective ends of the room. Both of these lines cross the first lines at about a fifteen-degree angle. They create a wide-bottomed “V” that opens toward the benches provided for visitors. There are several miscellaneous pegs that do not seem to be part of any of the other lines. The staff marked the position of all the pegs with bolts stood on their heads to facilitate a photograph of the lines. It seems logical that the first two lines would have marked the place where Shaker brothers and sisters would have stood facing each other in preparation for a dance such as the Square Order Shuffle. The purpose of the second set of lines does not reveal itself so easily. They could have been marks to position singers who would have faced the public benches and divided the brothers and sisters as they labored in dance as separate ends of the building.

The 1824 Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon is a remarkable building. Its architectural innovations are well known and applauded but still there are new discoveries to be made that reflect on how the Shakers used their best known worship space.





“What shall we do with our bodies when we have done with our bodies?”

As the Shaker Museum collection staff continues producing digital records for an online catalog of its collection – a two and a half year project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation – they work methodically through groups of related artifacts. At present that group is a collection of hundreds of wooden foundry patterns acquired from Church Family workshops at Mount Lebanon. While the Shakers did not operate a foundry – the place where molten iron is cast into various forms – Shaker brothers did make wooden patterns for machinery, stoves, tools, and other objects needed in their communities. Many of these patterns can be given descriptive names – a gear, a bracket, a shaft, a clutch, a fly-wheel, a wheel hub, a stove door, a machine part, etc. — it is unusual to be able to associate a pattern with a known cast iron object in the collection. Recently, however, one pattern was identified as being part of a well-known artifact in the museum’s collection. The object is a 49-inch long, three-inch wide pattern for the stakes used to support cast iron grave markers at the Church Family cemetery at Mount Lebanon.

In 1886, North Family Elder Frederick W. Evans began his funeral sermon for Brother John Greaves with the question, “What shall we do with our bodies when we have done with our bodies?” Evans, like all Shakers, had “no belief in the future re-animation of the body, but of dust it was made, and to dust it is to return.” (1) Without any expectation that the body had any further use, the Shakers were nevertheless concerned that in its final disposal the body not be thoughtlessly treated. Elder Giles Avery, writing in an 1872 ministerial letter concerning graveyards and monuments, made the point that, “to inter the human corpse in the same manner as the dead body of a brute, that is, without any kind of monument to designate the place of its interment, or, even with a naked stone, without any lettering on it to record the name of the deceased buried beneath it, has a demoralizing tendency upon the living.” (2) The Shakers did bury their brothers and sisters in well-ordered simple graveyards. The marking of the location of the bodies varied over time. Historically, by Mosaic Law, bodies were deemed unclean and to be avoided and markers were placed on graves as a warning to passersby rather than as memorial monuments. The Shakers followed the common tradition and marked graves with stones, eventually adding the initials of the departed, and still later their names and their dates of death and/or ages. This evolution led to a number of Shaker graveyards that would be easily recognizable today. Over time, however, the cost of maintaining graveyards as the number of living Shakers to care for them decreased caused the Shakers to look for an alternative to allay this burden. Following consultation with other leaders, Elder Giles wrote the circular letter that provided guidelines for graveyards and monuments. He wrote, “[I]t is most in accordance with Christian propriety, … (whatever antecedents may have been to the contrary notwithstanding), to erect one small, modest, plain, stone or cast iron monument, which, if stone, may be sawed or hewn, but not polished, not exceeding 22 inches in height, above ground, and eighteen inches in width, at the head of each grave, having all graves in the yards now occupied, uniformly thus furnished. Upon this may be plainly lettered the name and age of the deceased, together with the date of demise.”

Sketch of Proposed Cast Iron Grave Marker by Elder Henry C. Blinn

Sketch of Proposed Cast Iron Grave Marker by Elder Henry C. Blinn, in “Notes by the Way While on a Journey to the State of Kentucky in the Year 1873,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12791.1.

Acting on these guidelines, on January 25, 1873, Elder Amos Stewart from the Second Family at Mount Lebanon came to visit the Ministry and presented a cast iron grave monument that he developed as a sample. It was designed to have letters, cast in type metal, slid into a slot to spell the name of the departed. The Ministry judged it too frail to be serviceable. Although rejected, it set a direction toward using cast iron markers rather than those of stone. In mid-May the Ministry spoke with Elder Amos Stewart and Elder Thomas Damon from Hancock about a new design for cast iron monuments for graves. The new design had names cast into the iron rather than detached as in Elder Amos’s original design. This design relied on letters, cast in iron, obtained at eight cents apiece, that were glued to the wooden pattern to spell out the name of the departed. The same pattern was used with different letters attached to create unique markers. During these discussions, Elder Henry C. Blinn of the New Hampshire Ministry visited Mount Lebanon as he began a tour of the western Shaker communities. Elder Giles took him “to the mill to see a pattern for casting – which is intended to be placed at the head of the graves.” Elder Henry kept a travel diary and in his diary made a sketch of the pattern for markers that he saw. (4)

Cast Iron Letters

Cast Iron Letters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1970.16891.1-11.

On August 11, 1873, Brother George Wickersham “gets a sample cast iron monument for graves – the pattern of which he has made, by Ministrie’s request; it is about 17 in wide, and, perhaps 10 deep, in highest place, a stake 4 ft long 3 in wide designed for top of monument to stand up above ground 22 inches. It is agreed, in this society, to fit out all the graves after this pattern. It weighs about 10 lbs. & stake 12 lbs, whole cost about $1.75 cts pr monument.” On October 14th that year the Ministry recorded that, “The whole complement of Cast iron Grave monuments arrived from Albany to day, nearly 200 of them, cost about $1.50 each, at the furnace.” (3) It has not been established how the two hundred markers were distributed among the different Mount Lebanon families. It is known, by names on the markers in the Museum’s collection – seven bearing the names of Church Family Members and one from the Second Family – that they were used by those two Mount Lebanon Families. An inventory of all extant markers may determine where else they may have been used. The well-known cast iron “lollipop” markers used at Harvard follow the Ministry’s guidelines but are from a different casting pattern. The markers from Mount Lebanon, according to Elder Giles, were cast at Page’s in Albany. This foundry, started in Federal Stores (now Old Chatham, NY) in 1832 by Isaiah Page, moved to Chatham in 1835 and then Albany in 1850. Following examination of the sample marker from Brother George, the Ministry sent samples to New Hampshire and Kentucky and likely to all of the other Shaker Ministries. The only Shaker community known to have followed the example at Mount Lebanon was Harvard, Massachusetts.

The casting pattern for the stake provides an empirical example of an important feature of the work of the Shaker woodworkers who made foundry patterns. When molten iron is poured into a mold and hardens and cools it shrinks – at about one-eighth of an inch per foot. A comparison between the wooden pattern and the finished stake demonstrates this feature of casting objects in iron. Brother George’s forty-nine and one-eighth inch long pattern produced a forty-eight and five-eighths inch iron stake. A special ruler – a shrink rule – is used by patternmakers to make sure that the finished object is of the correct dimensions.

Foundry Pattern for Grave Marker Stake with Cast Iron Grave Marker

Foundry Pattern for Grave Marker Stake with Cast Iron Grave Marker, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2391.1.1 and 1950.2700.1.

At the end of the day, the cast iron markers presented the same problem as stone monuments – they deteriorated, were damaged by falling limbs and by vandals. Eventually, as the Mount Lebanon community began to close, the Shakers were again faced by the problem of how to maintain their graveyard monuments. Their solution this time was to erect a single large monument bearing the inscription, “Shakers,” possibly the most fitting way to remember the deceased members of a communal sect.

Grave Marker Mounted on Stake

Grave Marker Mounted on Stake: Hannah Train, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2700.1.

Cast Iron Grave Markers in the Shake Museum | Mount Lebanon Collection

(Information on additional cast iron markers from Mount Lebanon will be a most welcome addition to this list.)

  • Lucy Chapman (1779-1861) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.10.39)
  • Eliza Johnson (1802-1870) [N. B.: Eliza Johnson was from Canterbury, NH, died on a visit to Mount Lebanon and was buried there.] (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2703.1)
  • Samuel Johnson [Jr.] (1775-1856) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2701.1)
  • Solomon King (1775-1858) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2702.1)
  • Ellen Rayson (1840-1858) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2705.1)
  • Hannah Train (1785-1964) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2700.1)
  •  James P. Vail (1819-1865) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2706.1)
  • Nathan Williams (1781-1869) (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2704.1)


  1. Evans, Frederick William, Shaker Sermon, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2002.20635.1.
  2. Avery, Giles Bushnell, “Circular Concerning Graves, Graveyards, and Monuments,” Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1872, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9600.1
  3. Avery, Giles Bushnell, “Records Kept by Order of the Church, [Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], 1871-1905, 1916, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10343.1.
  4. Blinn, Henry Clay, “Notes by the Way While on a Journey to the State of Kentucky in the Year 1873,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.12791.1

How condensed milk got its start with the Shakers

fig 1

Postcard. Elder Alonzo Giles Hollister Standing Next to the Shakers’ Vacuum Pan, Laboratory, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1910, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.21701.1.

In the September 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Carolyn Hughes Crowley presented an article in the “The Object at Hand” column titled, “The Man Who Invented Elsie, the Borden Cow.” The article was sparked by an “oddly shaped copper kettle officially designated as a ‘vacuum pan’” that, at the time, sat in a corner of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The vacuum pan was acquired from the Borden Company. The Borden Company, however, acquired the pan from the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon in 1931 through Sister Emma J. Neale, because it had an association with the company’s founder Gail Borden. 

The story of Gail Borden, briefly told, is one of a man obsessed with developing products that would improve people’s lives. Born in Norwich, New York in 1801, Borden settled in Texas in 1829 where he worked as a land surveyor, newspaper publisher, and passionate inventor. When his 32 year old wife and four year old son died of yellow fever, Borden, observing that the fever subsided during the winter, suggested building refrigerators to keep people in an environment that was too cold for the fever to take hold. In the 1840s he dehydrated beef, mixed it with flour, and formed it into biscuits that provided considerable sustenance packed into an easily portable form that did not spoil on long voyages. He hoped to market them to the Army but soldiers found them less palatable than similar product made by competitors. In 1851, aboard a ship from England, where he had exhibited his meat biscuits at the London Crystal Palace Exposition, Borden witnessed children dying from a lack of milk from shipboard cows. His work with meat biscuits convinced him that any food, milk included, could be condensed and preserved. Others had tried to condense milk by boiling it but it inevitably burned and turned sour over an open fire. Borden, after returning to New York, learned of the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ use of a vacuum pan to condense medicinal fluids. The vacuum allowed the Shakers to boil off liquid at low temperatures, thereby concentrating the fluids without affecting their medicinal potency. In 1853 Borden went to stay with the Shakers at the Center Family and made an arrangement to use their vacuum pan to experiment with condensing milk. His experiments succeeded and in 1856 Borden was granted a patent for his process. Shortly after his patent was granted he opened his first successful milk condensing factory in Wassaic, New York and the Borden Company, including Elsie the Cow, became part of the annals of the consumer world. 

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John Benson to Brother Edward Fowler, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Assignment of Perpetual Right to Use the Vacuum Pan Known As “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan,” July 25, 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9564.1.

How the Shakers came upon the idea of using a vacuum pan for reducing medicines is not known, but it is known that in 1850 they obtained the right to the perpetual use of “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan.” These rights were assigned to Brother Edward Fowler, trustee of the Church and Center Families at Mount Lebanon. John Benson and James Day of Brooklyn, New York, patented their vacuum pan in 1848 as an improvement for boiling away the liquid from cane molasses to make sugar. 

The story as told makes a clear case for the Borden Company’s interest in the Shakers’ vacuum pan and its subsequent acquisition by the Smithsonian. There is, however, a small twist in this story that has not been told. Buried in a diary kept in the Mount Lebanon Church Family by  Deaconess Anna Dodgson is the following information from February 19, 1880: “The Vacuum Pan failed some weeks since at Laboratory, having stood the test of 30 years usage, A New One arrives to day.” The Shaker vacuum pan acquired by the Borden Company and preserved at the Smithsonian is not the same one that Gail Borden used!

There are two 19th century illustrations of the Shaker vacuum pan. In 1856, three years following Borden’s work with the Shakers, Benson John Lossing, illustrator and author, visited Mount Lebanon and wrote and illustrated an article on the Shakers that was published in the July, 1857 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In this article, Lossing included a drawing of the Shakers’ vacuum pan along with other equipment used in their medicinal manufacturing. The second illustration was done by an unidentified illustrator in 1884 for an almanac titled, Shaker Almanac 1885: The Joys and Sorrows of a Poor Old Man, promoting medicines made by the Shakers for entrepreneur Andrew Judson White. These two illustrations, one of the original 1850 vacuum pan and the other of the 1880 replacement, show enough similarity that it appears that the replacement pan was also purchased from John Benson.