Why did the Shakers switch from palm leaf to poplar?

Heart-Shaped Woven Poplar Cloth Box

Heart-Shaped Woven Poplar Cloth Box, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1875-1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1993.2.20a,b.

The Shakers made poplar boxes of different shapes and styles in great numbers beginning in the 1860s and continuing in various communities for nearly a century. The first mention of “hearts” being made was in the Mount Lebanon Church Family deaconesses’ journals in 1873. Apparently they were not the most popular of the poplar products – often only three of four dozen were made in a given year. For many years Sister Emma J. Neale is noted as the maker of these particular poplar boxes. There are two types of forms on which these boxes were shaped. One was a solid piece of pine and the second, probably an improvement, was made in two parts joined at an angle so that when the larger part of the form was lifted the slightest amount, the form immediately became smaller keeping it from putting any stress on the recently glued sides of the box. The finishing – fitting a lid, adding any decoration, and sewing accouterments – completed the box for sale in the Office Store.

Heart-Shaped Form

Heart-Shaped Form, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1875-1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2477.1a,b.

Why did the Shakers at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon develop the heart-shaped product in the first place? It’s been suggested that the invention of poplar cloth and the poplarware products that followed was necessitated by a need to find a material to replace woven palm leaf when shipments of palm from Cuba and the Caribbean were halted by the beginning of the Civil War in April of 1861. The Shakers were prodigious consumers of palm leaf for manufacture of their bonnets – both for home use and for sale. While it may be the case that the Shakers were purchasing palm leaf from Cuba and the Caribbean, it continued to be available from Italy and Africa at the Port of Boston. In Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts in 1865, there were more than 100 men and women employed in five businesses that made 328,000 palm leaf “Shaker hoods and hats or jockies.” These manufacturers were supplied by two businesses employing 19 men and women who processed over 250,000 pounds of green palm leaf into material for weaving and plaiting even during the Civil War. (Warner, Oliver. Statistical Information Relating to Certain Branches of Industry in Massachusetts for the Year Ending May 1, 1865. [Boston: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1866]) To add to this apparent contradiction, Deaconess Betsy Crosman, recorded in her journal having “made 30 small popple [poplar] silk covered baskets for sale” at the beginning of November 1860. The next year she made 60 more and Deaconess Matilda Reed made 15 dozen napkin rings of  popple cloth.” (“Deaconesses Journal, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,” 1848-1872. Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-143.) Apparently by the time the insurrection had blossomed into a full-out war, the Shakers had already worked out the procedures and built the specialized machinery for manufacturing “popple cloth.”

Perhaps the switch from palm leaf to poplar was because the process of preparing palm leaf for weaving involved considerable work. The leaves were sorted, setting aside the longest leaves from which the warp “threads” were stripped out and gauged to the proper width. The shorter weft “threads” also had to be cut out and gauged. At some point these were dried and “bleached” in the fumes of burning sulfur to remove their green color. The warp was then tied on the loom (of course there were limitations on the length of the warp – and therefore the finished palm cloth – based on the length of the leaves). Finally, the weaving of the cloth could begin. With poplar, some of this tedious preparation was done by the brothers – at the very least, they planed the poplar into thin, consistently-sized strips. The gauging was done by machine and the poplar required no bleaching as its sap wood is naturally white. The greatest advantage of poplar over palm comes in the weaving. The thin strips of poplar are woven into a cotton warp and the length of the warp was not limited by the length of the poplar strips. In one case it was noted that the sisters put one hundred yards of warp on a loom for poplar cloth. In consideration of the advantages of poplar over palm leaf – yes, palm leaf may have been stronger and lasted longer, but unlike palm leaf bonnets, the products made from poplar were not expected to last for generations – it may have been that the idea to develop poplar cloth came as much from a desire to simplify and, by the way, use materials readily available on their own property at no cost but manpower.

A number of Shaker industries that seem simple and straightforward on first look, turn out to be quite complicated once investigated. Additional information and comments on the beginning of this important Shaker business are most welcome.




When humility and recognition collide

Silver Award Medal (front in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters

Silver Award Medal (front in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2006.1.1a,b.

The New York State Fair was first held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It was the first such fair ever held in the United States and is today one of the largest, attracting over one million visitors. The fair was started by The New-York State Agricultural Society, with financial backing from the New York State Legislature. The second fair was held in Albany, New York, and from that time until 1890, when the fair was permanently located in Syracuse, the perceived “agricenter” of the state, it was rotated among the cities of Albany, Auburn, Buffalo, Elmira, New York, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Utica, and Watertown.

Every kind of conceivable exhibition, both animate and inanimate, was included in the fair and competition for awards was stiff. An award of one of the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals not only spoke to the excellence of the animal or object being exhibited but could easily translate into money as people sought to purchase award winners.

In 1873 the Shaker sisters of the Church Family at Mount Lebanon created an exhibition of their “sale work,” what today would be called their “fancy goods.” These were the objects they offered for sale at the office store – the majority of which at this time would have been useful and decorative little boxes made of poplar cloth. The silver medal in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection was awarded for their fancy straw work – which was probably how the judges classified what may have been, to them, mystifying woven poplar wood.

On September 23, 1873, Brothers Henry Cantrell and Joseph Holden left Mount Lebanon for Albany to attend the State Fair. That same day Sisters Sarah Ann Lewis and Tabitha Lapsley “went to Albany to exhibit … sale articles at the State Fair.” [Sister Polly Jane Reed, Pocket Diary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, [OClWHi, mss. no., V:B-166]] The 33d annual New York State Fair opened on September 24. Several other members of the Church Family apparently went to see the fair as well. On the 28th of September, Sisters Tabitha Lapsley, Polly Lewis, and Caty (or Katie) Boyle returned home leaving Sarah Ann Lewis to return the next day. “She staid to take care of her things – it was not necessary for Tabitha to stay longer so she slipped sway & come home thankful to get out of the bustle.” [ibid]

It is most interesting that although the “comings and goings” to the fair are frequently mentioned, no mention has been found in the journals of the sisters being awarded a medal. That absence may signal an interesting tension between the commercial marketing potential of receiving an award for their products and the Shakers’ constant struggle to remain humble. It would be interesting to know what the Shakers did with the medal when they returned, who kept it and where.

Silver Award Medal (back in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters

Silver Award Medal (back in gutta percha case), New York State Agricultural Society to the Shaker Sisters, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2006.1.1a,b.



Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ.  


An earlier blog examined one of the smallest publications done by the Shakers – The Little Instructor, printed by Elder Henry C. Blinn in 1849 at Canterbury, New Hampshire. On the other end of the spectrum, the Shakers were involved in publishing a piece measuring three by four feet. It is an 1887 lithographed chart created by Jacob Skeen titled Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ.

Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ by Jacob Skeen

Genealogical, Chronological and Geographical Chart: Embracing Biblical and Profane History of Ancient Times from Adam to Christ by Jacob Skeen, The Skeen Chart Co., Louisville, KY, Lithographed by the Lithograph and Printing Company, Louisville, KY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2017.25.1a,b

The great fire of 1875 at Mount Lebanon’s Church Family had repercussions that continued for years as the Shakers increased industries that would produce cash to help them recover from the loss. The best known and probably most lucrative of these efforts was the addition of a contract to manufacture medicine for Andrew Judson White. This work, like much that followed, depended on the well-organized, dedicated sisterhood of the family. Other industries that were taken on over the next decade included the manufacture of knitted gloves and mittens made from raccoon fur and silk and the manufacture of men’s neckties. As part of this effort, in February 1887 the Shakers began producing giant charts intended to educate children about the Bible.

The chart was the result of ten years work by Jacob Skeen, an industrialist – he created and operated the Louisville Crucible Steel Casting Company – turned Bible and ancient history scholar. Skeen researched, designed, and created the artwork for the chart. In partnership with his brother David Skeen, he was eventually able to enlist the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, New York (Brother Benjamin Gates), Union Village, Ohio (Elder Matthew B. Carter), and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (Elder Francis M. and Brother William F. Pennybaker) in the project. The chart provided timelines showing major figures of the Bible and their family trees along with their geographical locations and major Biblical events including the creation of Adam and Eve, the birth of Christ, and a summary of Christ’s miracles and parables. It was the Shakers at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon who did the actual work to produce the charts – a perfect job for the sisters. With some assistance from Brother Andrew Fortier, Sister Cornelia French and several others set up the chart business in the south garret of the new Dwelling House. There they trimmed the massive color lithographs and pasted them to a cloth backing. In early April David Skeen came to Mount Lebanon and made a presentation about the charts to the Shakers in their meeting room. That month the Shakers shipped about 25 charts to New York City to be sold. Brother Alonzo Hollister made peddling trips with the charts. Sales must not have met expectations and in mid-October, Brother Benjamin traveled to Cincinnati to meet and consult with Elder Matthew Carter and William Pennybaker about them. Their desire was to convince Skeen to produce a smaller, cheaper chart. It is not clear how many charts were originally printed but the year-end summary of the Church Family sisters’ work noted that in 1887 they had pasted and trimmed 204 charts and the business was concluded that year. The fact that there are untrimmed, unpasted charts, such as the one in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection, suggests more than 204 charts were printed.

While the charts are rare (the survival rate for something that large is usually small) even more scarce is a book the Skeens produced to accompany the chart. The book provides instructions on how to maximize the educational value of the chart and includes similar artwork. The book also supplies a little more information on the publication of Skeen’s charts. Although the charts are dated 1887, Skeen’s Key of Explanation contains nine testimonials – all but one from various Louisville, KY, churches – dated November 1886. It appears Skeen may have circulated the original drawing for the chart to garner testimonials prior to turning it over to the lithographers for publication in 1887. At this time only two copies of the book have been located in libraries – one at the Library of Congress and the other here at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Much remains unknown about the relationship between the Skeen brothers and the Shakers, including how the Shakers came to be involved in this venture, how much their investment was in the business, and even whether the Shakers used the Bible charts in their own schools.