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)

 

 

The Testimonies of the Life, Character Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee and the Elders with Her

Testimonies of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee

Title Page, Testimonies of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee…Hancock, MA, 1816, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1964.15172.1

“5. Hannah Shapley, from New-Lebanon, visited the Church in June 1780, and through the operation of the might power of God, which she saw there, she was convicted of sin, and received full faith in their testimony. She confessed to Mother that she had not lived up to the light which she had received.

6. Upon hearing this, one of her companion said to her, “I believe you are a child of God.” Mother replied, “Do not daub her with untempered mortar. She has the right work upon her.” Then turning to Hannah, she said, “You must begin at the top twigs, and crop them off, and continue cropping until you come at the root, and then you must dig that up, that it may never grow again.”

The Testimonies of the Life, Character Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee and the Elders with Her; through Whom the Word of Eternal Life was Opened on this Day of Christ’s Second Appearing: Collected from Living Witnesses, by Order of the Ministry, in Union with the Church was printed in 1816 by the Shakers at their community in Hancock, Massachusetts. The purpose of the book, according to its preface, was to provide, “at the request of our beloved brethren and sisters, who have never seen those blessed Ministers of Christ in the body [i.e., Mother Ann and the first leaders of the Church], … a faithful record of those precepts and examples and other contemporary events which most evidently manifest their real characters.”  The Testimonies gathered and recorded the recollections of Believers, those “eye and ear Witnesses” who had known Mother Ann and the first elders.

The Testimonies is sometimes called “the secret book of the elders” because it was not intended for general publication and distribution to the outside world. It was held closely by the Shaker leadership and read aloud from time to time to the general membership. So concerned was Mother Lucy Wright that the book not fall into the hands of the outside world that, although it was available in the spring of 1816, she did not allow it to be sent to the Shaker communities in Ohio and Kentucky until mid-1818, until there could be “safe conveyance lest it should get to the world.”

Laid out by chapter and verse, The Testimonies looks like a familiar sacred text and the general structure, to some extent, reflects the structure of the New Testament. It begins, like the four Gospels do with Jesus, with the birth and spiritual blossoming of Mother Ann Lee. It continues with her missionary travels through New England gathering small communities of followers. It provides examples of the manifestations of God in Mother, instructions in spiritual and temporal affairs, and provides precepts under which these groups were eventually drawn into communities of Believers. The book ends with revelations on the final judgments levied on reprobates and persecutors.

Like the New Testament, The Testimonies is filled with stories that made it possible to draw those who never had a chance to know Mother into a personal connection with her and the first leaders of the Church, as well as strengthen the memories of those who did.

On April 29, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon will host an endurance reading of the Testimonies at Basilica Hudson as part of 24-Hour Drone. The reading will begin at 2:00 and go for an estimated ten hours. If you would like to participate in the reading, please contact programs@shakerml.org.

 

Photo-engraved printing blocks

These two printing blocks were made by a process of photo-engraving and, when inked and printed, produce a half-tone image – a printing surface made up of small dots to produce a picture that shows some shading rather than being starkly black and white. The buildings on the blocks – the Mount Lebanon Meetinghouse (1824) and the Church Family Dwelling at Mount Lebanon (1875) – are both still standing. The images are based on photographs; the image of the Meetinghouse is taken from a stereograph produced by James Irving of Troy, New York, sometime prior to 1873 and, while the original photograph on which the image of the Dwelling is based is still unknown to us, it post-dates the building’s completed construction in 1876. The Meetinghouse block was acquired by Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in 1957 from materials that had been moved to Hancock Shaker Village when Mount Lebanon closed. The block depicting the Dwelling was purchased in 2009 from an independent dealer who traced its provenance to Eldress Emma B. King at Canterbury, New Hampshire in the 1950s.

Both blocks were used to illustrate the article, “A Quaint and Curious People. A Century of Shaker Life on the Lebanon Hills,” in the June, 1883 issue of Outing: An Illustrated Magazine of Recreation. Outing, published in Boston, Massachusetts, was in its second year of publication and originally focused on bicycling as a popular recreation. In its first year it was published under the title The Wheelman. It is likely the Shakers were offered up as an interesting sightseeing trip as part of a ride over the Lebanon Hills.

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Library Stationary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY ca. 1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4255.2

The article appeared at a time when the Shakers were using similar illustrations of Shaker villages as cover art on their publication, The Manifesto, but neither of these illustrations was ever used in that or any other Shaker publication. It therefore seems likely that the publishers of Outing had the blocks made specifically for the article and may have retained them for a number of years, making it impossible for the Shakers to use the images. It does appear that at some later date the Shakers were able to acquire the blocks because before the end of the century the block illustrating the Dwelling was used on letterhead stationery for the Church Family Library at Mount Lebanon.

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Advertisement for Hiram Ferguson from Albany City Directory for 1883

The blocks themselves were made in Albany, New York, by Hiram Ferguson, best known in the Shaker world as the wood engraver who produced the images of Shaker chairs and oval boxes that were used to illustrate any number of Shaker chair catalogs. For the illustrations in the chair catalogs, Ferguson worked from photographs as well, but he used the photographs as the basis for his wood engravings – the art form for which he was best known in the 1870s. To produce multiple copies of the wood engravings so they could be used over years for the publication of the chair catalogues, Ferguson would have had them copied as type-metal blocks – a process that was much cheaper than duplicating the wood engravings. Ferguson’s advertisements in various Albany City Directories in the 1870s promote him as a wood engraver, but by the 1880s he had added “Photo-Electro Plates” and “Electrotyping” to his repertoire.

As an aside to the story of the Shakers and their relationship with Hiram Ferguson, it was noted in the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle for December 30, 1900, that on the day before “One of the boldest crimes that was ever committed in this city [Albany, NY] and the motive for which is shrouded in mystery, happened to-day when Hiram Ferguson, who is about 75 years of age is suffering from a fractured skull and his recovery is doubtful. The weapon used was a stove shaker, with which the assailant struck Ferguson twice over the ear…. The assailant has thus far eluded the police.”

There is obviously more to be learned about these printing blocks. Anyone knowing about the source for the image of the Dwelling House or additional uses of these images in Shaker or non-Shaker publications, we hope, will be kind enough to share them.

“Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon,… March 12th 1848.”

 

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Partial View to North Family – Looking North-West, ca. 1880. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4014.1

This anonymously written poem notes and described the 36 members of the North Family at the beginning of 1848. Where some members are noted only by their first names their surnames have been supplied in brackets. The document is useful in its description of the employments of many of the family’s members. That information coupled with other manuscripts from the family for that year gives us a rich view of life in the family.

Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon, in which all the members of said family are briefly noticed who were residing therein March 12th 1848.

In describing the members of this family,

We’ll labor to exercise some charity.

And if by and by we should chance to espy,

Some very small mote in a brother’s eye,

We’ll seek to remove it as we have been shown,

By taking out firstly the beam from our own.

Impress’d with this maxim we’ll now pass along,

And notice each member in our little song.

 

Here kind Elder Richard [Bushnell] stands first on the list,

And kind Brother Frederick [Evans] stands next to assist,

Now both our kind Elders we love and revere,

And give them our blessing their spirits to cheer.

Our Elders so kind we are bound to obey,

They watch for our souls that we go not astray;

So we will be faithful and labor to bless,

Our kind loving Elders for their faithfulness.

Eldress Sarah [Smith], now stands at the feminine head,

By whose wise example good Sisters are led;

The same bright-example now daily is set,

By our loving sister we call Antoinette [Doolittle].

By both have a burden of labor and care

Their love for lost-souls makes them willing to bear

Our kind Elder Sisters deserve our best love.

They are striving to lead us to heaven above.

Charles Bushnell and Clawson [Middleton] good Deacons have been,

In supporting the gospel which saves us from sin;

In love and good works they do always abound,

And faithful and true they have ever been found.

Armeda [Sherman] and Anna [Crosman] are two faithful souls,

As ever existed between the two poles;

Their labors of love are extended to all,

The sick and the healthy the great and the small.

And now, Thomas Estes we’ll next call to mind

He’s faithful in labor, obliging and kind

John Shaw we’ll remember who makes all our shoes;

And by his example much strength does diffuse,

Now Amy [Bennet] kind Sister must not be forgot,

She’s patient in bearing what falls to her lot;

She’ll long be remember’d beloved and blest

For labors bestow’d on the sick and distress’d

We’ll also remember our good Phebe Ann [Jones],

Who daily is striving to do all she can,

She works at the Palm leaf and makes summer hats,

Likewise pretty fans and some table mats;

In all her employment, she’s cheerful and bright,

And her smiling countenance gives us delight.

Now, Anthony Roberts and George [Wickersham] we will name

They both are mechanicks of much skill and fame.

They are gifted in skill like the workmen of old

Who wrought for the temple wood, silver and gold

And as they in faith and good works do abound,

With pure love and union they both shall be crown’d

Let kind sister Sally [Bushnell] come next if you please,

And Patty [Bushnell] who make our good butter and cheese,

We know they are faithful in all their employ,

They cultivate good but the evil destroy.

Henry Cantrell and Chauncey [Sears] are worthy of praise,

Their labors are useful in various ways;

In the shop, at the mill on the farm with the team,

Their good deeds are flowing in one constant stream;

These brethren so faithful in all their employ.

We give them our blessing and wish them much joy;

And when all their labors are finishe’d and done,

We trust they will reign with the Daughter and Son.

Now Nancy [Lockwood] and Charlotte [Bowns] kind Sisters are they,

Both careful to walk in the strait narrow way;

In deep tribulation they always endure,

And march on their way with the humble and pure.

Of Levi [Shaw] and Daniel [Fraser] we’ll next-take a view,

We know they are faithful, kind, honest and true;

Their faith by their works they’ve both fully shown,

We love them sincerely we freely must own.

Now Phebe [Van Houten] we’ll notice like Dorcas of old,

She’s made many garments which we can behold.

And Catharine [Van Houten] also is true in her place,

While smiles of contentment enliven her face.

These two worthy sisters so loving and kind

Are belov’d by all for their pureness of mind.

Resembling each other as near as two pins,

They bring to the mind two young roes that are twins.

Here’s Andrew [Firkey] and Luther [Dunnels] quite faithful we find,

They’re both honest farmers to labor inclin’d;

The cause of the gospel they wish to promote,

Their time and their talents they freely devote;

These brethren obliging and kind are to all,

And while they are faithful they never will fall.

Jane Knight, loves employment she’s neat as a pin,

She gives wholesome counsel to those who come in;

In her conversation she’s meek and she’s mild,

And in her behavior a true gospel child.

And Harriet Bullard kind sister we love,

The spirit is pure as the innocent dove,

She is faithful in duty in every place,

And virtues bright image is stamp’d on her face.

John Brown is a brother quite clever and kind,

He’s taken some pains in improving his mind.

He’s faithful in duty takes care of the hens

He cultivates good bur the evil condemns

John Robe is a brother quite cheerful and free

In search of Mount Zion he sailed o’er the sea

And since he was faithful and did persevere

We give him our blessing and welcome him here

Now, Sarah Jane Epwell the gospel obeys

And kind Hannah Wilson is worthy of praise

They both do stand faithful and firm for the truth

They’ve given their strength to the Lord in their youth

For such there’s a blessing for greater we know

Than all the vain pleasures this world can bestow.

 

Our young brother Henry [Cantrell] does all that he can

To build up the gospel of good Mother Ann

And Timothy Rayson is striving to be

Attentive to labor obliging and free

We know if they’re giving their strength to the Lord

Now while in their youth they will have their reward

And if they are faithful to keep in the fold

They’ll gain greater riches than mountains of gold

Of Elizaette Sutton and Rhoda [Hollister] we’ll speak

They’re pure in their manners obliging and meek

The world they’ve forsaken with all its vain toys

To find more substantial and heavenly joys

Now, Moses [Clement] we’ll mention who’s set out to break

The ties of old nature for the gospel’s sake

And Solomon Goddard has also begun

The snares of the tempter henceforth for to shun

We love these young brethren we’re free to confess

We give them our blessing that they may progress

________________

This poem was transcribed many years ago from a manuscript in the collection in one of the repositories holding Shaker materials, but the transcriber does not remember which repository. It is shared here both for your reading pleasure and for your help in locating its source. If you can identify the poem, please comment below.

 

Reading a print: “Shakers, their mode of worship”

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Lithograph, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,” D. W. Kellogg and Company, Hartford, CT, ca. 1835, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10574.1

There are many versions of this illustration, published in dozens of works on the Shakers. The history of its publication by various printmakers and printers has been well told by Robert P. Emlen in his article titled “The Shaker Dance Prints,” in Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society in the autumn of 1992. Emlen, in establishing the order in which versions of the print appeared for sale and in magazines, settled on a date around 1829 or 1830 for the earliest known printing. The print shown here, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,” published by D. W. Kellogg & Company, dates from sometime between 1832/1833 and 1840. It is a hand-colored lithograph and was sold as an individual print.

The diminutive man at the head of the second row of Shakers is likely Brother David Rowley. It was just after Christmas 1809 when David Rowley left his wife and young son in the world to unite with the Shakers. Brother David was a trained cabinetmaker when he joined the North Family at Mount Lebanon, New York, and continued in that work as a Shaker until his death of influenza in the fall of 1855. Shaker journals record Brother David’s height at four feet ten and three-eighth inches, and at the time the artist attended Shaker meeting and made his sketch for the print, Brother David was around fifty years of age. As a member of the North Family, “our good little brother,” as the Shakers referred to him, would have been at the community’s public meeting – the only meeting the author would have been allowed to attend. In June of 1830, Brother David moved from the North to the Church Family to work as that family’s cabinetmaker. As a member of the Church Family, Brother David would not have attended public meeting. This change of residence may help narrow the date when the original version of the print was made by providing the latest date when the artist would have seen Brother David in meeting.

One of the reasons this print has so often been used is the presence of the two African American men on the far right side of the image. The Shakers are well known for their willingness to include all, regardless of race or national origin, who were willing to bear the cross of a celibate life, live out of the common course of the world, and give themselves completely to the Church. Whereas a number of African Americans united with the Shakers in Kentucky and Ohio, the numbers were much smaller in the New England communities. At Mount Lebanon, a community of as many as five to six hundred members, for example, there were probably never even a dozen African American Shakers living there at any given time. One African American Brother that is documented to be a member of the North Family at the time the artist depicted the meeting was Brother Tower Smith. Brother Tower’s arrival in the family is described in the language of the day by Elder Calvin Green on August 3, 1821: “The Brethren reap & stack the rye on Amos’s mountain … a Black man from Hudson here, by name of Tower Smith wants to live with us — he had some faith years ago. We finish pulling flax.” Brother Tower was taken into the family and is mentioned a few times over the years before April, 1834, when Brother Abel Knight took him to Hudson, where, the journalist records, “like most others, [he] wants to be with those who were most congenial to his sense & state.” The journalist concludes with the comment, “poor old man I hope he may not spend the remainder of his days in suffering.”

It is interesting to note that none of the sisters were drawn with enough “character” to distinguish them one from another, whereas the artist seemed to take a lot of care to find unique characteristics in the brothers. This may have had to do with where he sat and how well he could see the sisters. While there are probably not many more identifiable characters in “The Shakers, their mode of Worship” – although there must be a story about a Shaker brother who wears a knit hat to meeting or, of course, the other African American brother – the more we are able to populate these images with real people, the better we are able to understand the Shaker experience.

 

 

To mark or not to mark, that is the question

Last week’s post discussed the Shakers and their rules about signing an individual’s work. When the issue of Shakers signing their work is raised, it is often accompanied by a quotation from the “Millennial Laws or Gospel Statutes and Ordinances Adapted to the day of Christ’s Second Appearing,” as they were revised in October, 1845. Section twelve, “Concerning Marking Tools and Conveniences,” article four, states, “No one should write or print his name on any article of manufacture, that others may hereafter know the work of his hands.” This rule has usually been interpreted to mean that Shakers were not allowed to sign anything they made. Let’s consider, however, what that rule means if we interpret, “articles of manufacture” to mean items made for sale to the outside world rather than objects made to be used in the community. It is known that many products made for sale were marked with the initials of the office deacons responsible for conducting business with the outside world and later the names “Shakers” or “United Society” with a community of origin were used to mark Shaker work.

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Die Stamp, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1683.1

The object pictured here, a die stamp, cut to mark the initials “D. M.,” was used at Mount Lebanon to mark various Shaker products sold to the outside world. Spinning wheels, reels, tubs, pails, hand cards, and dippers with these initials identified them as the work of the Shakers. This stamp contains the initials of Deacon David Meacham, Sr. (1744-1826), the office deacon at the time the stamp was first used. Other communities followed this example using their deacon’s initials on some products they sold. The initials “F. W.,” (Deacon Francis Winkley) marked spinning wheels, cooperware, and seed packages sold by the Canterbury, NH, Shakers; ‘’D. G.,” (Deacon Daniel Goodrich) appears on bent-wood measures and hand cards made at Hancock, MA, and “J. H.” (Deacon John Holmes) is found stamped into spinning wheels made at Sabbathday Lake, ME. By mid-century the name “Shaker” appeared more commonly on Shaker products. After the Civil War, the full names of deacons began to appear on Shaker products. Deacon Levi Shaw’s name appeared on rug whips made at Mount Lebanon’s North Family and Deacon Dewitt Clinton Brainard’s name appeared on a variety of products produced at Mount Lebanon.

It is not known if this is this “D. M.” stamp was the only die used to mark products at Mount Lebanon or if there were several of these in use. Robert F. W. Meader, a past director of the Shaker Museum, once said he had seen a reference in a Shaker journal to the serif on the “M” on the die having been accidentally broken off. Some stamps found on Shaker objects have the serif – some do not. The die appears to have been hand forged and lacking any mark indicating who made the die, it is not know if it was made by the Shakers or by a die cutter in the world.

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“D. M.” Printed with Die Stamp on Face of Clock Reel, ca. 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6440.1. The person who used the die stamp to mark the face of this clock reel used it with ink or paint as one would printer’s type rather than as a stamp to incise a the mark.

As for things made by Shakers intended to remain in their own homes and workshops, it should be understood that while anonymity was required for products made for the world, Shakers were not anonymous within their own families and communities. It was certainly not necessary to know who made what for the family, but people did – it was no secret. If someone wanted to know who made the case of drawers in their retiring room it’s likely someone would remember, and probably approximately when it was made. A tremendous amount of information about the built environment must have been retained in the minds of the 50 to 100 members of each Shaker family. In the midst of this kind of shared knowledge the act of putting one’s name on something they made made little difference – most family members would know who made it anyway. Why some cabinetmakers such as Brother Orren N. Haskins signed a number of things he made and others such as Brother David Rowley did not, had less to do with “Gospel Statutes and Ordinances” than it did with individual psyches. In nearly every case when a piece of furniture is found signed by its maker – the signature is on the bottom or back of a drawer or on the back of the piece rather than where it is easily seen.

The Millennial Laws cited above also includes in section twelve an article stating, “It is not allowable for the brethren to stamp, write or mark their own names, upon any thing which they make for the sisters,” or vice versa. While the logic of forbidding behavior that might be intended to curry special favors or affection from a member of the opposite sex seems perfectly reasonable in a celibate community, it is possible read into this rule permission to put one’s name on things made for the family in general or things made for personal use. A third article in the same section says, “The initials of a person’s name are sufficient mark to put upon any tool, or garment, for the purpose of distinction.” In this statute the Shakers are discouraging unnecessary work and the opportunity for unnecessary embellishment in how one marks things. Clothing, linens, woodworking planes, and garden tools are examples of things that may need to be identified as to the person who used it. The collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon strongly reflects an adherence to this statute in the markings found on tools and textiles.

Whether the above is perfectly accurate or not in its argument concerning marks of manufacture and ownership, it is at least our desire to encourage a broadening of the discussion of those rules and sayings that are so often quoted to show that Shaker always or always did not do something.

 

 

Jas. X. Smith

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Jas. X. Smith’s Stamp in Wood, ca. 1950, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Die stamps were standard tools used by cabinetmakers to mark their tools, especially when they worked in a workshop where their tools might become mixed up with those of other workers. This set of stamps was used by James X. Smith to make his mark “Jas. X. Smith” and “New-Lebanon” on his cabinetmaking planes and other tools. While it is common to find initials stamped into the ends of woodworkers’ hand planes and occasionally a full last name, it is less common to find the owner’s whole name and place of residence marked. Brother James X. Smith was a member of the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Born in 1806 in Norwich, New York, his father, also James had unsuccessfully tried to become a Shaker at New Lebanon in the 18th century. Failing this, he dedicated himself to the work of farming and met with considerable success. He married and had eight children, including James X. Smith. Although comfortably rewarded by his labor, he never found spiritual peace. In a complex series of steps having to do with his earlier experience with the Shakers and with his duty to his wife and family, James Sr. and most of his family united with the Shakers at New Lebanon in 1816. By 1843 Brother James X. Smith was serving as the assistant elder at the Second Family. In 1858 he was moved to the Center Family where he worked in the herb business. Two years later he was appointed the Elder at the East Family, but due to poor health was sent to the Church Family where he led a productive life until he died in the faith in 1888.

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Die Stamps made by Benjamin C. True, Albany, NY for Brother James X. Smith, New Lebanon, NY, 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1403, 1950.1404

The stamps Brother James used were made by and purchased from die-cutter Benjamin C. True of Albany, NY, and marked “B. C. True, Albany.” True was active in the 1830s with a shop on Beaver Street. The process of making dies was challenging—carving very small letters into iron that is hard enough to be driven repeatedly into hard wood without damaging the die. The process involves forging the general shape of the die at the blacksmith’s forge, then annealing or softening the iron by heating it to the temperature at which it is no longer attracted to a magnet – somewhere around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – and then letting it cool very slowly. Done properly, the iron will be soft enough to be worked with small chisels, files, drills, and engravers’ tools. The die-maker works with letters in reverse so they will make a right-reading mark. Once the die is cut, it is hardened by bringing it evenly back to around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and quenching, that is, quickly cooling the iron. Done properly the die will withstand repeated use.

Earlier this week Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon sponsored a tour of the current Shaker exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met,” on view through June 25,2017. The exhibition, curated by Alyce Englund, Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts, features Shaker pieces once owned by pioneer collectors and scholars of Shaker history, Edward and Faith Andrews, along with other Shaker items from the Met’s collection; examples of American furniture contemporary with Shaker pieces; and modern pieces inspired by the Shakers, including a 1958 screening of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring ballet. The Museum’s Director of Collections and Research, Jerry Grant, was invited to join Englund in discussion of the objects in the exhibition.

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Work Stand, Made by Brother James X. Smith, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1843, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

One of the extraordinary pieces in the exhibition is a six-drawer work table from Mount Lebanon made in 1843 by Brother James X. Smith while he lived at the Second Family. Brother James used the set of dies to stamp “Jas. X. Smith New-Lebanon N. Y.” across the dovetails of one of the piece’s drawers. The work table is unusual in that it is of panel-and-frame construction at a time when Shakers would usually have made such a piece with wide pine boards to make the sides. The front legs and the boards between the drawers are framed with beading. Brother James edged with top with a strip of wood to keep things from rolling off and marked the front strip to be a 32 inch measuring stick. In anticipation of discussing this piece, Grant brought photographs of Brother James’ stamps for Englund. The Met was unaware of the existence of these stamps and the knowledge of them enhances the story of this particular piece of Shaker furniture.

 

The music was very fine: Brother Elisha’s piano-violin

In the mid-1860s a local “Professor of Music” encouraged the singers at the Shaker Village at Canterbury, New Hampshire, to explore the study of music in order to improve the presentation of their traditional songs. The result was a change from the unique letteral notation the Shakers used for transcribing the melodies of songs to the more generally used round-headed notes, the introduction of singing in parts rather than only in unison, and the eventual introduction of instrumental music by way of organ and piano. Some Shakers believed these and other changes were necessary in order to keep pace with the times and continue to attract converts.  

In the midst of this transition, an inventive Shaker brother, Elisha D’Alembert Blakeman, struck out on a course that he thought would help attract new adherents through music. Brother Elisha was born in 1819 in Clyde, New York. His father, Elisha Sr., a medical doctor, became acquainted with the Shakers at Sodus Bay when they were in need of his medical expertise. When Elisha’s mother died in 1830, his father and Elisa Jr. both united with the Shakers. They eventually moved to Mount Lebanon, the senior Blakeman at the North Family and younger at the Church Family. At age 15, young Elisha began learning  the trade of cabinetmaking. With an inventive, occasionally whimsical mind and a readiness to serve the community, Brother Elisha created and patented a fly-trap; designed “a self-regulating ventilator for lodging rooms &c – to be set under or over the sash of the windows – operated by the wind”; and, when the family’s water power failed, built a swing to which a churn was attached so “one, two or more, then get into the swing, [and] have the delicious pleasure of a swing, while the churn is bringing forth butter.”  Late in the 1860s Brother Elisha, most likely very familiar with a “monochord” used by the family to set the pitch for their songs, set out to make an improvement in the instrument  that would make it not only a useful tool but an instrument which could accompany singers.

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Piano-Violin, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1869, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12948.1

The monochord that the Shakers used in setting the pitch for songs was developed by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs to regularize the performance and presentation of Shaker music from family to family and community to community. Brother Isaac’s monochord was a simple instrument consisting of a string stretched over a hollow box that would reverberate when placed on an empty chest or a table. The pitch of a given song could be set by holding a wooden block down on the string at a marked interval and striking the string to produce the sound. Brother Elisha improved this simple instrument by adding metal keys to replace the wooden block and substituted a violin bow for the pluck of a finger to give the instrument a sweeter sound.

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U.S. Patent 114,520 for an Improvement in Piano-Violins by E. D. Blakeman, 1871, U. S. Patent Office.

In 1871 Brother Elisha sought and received a patent for his improved monochord under the name “Piano-Violin.” The patent was secured by Munn & Company, editors of Scientific American and patent agents. Brother Elisha continued to make improvements on his instrument to the point that on May 6, 1871 he gave a concert on his “new instruments, ‘Piano-Violins.’ The two built of chestnut wood in tune with each other, and my old big cherry, built two years since which carried double base—for the first trial of the three in harmony, the music was very fine.”  Following the publication of the patent, Brother Elisha received inquiries from people who wanted to be agents to sell his new instrument. To promote its usefulness he gave demonstrations to school teachers to encourage its use as a teaching tool. Brother Elisha, convinced he could benefit the Church with his new instrument by giving concerts to attract new members, approached the Ministry for permission to do so. The Ministry did not support his offer. The allure of manufacturing and selling his piano-violin combined with his disappointment in not being able to use the instrument to further the Shaker Church, caused Brother Elisha to leave his Shaker home in March of 1872.

Whether Elisha Blakeman went on to manufacture his piano-violins has not been determined. He did live nearly three decades after leaving the Shakers, dying in Chillicothe, Ohio on April 11, 1900.

The Piano-Violin in the collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is the only one known to have survived. It is, of course, possible that there are others in various collections of musical instruments that have not been connected with their Shaker origin. The Museum’s instrument can be traced to Sister Sadie Neale at Mount Lebanon.