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.

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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. 

fig 3

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. 




Miniature books

Cabinet Card, Elder Henry C. Blinn

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

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

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

The Little Instructor (pages 28/29

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

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

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


The fleshing beam: Not for weak stomachs

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

Fleshing Beam

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

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

The Beam House.

The Beam House. Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 2. Nürnberg 1550–1791. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317b.2°, from, accessed October 10, 2017

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

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

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

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




Splitting wood in the 19th century

Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter

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

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

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

Advertising Brochure, Hildreth’s Patent Wood Splitter

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

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

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

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


Reconstructing the history of a cupboard

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

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA

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

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

fig 2

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

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

fig 3

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

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



Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man: Beekeeping at Mount Lebanon

Advertising Flyer, “Honey, Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man”

Advertising Flyer, “Honey, Soul of Flowers to Sweeten the Soul of Man,” North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2003.20848.1.

The Shakers were at the forefront of beekeeping both in their New England communities and in the West. Early on they understood the importance of the role bees played in pollinating their crops and, of course, enjoyed the honey and made use of beeswax. Most of the documentation of beekeeping at Mount Lebanon involves Elder Giles B. Avery at the Church Family. Avery kept a number of hives at both Mount Lebanon and at Watervliet, NY. His “Journal Concerning Bees in the Second Order,” as well as his notations about bees in the Church Family daily journals and his personal diaries, provide a clear picture of him as a progressive beekeeper. He quickly adopted improvements in hive designs and was aggressive in his procurement and use of Italian queens as they became preferred for strong hives.

Elder Giles mentions placing his hives at several of the Mount Lebanon families, but does not mention doing so at the North Family. This suggests that the North Family had its own beekeeper. By the turn of the twentieth century that beekeeper was Sister Mazella Gallup. Whether the North Family beekeeping was done by the sisters earlier is not known at present, but evidence of the sisters’ involvement in the task is documented in photographs of the “Bee Garden” from the early 1900s.

Swarm Box

Swarm Box, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2727.1a,b, John Mulligan, photographer.

The swarm box was used by beekeepers to transport wild swarms of bees to their manufactured hives. When a swarm was located – usually hanging on a branch of a tree or bush – the back of the box was opened to receive the swarm. To get the swarm in the box either the swarm was shaken until the queen fell into the box or the beekeeper would reach into the swarm, retrieve the queen, and put her in the box. Once the queen was in the box the rest of the swarm would follow. The swarm box, made of pine and basswood with an oak handle, is covered with a finely woven linen to provide ventilation during transport. Once back at the hives the bees were transferred into a prepared hive. The two holes in the box apparently let the bees come and go until they decide to move into the new hive.

This swarm box was purchased by Shaker Museum founder John S. Williams, Sr., from Sister Frances Hall, the trustee at Hancock, MA, around 1948, from the “surplus” North Family items that had come to Hancock the year before when the last Shaker left Mount Lebanon.


A tool for everything

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Though a tool’s primary attribute is its function, sometimes the maker or user of a tool will take the time, usually in an expression of pride, to decorate it with paint or carving. The object presented here was left undecorated by its maker but has a memorable sculptural quality that is closely related to how it was used. The tool is a gauge made to mark out the position of mortises used in joining pieces of wooden window sash. Window sash – the movable part of a window – is composed of a frame with a top and bottom rail and two side pieces called stiles. Thinner horizontal and vertical pieces called muntins or mullions crisscross the frame to support the glazing when it is composed of more than a single piece of glass. The muntins are attached to the frame with mortise and tenon joints – the joint where a square or rectangular peg (tenon) is inserted into a square or rectangular hole (mortise). The rails and stiles of the frame are connected in the same manner but with larger mortises and tenons. When faced with making hundreds if not thousands of these joints (Shaker buildings have a lot of window) it must have been thought prudent to make a special tool for the job.

This sash gauge can make two different sets of marks on a piece of wood. One end of the gauge, fitted with two thin sharp blades set three-eighths of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that joined the rails and stiles; the other end of the gauge, with two blades set one-eighth of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that join the muntins to the frame. Marking joinery with a sharp knife blade is generally more accurate than using a pencil. This gauge is ergonomic, having specific places carefully carved to accommodate the thumb and forefinger when using either end.

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge (detail of D. R. stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Brother David Rowley, who was a cabinetmaker at the North Family for twenty years, made the gauge. He moved to the Church Family the summer of 1830 where he continued making furniture and window sashes until his death in 1855. His initials, “D. R.,” are stamped on the tool as they are on several woodworking planes, a saw, another adjustable marking gauge, and a set of saw horses in the Museum’s collection. Brother David was born in Sharon, Connecticut in 1779, and chose a career as a cabinetmaker in part due to his small stature (David stood 4’ 10 3/8” inches high) and his feeling that farming, his preferred occupation, would be “too heavy for [his] physical endurance.” He moved from Connecticut to New Lebanon, New York, where his uncle lived, married, and established his cabinetmaking business. He soon learned about the Shakers and being a person with an unsettled spiritual life, became more and more interested in them, until he “saw that they were both by precept & example, the true followers of Christ.” Within a few years he joined the Shakers.

Shakers, their mode of Worship

“Shakers, their mode of Worship.” (Hand-Colored Lithograph), D. W. Kellogg, Hartford, Connecticut,Ca. 1835, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1

The artist of a well known illustration of the Shakers worshiping in the Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon, NY, may have captured an image of Brother David. His stature apparently caught the attention of the artist who included a diminutive Shaker brother in his illustration. As a member of the North Family at Mount Lebanon, Brother David would have participated in the public meeting, the only meeting that the artist would have been allowed to attend.

While there are no known pieces of Shaker furniture that can be attributed absolutely to Brother David, he most assuredly was responsible for much of the early furniture that can be traced to the North Family. His tools help preserve his legacy.


Photo provides new documentation of a museum object

Photograph, Sister Sadie Maynard Standing behind a Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Photograph, Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens, North Family, Mount
Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1915, Shaker
Museum | Mount Lebanon

We recently wrote about a lawn bench in the Museum’s collection. Carved on its back rail is, “August  | North Family Shakers | 1914.” It was located in the yard between the North Family’s First Dwelling and the Sisters’ Workshop facing uphill to the public road. In the post we included a photograph of Sister Sadie Maynard standing behind the bench. Since then we received a gift of a collection of materials that had come from the North Family through the donor’s mother-in-law’s great grandmother, Margaret Fyfe (Fife in Shaker journals), including a photograph of Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens seated on the same bench. It is rare to have Shaker-era photographic documentation of pieces from the Museum’s collection. To have two such images is quite remarkable.

Eldress Annie Rosetta Stephens was one of the first converts resulting from Elder Frederick W. Evans’s 1871 lecture tour in England. Sister Rosetta’s father, a designer of paisley shawls and a weaver who was one of the founders of the Humanitarian Brotherhood, was apparently very receptive to the American communist who had come to lecture in London – enough so to send his 11-year old daughter to America with the elder. When the “Atlantic” docked in New York and Elder Frederick disembarked, by his side was little Annie who became and remained a Shaker her whole life.

Margaret Fyfe, who either took or was given the photograph, first came to the Shakers at the North Family with Amanda Deyo, a Universalist minister, vice-president of the Universal Peace Union, and a prime mover in the annual peace convention held in Wiley’s Grove near Salt Point, Dutchess County, NY – a meeting the Shakers attended. Margaret boarded with the North Family from early spring through late fall each year from 1910 until about 1920. She was enough of a consistent presence during those years to be noted as “Sister Margaret” on occasion in one family diary.