Making all those seed packets

In February 1835 Elder Freegift Wells at the Shaker community at Watervliet, New York, finished cutting out paper seed bags for the season. These bags, or “seed papers” as the Shakers called them, were soon filled with the 1834 crop of garden seeds and offered for sale through merchants who agreed to sell them on commission. That year Elder Freegift “cut 100500 bags besides near 200 large bags for pounds & half pounds.” While that number may seem staggeringly large, at Mount Lebanon between 1834 and 1840 nearly one million bags were cut, printed, and filled with seed. That was about twice Elder Freegift’s production. The raising and selling of garden seeds had become very profitable for a number of Shaker communities. 

During the “Period of Mother’s Work” in the late 1830s and 1840s, in which many Shakers received communications from the spirit world, the spirit of Father Joseph Meacham cautioned Believers that the garden seed business was leading Shakers in a dangerous direction. He said in October, 1841:

A seed garden for sale is not the thing for the first Church on Earth, you will never gain the riches of heaven in this way. Yea, … to me this great garden [i.e., the Church Family’s seed garden] is a garden of pomp, pride and worldly superfluities, not the garden of heaven….you have missed the matter in thinking you can get an easier living by raising garden seeds to sell, than by your other trades and manufactures, which Father planted for the honor and beauty of Zion, and which you have let run down, and some entirely run out…. But is it rather because the rising generation are running to machinery, conveniences, superfluities, pomp, pride, aspiring for extensive trades, and much money making. I can tell you, there is no promise in a great deal of cash.

Father Joseph Meacham, spirit, “Recorded October 19th & 21, 1841,” Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH, Shaker Collection, mss. no., VIII:B131. 

Although Father Joseph recommended that the Shakers of the time go back as much as they could to earlier trades – “the making of Tubs, Pails, Brooms, Boxes, Brushes, Dippers, Whiplashes, Leather, Wheels and Reels,… which are plain and neat, representing the people of  God,” (1) the seed business continued to be an increasingly profitable business through the Civil War in a number of Shaker communities. At that time, non-Shaker seed merchants began taking an increasing cut out of the Shakers’ “easier living.” Many of the Shaker seed businesses never recovered. 

fig 1

Seed Bag Chisel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.1642.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Some of the success of the business should be credited to small inventions such as the seed bag chisels featured here. These examples from the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection made an important contribution to saving labor and speeding up production. The Shakers figured out that it was quicker to cut a number of pieces of paper to a given shape with the whack of a chisel than to try and cut them out individually with knife or scissors. 

Seed Bag Chisel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866

Seed Bag Chisel, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.3085.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

These bag chisels were designed and made by the Shakers. In a journal kept by Elder Freegift Wells at Watervliet, New York, the preparation for cutting bags was recorded in some detail. In December 1834, Elder Freegift and his apprentice and nephew Thomas Wells were “sawing out a large white pine block to cut seed bags upon.” In January the next year Elder Freegift turned “some screws and legs for the cutting block,” and in a few more days he had “got the new cutting block ready to use.” The next day he noted that he was in his shop, “grinding up chisels for cutting seed bags &c.” and after cutting out around 5,000 bags over the next few days he began “grinding on a new bag knife [i.e., chisel].” It is not known if the first one needed improving or if it worked so well he made another one to further speed up production. 

The seed bag chisel makes a cut with a jog in it. When the cut seed paper is folded at the proper place near the middle it leaves tabs on the three open sides. When two of these tabs are folded and glued the blank becomes a bag with one open side ready to receive seeds and to have the final tab glued and folded closed. The illustration of how to make a seed bag shows one way seed bags were made. 

Shaker’s Large Flat Dutch Cabbage Seed Bag, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860s

Shaker’s Large Flat Dutch Cabbage Seed Bag, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9348.1.

It is not known whether the Shakers cut the seed bags to size before or after printing them. It is likely that seed bags were cut and pasted on two sides – then printed as needed – then filled and sealed on the third side. It would have been quite efficient to cut seed bag blanks prior to printing. A pile of long strips of paper of the proper width to make the desired size bag could have been laid out on the cutting block and then the chisel used to cut them at the proper set intervals to create the folding tabs. A bag made for Large Flat Dutch Cabbage at the Second Family at Mount Lebanon in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon clearly indicates that bags were cut and pasted prior to printing – this bag was printed on the wrong side with the decorative border overlapping a folded edge, something that could not happen if the bag blanks were printed prior to folding. On the other hand the Japan Musk Melon bag most likely produced by the Church Family was printed prior to folding. This example could have been printed as a single bag blank or could have been printed in a strip of bag blanks and cut at the appropriate place with the seed bag chisel. It appears that all options were used. 

Japan Musk Melon Seed Bag, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1860s



Shakers reject “foolish consistency”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841.

Shakers numbered things. They numbered rooms for the ease of keeping their domestic life in order, and they numbered products to keep a consistency in manufacture and marketing. In Emersonian fashion, however, their numbering of products did not reflect an overall philosophy of consistency – even within the same community. For example, chairs made at Mount Lebanon were numbered from the smallest size, number 0, to the largest size, number 7, while oval boxes made in the same community at the same time were numbered from the largest size, number 1, to the smallest size, number 11. In a further example of not demanding some “foolish consistency” in numbering products, in the mid-1870s, apparently not finding the largest two or the smallest two sizes of oval boxes profitable, they dropped them from their offering and merely renumbered the remaining seven boxes number 1 for the largest remaining box, to number 7 for the smallest. This may have caused some confusion for customers trying to order number 1 or 2 boxes after the change. 

fig 1

Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer.

This change in the Shakers’ offering of oval boxes apparently came about right around the time when they were launching an initiative to increase the sale of chairs – and oval boxes – through mail order sales from a series of catalogs. The South Family had built a new chair factory in 1872 and greatly increased production and sales. The earliest catalog, dated 1875, includes chairs numbered 1 through 7 with small illustrations by an unidentified artist. On the final two pages, however, there are illustrations of a line of chairs – small to large – created by “Ferguson, Albany.” Hiram Ferguson was a noted photographer and wood engraver in Albany, New York. Although these two pages of illustrations present themselves almost as an afterthought, very soon after another catalog was issued with four pages of Ferguson illustrations, and soon after that, another catalog with six pages of Ferguson illustrations. This last catalog also includes a page showing a stack of seven oval boxes, numbers 1 through 7, offered for sale. While the creator of this illustration is not identified, a separate four-page bi-fold that survives in a very small number shows, along with two pages of “The Shakers’ Upholstered Chairs,” an illustration of “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes.” This illustration of eleven oval boxes, numbered 1 through 11 is identified as having been created by Ferguson.  

fig 2

An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1.

There has been some conjecture as to whether this bi-fold was intended to be issued as a separate flyer to accompany the chair catalogs, or if it was a four-page spread that was at one time intended to be bound with a chair catalog but, for some reason, was not. It seems doubtful that it was intended merely as a separate publication. While there is a page titled, “Directions for Ordering Chairs,” there is no address included, and none of the other chair catalogs are missing this page. It seems more likely that the Shakers engaged Ferguson to create an illustration of their oval boxes and intended to include the stack of eleven boxes in their chair catalog, but decided not to do so. The stack of seven boxes that was included in the catalog was printed with the same printing block that printed the stack of eleven boxes, but the bottom and top two boxes were cut away from the block. This also removed Ferguson’s signature.

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.

There are a few possible reasons for this change. In the mid-1870s, Elder Daniel Crosman (1810-1885) at the Church Family was the primary oval box maker for the community. After the devastating fire in 1875, other than making 50 round spit-boxes (spittoons) for the new dwelling that was being built to replace the one that burned, he appears to have had less time than usual to work at boxes. Elder Daniel made at least 11 sizes of boxes at one time; in fact, he made a box he identified as a zero that was apparently larger than a number one. The largest and smallest boxes may have been the least profitable ones to make and, therefore, the Shakers decided to no longer offer them for sale. This would have necessitated eliminating them from the catalog. Whatever the reason, the stack of 11 boxes is not known to have been included in a catalog. 

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph.

The creation of the images used in the chair catalog could have all been done by Ferguson – a photographer and wood engraver who could also duplicate wood engravings in type metal. The Shakers may have taken oval boxes and chairs to his studio and had him photograph them. From the photograph he would have his wood engravers make an engraved illustration simulating the photograph. The wood engraving was then used to create a mold from which duplicate blocks could be made from type metal. These blocks were then sent to the printer and set on the page with necessary text. For the oval box illustration, this process, minus the wood engraving, is preserved in various collections and is presented here – from photograph, to printing block, to printed page. Of course, if the wood engraving of the stack of oval boxes does survive, that would be an important addition to this discussion. 

Mother Lucy Wright was remembered as saying, albeit in the context of wanting quality rather than quantity in new Shakers, “Numbers are not the thing for us to glory in.” The ease with which the Shakers changed their number 3 oval box to make it a number 1 oval box certainly speaks to their desire to not be distracted by hobgoblins.  


Fig 1: Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer. 


Fig 2: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 


Fig 3: “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.  


Fig 4. “Hiram Ferguson, Designer, Photographer and Engraver in Wood, Bank Building, 448 Broadway, Albany, NY,” ca. 1881, retrieved from: 


Fig 5: Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph. 


Fig 6: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (cover) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 

Ellsworth Kelly and Shaker Furniture

Our guest blogger this week is Maxwell Taylor-Milner. His writing has appeared in YST PublicationsBard Papers, and as a chapbook, The Collected Evenings. He has conducted interviews with artists and writers for The Believer and Arabesques Review. He lives across the river from Hudson, NY, where he is the Assistant Director at Jeff Bailey Gallery.

In 1970, not long after moving his studio upstate, from New York City to the hamlet of Spencertown, Ellsworth Kelly bought a table. At first glance, it could be one of a hundred near-identical antique tables: a bit worn, a bit weathered, about the size of a ten-person dining table, medium brown. At nine feet long and just under three wide, the top, made of three pine planks of three different widths framed by a narrow piece of perpendicular trim at each end, seems to float on a shallow beech apron. The outer corner of each leg is flush with the apron, defining its rectangle rather than punctuating it, The inner faces of each leg are tapered, so the negative space formed between each are trapezoidal rather than rectangular. This in turn creates an optical illusion, that each leg is angled slightly out, a vector instead of a pillar, lifting the table up instead of merely supporting its weight. Rather than one in a hundred, it is actually one of three Shaker tables, now differentiated by time and refinishings, all made around 1835 in the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon, New York. Kelly wanted it immediately.

a_work_table_2016.5.22_ 1

Table, ca. 1835, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, Pine top, beech legs and aprons, maple center cross cleat Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.22

The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, were a millennialist Christian sect, established in England in 1747 as a more charismatic alternative to the Church of England. Inspired by a vision, Mother Ann Lee, the movement’s most important leader, left England for America in 1774, where she, with a small group of others, would found the first Shaker settlement at Watervliet, outside present-day Albany, New York. Hailed as both the second coming of Christ and Christ’s female counterpart, Ann Lee’s revelations were the basis for the enduring Shaker principles of celibacy, gender equality, pacifism and communal living. In order to better uphold these principles, the Shakers created their own, self-sufficient communities, separate from “the world.” In order to maintain their self-sufficiency, and later to supplement it, the Shakers made and sold medicines, seeds, textiles, produce, and, most famously, furniture.

From the outset, the Shakers believed they were living in the Millennium, the thousand-year Golden Age of Christ’s reign prior to Judgment Day. As a result, it was the duty of each believer to embody that golden age, and to strive for perfection in all things. While worship was the most important activity in Shaker communities, their devotion is best witnessed by their material production, especially the meticulous craftsmanship of their furniture. As Mary Lyn Ray writes, “Because the believer ‘put his hands to work and heart to God,’ this furniture has also been termed ‘religion in wood.’ For some, manufacture of furniture was no longer an ordinary assignment of making a table or case of drawers but became an act of worship” (Ray 108). Their dedication to the task was the measure of their devotion, and the means by which the Kingdom of God would be realized.

In keeping with the Shaker sequestration from the world, the better to perfect it, Shaker furniture was not a uniquely new style, but a refinement of what the world had to offer. Certain furniture types were circumscribed by Shaker proscriptions against worldly amusements and fleshly indulgence – card tables and upholstery were off-limits. But other needs, for storage, seating, and workspace, were undeniable. Rather than invent a new kind of ornament to differentiate their furniture, the Shaker commitment to modesty commanded “a paring down of familiar forms from which applied or inlaid ornament was stripped” (Lyn 108). Much of what is considered classic Shaker furniture, like Ellsworth Kelly’s table, was made during the Era of Manifestations, the period of Shaker revival from 1837 into the 1850s, which saw the expansion of the Shaker precepts, known as the Millennial Laws, to include material details such as varnish, paint colors, and mirror size, as well as religious doctrine. The constraints of these edicts also underscored the importance of every action as an occasion for spiritual reflection: “[The Shaker] discarded the superfluous to discover a fundamental for which he was taught to labor in all his habits. Ornament detracted. Instructed in ‘gospel simplicity’ and restricted by the Millennial Laws, the believer framed simple furniture as an exercise in perfection.” (Lyn 114). In contrast to the flowing tracery and applied embellishment of, for example, the contemporaneous Hepplewhite style, the Shaker search for the fundamental resulted in a graceful balance of form and function, in which subtle variations in scale and proportion took precedence.

This search is also what must have drawn Kelly, at the time unaware of the Shakers, their beliefs, and their style, to this table, almost 150 years later. To describe the table in the abstract, is to match it to almost any work by Kelly: a series of expansive, undifferentiated, geometric planes delineated by regular proportions and arranged with a delicate attention to spatial perception. It even contains the 1:3 triptych motif that echoes throughout his oeuvre, whether in the early joined panel painting Train Landscape (1953) or one from the year after he acquired the table, Blue Yellow Red III (1971). The year previous, in “Notes of 1969,” he had written “Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom; there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything” (Kelly). For Kelly, as for the Shakers, there was no need to invent or embellish, whether on an article of furniture, or the fleeting beauty of shadows. Slicing, wedging, to describe an eye endlessly isolating and calibrating, compressing and combining, none of these words are limpid enough for the confident but unaggressive assuredness of his forms. One might as well pick a fight with a stone. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers, the last surviving Shaker community, summarize it thus: “The Christian’s task is to live in the present moment and not to store for tomorrow the bread that comes from heaven.” (Sabbathday Shakers). To dwell in the moment, in laboring, looking, perceiving, painting, is paramount.

Kelly’s attention to the moment is also what accounts for another anecdote from his early days in Chatham. Having pulled over to photograph the curving slope of a hill under snow, he received a ticket from a passing highway patrolman, baffled at Kelly’s reasoning for documenting an apparently featureless expanse. Where the inattentive might see monotonous absence, for Kelly there’s always some there there. For Kelly, art was immanent, something that could be peeled off almost effortlessly from the everday, like shavings from a Shaker’s plane.  He continues, in Notes of 1969: “It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same: anything goes” (Kelly). Even in the smallest crook or emptiest view, there is always ample material to develop. A magpie of forms, his work plucks the missing piece of the world, the overlooked, the not-yet-seen, and gives it back to us. Forty-odd years later, he would muse, reflecting on the kinship between the Shakers and his own work: “People say ‘Oh, you’ve taken so much out.’ And I say, ‘I just haven’t put it in.’ And that’s very much a Shaker idea. They didn’t put too much in to begin with. So this what you have: form.”

Line and Curve: The Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear Shaker Collection from Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon with Prints by Ellsworth Kelly is on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT from July 13 – December 31, 2018. The exhibition was developed by the Shaker Museum and Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, NY.

Works Cited 

 Kelly, Ellsworth. “Notes of 1969” in Ellsworth Kelly (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1980), 30 – 34. 

Ray, Mary Lyn. “A Reappraisal of Shaker Furniture and Society.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 8, 1973, pp. 107–132. 

Sabbathday Lake Shakers. “Our Beliefs” Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village website.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. “Kindred Aesthetics: Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Ellsworth Kelly & Jack Shear” Online video.