From a spirit communication, an iconic logo emerges: How a Shaker gift drawing inspired CBS

For those of us who have come to know and admire the Shakers, the moment when Anthony McGill’s clarinet opened the first discernible strains of Simple Gifts at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, there was a moment of pleasant recognition. As he was joined by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montero to fill out John Williams’s arrangement of the Shaker song, it was probably all that the audience could do not to sing along: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free…”

“Simple Gifts,” written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Bracket at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, is among the most recognizable contributions the Shakers made to American popular culture. The song has been heard as a memorable theme in Aaron Copeland’s score for Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, and with a slightly modified tune and new lyrics by Sydney Carter for his song, Lord of the Dance. Carter’s adaptation was then used as a driving force in Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance Irish step dancing extravaganza. Simple Gifts has been performed and recorded by Judy Collins, Jewel, and Weezer. It was even sung by the Ingalls family in their little house on the prairie and by a 10-year-old Jodie Foster in an episode of the TV show, Kung-Fu.

In 1959, when CBS Television began using Aaron Copland’s adaptation of Simple Gifts as the introductory theme music for its documentary news series CBS Reports, they were probably unaware of the network’s prior history with the Shakers. In the decade before, the number of homes with televisions skyrocketed. As television was on the brink of becoming more popular than radio, broadcast networks were under increased pressure to supply new shows and to brand themselves visually as they had done in radio with voice and music. The story of branding CBS Television was the Shakers’ first “appearance” on this new media.

William Golden began working at CBS in 1937 in the promotion department. Within three years, based on his earlier work in the art department at House & Garden magazine and a good relationship with Frank Stanton, then head of CBS’s research, he was promoted to the company’s creative director. In 1950, in response to the need for more effective graphic images for television, Golden was asked to develop a new logo. The story of how Golden developed the now universally known CBS “eye” logo is a little muddled with extraneous recollections from some of his co-workers about the stimulus Golden received from “hex signs” on Pennsylvania German barns. However, the path to his idea for the logo leads back to a Shaker gift drawing.

Shaker gift drawings are works on paper made from the early 1840s to the late 1850s that graphically record spiritual visions, or to the Shakers, spiritual “gifts.” These inspired drawings were created by a number of untrained artists and have become an important part of American folk art. Fewer than two hundred of these drawings survive. A number of them were included in the 1935 exhibition, “Shaker Handicrafts,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, ten years later, were presented in an article in The Magazine Antiques titled, “Shaker Inspirational Drawings.” By 1950, artists and designers in New York City were well aware of these unique Shaker drawings.

Around the same time William Golden began his quest to develop a new CBS logo, Alexey Brodovitch, famous as the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, took on a new project – the publication of a magazine dedicated totally to graphic design. The magazine, Portfolio, was published without advertising, supported only by the subscriptions of those with a love for graphic design. Although Portfolio lasted only three issues, it achieved a reputation as the most significant publication on design during the twentieth century. The first issue of the magazine included an article titled, “The Gift to be Simple,” (incidentally, part of the first line of the Shaker song, Simple Gifts) that featured a drawing, untitled and undated, attributed by style and choice of symbols to Sister Sarah Bates of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection). It is a detail of the “all-seeing eye” selected by Brodovitch from the upper center of the drawing that caught Golden’s attention. Luckily for Golden, Brodovitch chose to reproduce the eye from a black and white negative and printed it as a high-contrast image, accentuating the difference between the iris and the pupil. Golden, seeing the potential in the image, handed off the concept for the eye logo to Kurt Weihs, who was able to refine the drawing for its intended use. Weihs was the one who appears most clearly to remember the connection between the CBS Eye and the Shaker drawing in Portfolio magazine. The missing link in the story is how Alexey Brodovitch came to do an article about Shaker gift drawings in the premiere issue of Portfolio.

Sister R. Mildred Barker, from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine in making a point about the real significance of the Shakers in the world, said she did not “want to be remembered as a chair.” Shaker genius, however, expressed itself in many forms – design, invention, social justice, theology, and even the simple chair. The story of the development of the CBS Eye is one example of how the Shakers unintentionally inspired creative impulses in the outside world. In this case, Shakers experienced a spiritual vision. The vision was recorded by a scribe who created a tangible symbol of the all-seeing eye of God held aloft by the wings of an angel. The creative director for CBS used that inspiration to create an image in which the television network makes a case that it is an “eye” that will always be “looking at the world.”

“[T]he first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.”

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon recently received a small collection of photographs made in and around the town of New Lebanon, New York by an as yet unidentified photographer. Among the photographs is a print of Brother Levi Shaw (1819-1908) standing behind a McCormick binder at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. This photograph was published on page 115 in The Shaker Image by Elmer Ray Pearson and Julia Neal (1974). The caption for the photograph includes a notation written on the original photograph, from which the published copy was taken, that reads: “Br. Levi Shaw of North Family, Mount Lebanon, N. Y. Arranging to buy the first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.” In the second annotated edition of The Shaker Image, prepared by Dr. Magda Gabor-Hotchkiss, she identifies the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, as the owner of the original image bearing that inscription. The Historical Society does not supply either a date or photographer for their copy of the image.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24192.1

The McCormick binder was part of a long line of grain harvesting machines developed by Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884). His original mechanical reaper was a horse-drawn machine that cut grain and gathered an appropriate amount together to be hand-tied into a sheaf with a piece of twine or straw. A number of sheaves, usually twelve, were leaned against each other with grain at the top to form a tent-like structure called a stook or shock. When fully dry, the sheaves were taken to the thresher to have the grain removed from the straw and the chaff from the kernels. McCormick’s reaper was first marketed in 1831 and was a huge improvement over the use of sickles, scythes, and cradles for harvesting grains. In 1884 the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company offered its first machine that added a binding operation to the cutting and gathering done by the reaper. The machine, a reaper-binder, or usually just called a binder, had been invented in 1872 by Charles Baxter Withington.  Many improvements were made by various mechanics before McCormick’s machine was available in 1884. McCormick’s binder used twine and a knotting mechanism to tie the grain into sheaves. The sheaves were dropped on the ground to be gathered into stooks.

An attempt to date this photograph has netted inconclusive but enlightening results. The McCormick company’s first offering of a binder in 1884 and Brother Levi’s death in 1908 provides a wide bracket for dating this photograph.  Records of daily events at the North Family tell us that in 1891 the Shakers purchased a binder on August 1st – “Buy Reaper & Binder $145.” This is the first mention of purchasing a binder in the records to which we have access. If we assume that the comment from the copy of the photograph from the Western Reserve Historical Society is correct, then it is possible that the photograph dates from 1891. However, the binder purchased in 1891 may have been made by another company and the inscription is wrong. Few of the photographs in the collection from which this photograph came are dated. Of the ones that are dated, the earliest is 1894. An inquiry to the “askmccormick” reference desk at the Wisconsin Historical Society resulted in the information that the font style used on the McCormick name plate on this binder was used between 1898 and 1903. We will have to be satisfied with a circa 1900 date for the photograph until documentation of the date the North Family purchased specifically a McCormick binder is discovered.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder at the Shaker Swamp Meadow, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24193.1

In addition to the rather well known image of the Brother Levi and the McCormick binder at the North Family, a second, and possibly previously unknown photograph is included in the collection that shows Brother Levi and the binder working in the North Family’s swamp meadow. This piece of land runs along the east side of New York Route 22 just north of the Shaker’s stone grist mill. The field has now reverted to swamp but after the Shakers had under-drained the land they grew hay, grains, potatoes, onions, and even planted an orchard on the land. This photograph shows the binder in cutting and binding mode whereas the first photograph shows it in transport mode.

While the creator of this photograph has not been identified it seems likely that it was a local man named Will S. Potter or possibly someone in his family. Potter made a number of photographs of the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Most of them were reproduced as postcards in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Many of these postcards had titles, locations, and sometimes Potter’s name written on the negative so that when printed it created a white hand-written description on the postcard. Some of the images in the collection from which the binder photographs came had titles written in a similar manner. These written titles are consistent in style to Will Potter’s postcards but the handwriting is different, causing us to think that possibly someone such as Potter’s wife or photographic assistant may have done the titles for the postcards – if indeed Potter is the photographer. More about that another day.

“We have a set of new dishes on our table…they are pretty and costly we know.”

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Round Serving Bowl, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1961.13237.1

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was recently given a shallow 4 and 7/8’s-inch-diameter bowl made by the Union Porcelain Works (UPW). The bowl is decorated with a green border, small flowers, and the words, “Shakers  Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” These three additions to the Museum’s collection of twenty-eight other pieces of Mount Lebanon porcelain give cause to revisit this subject.

An 1887 entry in a sister’s diary from Mount Lebanon’s Church Family mentions some new dishes bought for the family. She wrote, “We have a set of new dishes on our table [this] morning, marked Shakers, Mt Lebanon, they are pretty and costly we know.” In the early 1950s Shaker Museum Curator Phelps Clawson catalogued the first two piece of this china acquired for the collection. He repeated information believed to have been supplied by a Shaker at Mount Lebanon indicating these dishes had been used initially by the Shakers for daily meals, with later versions sold to visitors as souvenirs. There was speculation in the antiques world that these pieces were made solely as souvenirs since it seemed unlikely that pride-averse Shakers would have found dishes marked with their name suitable. Clawson’s notes, however, are supported by photographic evidence in the Museum’s collection showing pieces of this china on the table in the family’s dining room.

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Church Family Dining Room, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1960.12527.1

Further examination of Shaker records expanded the sister’s initial comment about the new dishes. Church Family trustee, Brother Benjamin Gates and family deaconesses Sisters Cornelia French and Mary Hazard went to New York City on October 12, 1886 “on business concerning dishes for table use; to be made by Order.” Exercising their duty to see to the domestic concerns of the family, they placed their order for new china with the Union Porcelain Works, once located in the Highpoint (now Greenpoint) section of Brooklyn, New York. The manufacturer of the dishes is clearly identified by the UPW trademark on the bottom of each dish. The trademark on the Mount Lebanon dishes include the numerals “12” and “86” or “1” and “87” indicating that they were made in either December 1886 or January 1887 – a period that fits perfectly between the date the Shakers went to New York and the date the dishes appeared on the family’s table. Only two pieces in the Museum’s collection, two shallow saucers, bear the 1887 date, suggesting that most of the order was completed in 1886, although the Museum’s collection contains most, but not all of the types of dishes made for the Shakers.

UPW began producing hard paste porcelain in the mid-1860s and was the first company in the United State to achieve long-lasting success producing china. Porcelain is made of kaolin, a white clay, and feldspar, a mineral that when heated to a high temperature forms a glassy cement that permanently binds the clay and makes it translucent. In the 19th century only a small number of manufacturers in the United States produced porcelain that compared favorably with European imports.

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Cup and Caucer, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8257.1 (cup), 1950.3985.1 (saucer)

At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Charles de Busy, a French member of the International Jury, described the porcelain of Greenpoint (UPW) as “second to none in quality of paste and hardness of glaze.” While some of the pieces were described as “heavy,” de Busy said that “thinner pieces, such as tea and coffee cups, … would figure honorably among the production of Europe.” The pieces in the Museum’s collection bear this out – the serving bowls being heavy and opaque while the cups and their saucers are lighter with a translucence associated with quality porcelain.

To date, no documentation of the cost of the new dishes has been discovered, but an entry in another Shaker sister’s diary suggests that it was not cheap. She wrote, “We have a surprise of great value, on our breakfast table; a set of new dishes. Porcelain ware marked for us Shaker &c. … We hope it may be long ere we need another set.” In the mid-1880s the Church Family at Mount Lebanon had nearly seventy members. Considering that there were probably dinner plates, luncheon plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dessert bowls, and cups and saucers for each member of the family as well as three sizes of oval serving bowls, large round serving bowls, syrup and water pitchers, and relish plates included in the set, the sheer number of pieces could have been well over five-hundred.

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Relish Dish and Small Pitcher, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8254.1 (relish dish), 1957.8253.1 (small pitcher)

It was originally hypothesized that the variety of decoration grouped themselves into three distinct patterns. Since then it has become clear that the decoration is much less organized. The green border and the words “Shakers Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” appear to have been done by printed decal-like transfers while the floral and botanic decoration was hand-painted. The transfer decoration was a common offering of Union Porcelain Works as they made large quantities of what they called “thick” and “half-thick” dishes for hotels – usually decorated with a colored band and the name or logo of the hotel. Why the Shakers opted not to stop with this common offering is a mystery. The management of UPW did offer workspace for amateur painters who wanted to be trained in porcelain decorating to come for supervised practice. It may have been that the wide variety in the painted decoration on the Shakers’ dished was a result of having this group of would-be-painters do that work for little extra cost.

We are pleased to hold such a fine representation of dishes used by the Mount Lebanon Shakers and hope that over the years some of the missing forms and some better examples of forms we have will be added to the collection.

A four ton trip hammer

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Forge, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2016, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph.

In the winter of 1846 the First and Second Order of the Church Family determined to build a new blacksmith shop, one of stone with waterpower that would operate a lathe, drilling works, a grindstone, bellows for the forge, and a trip hammer. The shop was to be built 34 feet by 44 feet and located in the corner of the Deming Lot at the northeast corner of the land bordered by the main road that ran through the village (now called Darrow Road) and the road that runs downhill to the Shaker gristmill (now called Ann Lee Lane on the east end and Cherry Lane on the west end). The shop still stands and is now a private residence. The 1845 Shakers’ census notes that there were three blacksmiths in what is now called the Center Family – Brothers Arba Noyes, James Vail, and George Long.

Construction was largely done by members of the Second Order with considerable help from hired Irish laborers who did much of the digging for the pit for the waterwheel and laid up most of the stonework. By mid-summer the wheel pit, the drain to carry away water from the wheel, and the masonry work were completed. In the early fall, the hired labor returned to build the dam to create the pond to supply water to power the shop. The dam is still standing and pond is on the east side of the road.

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Interior of the Church Family Forge with the Trip Hammer in its Original Location, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. John S. Williams, Sr., photographer.

The decision to include a trip hammer in their new blacksmith’s shop was bold, but one that greatly increased the Shakers’ ability to fabricate and manufacture items out of iron. Trip hammers of many designs have been used for a couple of thousand years. The basic principle is that some kind of power is applied, in some manner, to raise a hammer larger than can be lifted by a man so that when it is dropped it will come down with more force than a man can exert alone. Trip hammers, in addition to forging iron, have been used for hulling and grinding grain, pounding rags for papermaking, and crushing iron ore to make it easier to extract the metal from the rock. In blacksmithing, trip hammers are often used to draw out flat sheets of metal from an iron bar and to shape a piece of square iron rod, for instance flattening the end of an iron bar to make a shovel and or making round ends on a square bar to make an axel for a wagon.

The Shakers documented their new trip hammer in their journals. In January 1846, Center Family Elder Amos Stewart experimented with a model for a windmill, hoping that he could use wind power “to tilt a triphammer.” This attempt, although it would have saved building a dam for the shop, apparently failed. The next month, Brother Hiram Rude, the family mechanic, went to Lee, Massachusetts to see a “gang of Triphammers.” The Shakers frequently went to visit businesses and factories to stay abreast of new technologies. Apparently in the next few weeks a design for the hammer was drawn up and casting patterns made for the metal parts. Elder Amos and Brother Peter went to Albany to see about castings for the gearing for the hammer. It was nine months later – after the new shop was finished and its forge fired up – that Elder Amos and Brother Braman Wicks, a carpenter from the Church Family, began working again on the gearing to drive the hammer. In July, a tree was cut for the frame to hold the hammer. Apparently by winter that year the Shakers were rethinking the design of the trip hammer. Elder Amos and Brother Hiram went to Cohose, New York, to look at another trip hammer and two days after that trip they had settled “upon the form for a Hammer & spoke for castings in Troy.” This final design was completed and the trip hammer seemed to be in use shortly after that.

While trip hammers were associated primarily with iron work, the Shakers appeared to have another idea for using it quite early on – maybe even before they began planning to built it: pounding black ash logs to break down the bond between the tree’s natural growth rings. When the growth rings are separated, they are easily peeled off in long strips and become the treasured materials from which baskets are woven. Most basket makers would do this work by pounding a log with a sledge hammer. For the Shakers, the ability to more efficiently produce basket weaving material meant that they could greatly increase their production of all kinds of baskets. In November of 1847, Elder Daniel Boler of the Church Family worked “at the blacksmith shop preparing trip hammer for pounding out basket stuff.” The Shakers were so dependent on having basket materials prepared by machine that in  1863, when apparently their own trip hammer was not available, they took ash logs to Bromley King’s forging shop in Waterford, New York, to get them pounded.

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Trip Hammer on xhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca.1985, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Paul Rocheleau, photographer.

This trip hammer is among the largest and heaviest non-architectural objects made by the Shakers. It is over fifteen feet long, six and a half feet high, just over four feet wide, and is thought to weigh around four tons. The machine has two hammers – a large one at one end and a small one at the other end. It was powered by a waterwheel connected by a belt to the wooden drive pulley. Once the hammer got up to speed and the massive cast iron flywheel was rotating to preserve its inertia, one or both hammers could be engaged.

Watch a trip hammer demonstration from Thomas Ironworks, Seville, Ohio 

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Interior of the Blacksmith’s Shop Exhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca. 1955, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. C. E. Simmons, photographer.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s acquisition of the trip hammer has some tales and legends associated with it. In the 1940s John S. Williams, Sr., the museum’s founder, heard that the Shakers were breaking up the equipment in the blacksmith’s shop in preparation for selling the building. He appealed to have the work stopped until he could move the hammer and the forge and bellows to the museum. It was war-time in America and the scarcity of trucks made it difficult to find someone who could move such a heavy piece of equipment. Fortunately, Williams’s good friend Albert Callan, the owner of the Chatham Courier newspaper, had a new printing press being delivered around this time and once the delivery of the press was complete the truck headed to Mount Lebanon to move the trip hammer. Once loaded, they then had to find a route back to the Museum that did not involve crossing a bridge that could not bear the weight of the truck and hammer. Somehow it all worked out and the trip hammer has been at the Shaker Museum ever since.

The Brethren’s Workshop

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. September 23, 2016. Rrom the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

This past summer and fall, photographer Benjamin Swett spent time at Mount Lebanon photographing the landscape and interiors. On his initial visits, he found himself drawn by the way light moved and changed in the corridors, stairwells, and rooms of the building known as the Brethren’s Workshop, and he began to explore the different effects of light on interior spaces. “Studying these effects on the interiors brings one closer to the states of mind of these now-remote people, and spending time with the architecture puts the deliberate, practical, yet simultaneously spiritual and otherworldly mind-set of the Shakers into an accessible perspective,” Swett said.

The 1820s were an amazing time for the Shakers. Their missionary work, both in New York and New England, and as far afield as Kentucky and Ohio, had brought large numbers into the Church. In response to this rapid growth, over the next decade the Shakers embarked on a construction spree, designing buildings to be larger and more substantial than prior ones, building out of stone and brick instead of wood. Between 1824 and 1837, the Shakers built a new meetinghouse, a stone grist mill, a brick workshop, and a brick trustees’ office at Mount Lebanon; the round barn and a new brick dwelling house at Hancock; a brick trustees’ office at Watervliet; and one of their most ambitious and substantial projects – the Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield, NH. When one places all of these buildings and more not mentioned on a timeline, a clear story emerges about the Shakers’ momentum during this time and their feeling of being a church for eternity.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1939, Historic American Buildings Survey, N. E. Baldwin, photographer.

In the midst of this boom, in 1829, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon’s North Family built a men’s workshop and family wash house, later known at the Brethren’s Workshop. The new workshop had a large over-shot waterwheel in its cellar that powered a variety of machinery. Despite the masculine name, probably thirty percent of the building was used originally by North Family sisters to wash, dry, and iron clothes. (Workshops for men and women in the same building were not uncommon, even though the Shakers were generally separated by gender.)

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Brick Shop (interior of seed shop), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey, Charles C. Adams, photographer.

The Brethren’s Workshop has three stories, with a basement and a sub-basement and a substantial attic. The building functioned on all six floors, with nearly 17,000 square feet of usable space. The lower cellar housed the bottom of the wheel pit for the two-story water wheel, a cistern for water collected for laundry, and probably some equipment for washing, dying, bleaching, and soap making. The upper cellar housed the main power shaft for the waterwheel and connected through line-shafts and pulleys to heavier woodworking machinery, as well as the wash room for the laundry. The first floor was apparently used for smaller water-powered machinery for men’s work and the ironing room for the sisters. Much of the second floor was occupied by the North Family’s seed shop (pictured above) where they dried, cleaned, sorted, stored, and put up garden seeds into envelopes and wooden boxes for distribution by the family’s peddlers. The third floor held a shoe shop and probably workshops for the family elders and a variety of other industries: hat making, printing, tailoring, and whip making. The attic provided space for drying clothes in rainy and winter weather and probably for drying garden seeds. The Brethren’s Workshop was fitted with an elevator, or more accurately a dumb waiter since it did not transport people. The counterbalanced lift could bring wet clothes from the wash room to the attic for drying and back down to the ironing room when needed. There was no access to the lift from the floors associated with men’s work so apparently was primarily for the use of the sisters.

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Brethren’s Workshop, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Historic American Buildings Survey, A. K. Mosley, delineator.

Over time the activities in the Brethren’s Workshop changed. In the late 1870s the Shakers relocated their family laundry to the south end of the 1854 Wood House leaving unused space in the workshop. Some of that space was immediately put to use storing potatoes and cabbages. In the late 1880s an apple storage cellar was constructed in the sub-basement of the building. Little by little shops were abandoned. The North Family brothers stopped making their own shoes and hats. The seed business was discontinued and that shop was used for making rug whips. When the rug whip business ceased, that shop, like several others, was left untouched and used for storage. Over the years people lived in the Brick Shop as well. Hired men were also housed in the building in the twentieth century.

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Slate roof and soffit repair, 2011.

The Shakers left Mount Lebanon in 1947 and by the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair. In 2002 part of the building became home to a team of historic preservation architects who spent a year doing research and writing an historic structures report on all of the North Family Buildings as part of a Save America’s Treasures grant. In 2004 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the North Family site. For two weeks during the summer of that year the museum, with the help of fifteen teenagers enrolled in the Landmark Volunteer Program, cleared the building of non-Shaker items that had collected there over the years. In 2011 and 2012 the museum, funded by the 1876 Foundation and in collaboration with Boston’s North Bennet Street School’s preservation carpentry program, completed extensive repairs to the Brick Shop’s slate roof, chimneys, gutters, leaders, and leader-heads, and unusual plaster covered soffits.

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North Family Brethren’s Workshop, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. October 3, 2016. From the series “Shadows of the Shakers” by Benjamin Swett.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is working on ways to open this building up to the public in 2017, beginning with Writings on the Walls, tours that look at graffiti left there by the Shakers and those who came after them. In the meantime, Swett’s photographs of the Brethren’s Workshop are on view at the Shaker Bar in Hudson, NY. Join us this Saturday, November 19, 2016 for a reception for the artist. All are welcome. Members show their membership cards for a free drink. Prints are provided courtesy of BCB Art and these limited editions are for sale at the gallery and at the Shaker Museum | Museum’s online store.  A portion of the proceeds from each sale benefit the museum.

 

Reproducing a ca. 1820 rocking chair

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Rocking Chair, Enfield, Connecticut, ca. 1820s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1993.1.24.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has partnered with Tappan Chairs in New Hampshire, to offer a limited edition handmade reproduction of one of the rocking chairs in its collection.

This rocking chair, a fine example of the work of early chair makers at Enfield, Connecticut, is typical of Enfield rocking chairs – made of figured maple with stretchers of a courser grained wood (probably hickory), with front posts and three-inch diameter mushroom-shaped handholds turned from a single piece of wood, four back slats, minimally shaped rockers that do not protrude beyond the front posts, and finials at the top of the back posts that are typical of Enfield chairs.

 

The shape of the finials used on Enfield chairs is very similar to those found on chairs made at Watervliet, New York. On the former they are somewhat flatter at the tip, and the neck, just above the cylindrical post, is thinner and more delicate. This thin-necked finial may have been a problem as chairs were tipped over and finials broken, or perhaps the chair makers anticipated this might happen. Either way, a number of Enfield chairs have quarter-inch iron rods inserted from the top of the finial about five inches into the post to strengthen the neck. When we first examined the example at hand we found that where we might expect to find the top end of an iron rod there was only wood. We tested it with a magnet and found no attraction. The initial conclusion was that the Shakers had inserted a wooden dowel through the finial to strengthen it. It seemed unlikely, however, that a wooden dowel, even one of a wood slightly stronger than hard maple, would have improved the strength of the neck enough to make it worth the trouble. Finally, with a stronger magnet held at the neck of the finial, it was clear, as the magnet clung to the neck, that there was indeed an iron rod inside the finial – however, in this case the top of the iron rod had been covered with a small wooden plug rather than being exposed as on other Enfield chairs. In The Shaker Chair by Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman (The Canal Press, 1984), page 81, the authors illustrate the Enfield finial strengthening with an X-ray, which we reproduce here.

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Reproduction Enfield, CT Shaker Rocker – Limited Edition – From Tappan Chairs

Tappan Chairs, located in New Hampshire, has been in nearly continuous existence since the 19th century and uses traditional methods and equipment. Adam Nudd-Homeyer, proprietor and chairmaker, made multiple study trips to collections storage at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in order to create an accurate but modern version of the Enfield rocker. The finished product features pinned joinery, scribed mortises, mushroom-topped front posts, and filed slats. Made from authentically stained and sealed maple and ash, and seated with a natural rush bottom, the only variations from the original are a slightly larger seat area and longer rockers to prevent tipping.

Only 20 reproduction rockers are available and each is numbered and stamped. The first in the edition was auctioned at the museum’s annual gala in August, 2016. A portion of the proceeds from all sales benefit Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. To order for local pick-up in the Old Chatham, New York area, please contact the museum at 518-794-9100. To choose a different finish or a woven tape seat, and for all orders that must be shipped, visit the Tappan Chairs website.

 

A Shaker “Ne plus ultra”

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 1870s, the Shakers at Hancock manufactured expandable/collapsible yarn swifts for sale.  Among other occasional uses, swifts processed skeins of yarn into balls for knitting or crocheting.  A knitter faced with this task could ask someone to spread his or her arms and hold the looped skein as it was slowly wound off into a ball, or lacking a willing assistant, could place the skein over the slats of a swift, expand its slats (much like opening an umbrella), and, with the skein held securely, wind a ball of yarn without help.

It appears that, like oval box making in other Shaker communities, at Hancock swift-making fell to the community elders as it was work that could easily be put aside when their administrative duties took precedent. Elders Grove Wright (1789-1861) and Thomas Damon (1819-1880) are the two names associated with Hancock’s swift business and both are known to have been accomplished woodworkers. The number of swifts made by one or both of these two brothers averaged over 900 pairs per year between 1854 and 1860.

 

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

All of the pieces necessary for assembling a swift were turned on a lathe with the exception of the slats that held the yarn. Each swift required one or two of each of the turned pieces, but required twenty-four slats for the swift to be completed. Producing nine hundred swifts required over 21,000 slats. That arduous task apparently set Elder Thomas on the road to making a machine that would lighten this burden. His solution was to design and build a machine that took a rough-sawn piece of wood, smoothed its flat sides, made it the required thickness and width, and slightly rounded its edges – all with a single pass through the machine. His planning and construction of this machine paid off, for on October 10, 1854, he recorded in his diary that he, “Started a new machine for planing & edging Swift slats, it worked charmingly and bid fair to be the ‘Ne plus ultra’ in that line.” The remaining work of preparing the slats was relatively easy. Once the ends were rounded and it had holes drilled in it, it was ready for assembly. While we do not have production statistics for swifts made in years prior to 1854, when this machine was put in service, it is likely that the number greatly increased.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

In the woodworking industry, machines similar to Elder Thomas’s machine are called four-sided molding machines and are commonly used to make decorative moldings for houses and furniture. The Shakers’ four-sided molding machine was purchased by the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon from the Hancock Shakers’ workshops in 1958.

 

Mail bag

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (exterior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

On October 1, 1861, a post office was established at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. Elder Richard Bushnell was appointed the first postmaster. The creation of this post office caused the Shakers to change their village name from New Lebanon to Mount Lebanon so as not to confuse their post office with the one in the town in which they lived. This office operated at the North Family until the fall of 1863, when the Elders there requested it be removed, saying, “they cannot abide it there any longer on account of advantages that young believers take of it, in their mail matters also, on account of the great gathering of company there on that account.” [1] Apparently the post office was too great a social draw and the Elders disapproved. As a result, the post office was moved to the less central Church Family Office where it was managed by one sister or another until it finally closed in 1930.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Mail Bag (interior), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1848, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6621.1.

Prior to the establishment of their own post office, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon made use of the local post offices in New Lebanon and Lebanon Springs, collecting their mail and bringing it back to the village for distribution. The object at hand, a heavy leather cylindrical carrying case lined with brown linen, and just over twenty inches long and eight and a half inches in diameter, was used to retrieve the Shakers’ mail. Sisters at Canterbury, NH recollected that it had once belonged to Elder Frederick Evans at the North Family and was used by him for that purpose. This style of bag, sometimes called a portmanteau, was used by the Post Office Department in the mid-1800s to transport mail because it is nearly weatherproof. The large outside leather flap straps down over a small oval door that also can be tightly buckled. On the top front of the outer flap the words, “NEW. LEBANON. NY. FEBy. 1848.” are blind stamped in the leather.

The mail bag was purchased from the Canterbury Shakers by H. Phelps Clawson and donated to the Museum in 1953. Clawson was the Museum’s first curator and was responsible for the initial cataloguing of the Shaker collection assembled by museum founder John S. Williams, Sr.

[1] “A Register of Incidents and Events [Kept by the Ministry], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, 1849-1890, New York Public Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no. 4, p. 168.

Jugs and pots

It is generally accepted that the Shakers in the eastern communities purchased rather than made their crockery. With the exception of pipes – both for water and for smoking – that seems to hold true even though several communities were near ample supplies of good quality clay. Watervliet and Mount Lebanon, New York, however, were both close enough to the major pottery hubs of Albany, Troy, and Fort Edwards, New York, as well as the potteries in Bennington, Vermont, to never want for a supply of jugs, pots, jars, and pitchers.

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Stoneware Jug, Church and Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1853-1866/7, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.653.1

In Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s collection of stoneware acquired from the Shakers at Mount Lebanon there are four pieces that lack the name of the manufacturer but in its place have been stamped, “FROM | E. FOWLER |NEW LEBANON N. Y.” Brother Edward Fowler (1800-1878) was both a Shaker Trustee and had charge of some of the Shakers’ medicinal manufacturing. One of the jugs has several labels attached to it that read, “Fluid Ext. | White-wood Bark | Lariodendron (i.e., Liriodendron),” suggesting that this particular jug was used either to store or sell extracts from the bark of the tulip poplar tree. Two of the pieces in the collection are jugs of a four gallon capacity, one is a jug that holds three gallons, and the fourth is a six-gallon pot. The decoration of the three jugs was clearly done by the same “painter,” while the decoration on the remaining pot is quite different in style. The cobalt slip glaze used in the decoration on all of these pieces is very heavily applied, to the point that on the jugs it has bubbled and on the pot it has partially chipped off. The interiors of all the jugs and the pot are glazed with a dark brown slip. This feature, known in the upper Hudson Valley as “Albany Slip” allows the suggestion that all were made in the Albany area rather than in Bennington.  Further searching for the maker of these pieces was aided by the on-line catalogue of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, wherein is listed a butter pot marked, “FROM | E. FOWLER |NEW LEBANON N.Y.” However, this pot also bears the stamped inscription, “ALBANY. NY |3.” This mark is associated with the Albany Stoneware Factory that operated on Hamilton Street in that city between 1853 and 1866/7. The pot in the Winterthur collection is decorated with the same design as the three jugs in the Museum’s collection.

The impressed stamp found of all of these pieces was apparently applied with a tool similar to a bookbinder’s type holder in which individual pieces of lead printing type or brass debossing type can be arranged, tightly-mounted, and used to press whatever is written into clay before it is fired. On one of these pieces, the six-gallon pot with the different decoration, Edward Fowler’s last name is misspelled, “Fowlre,” suggesting that this pot was not made at the same time as the others – an observation that may explain the difference in its decoration. The Museum’s collection includes a number of jugs and pots that were made by the Albany Stoneware Factory and bear their mark, but only these four pieces are marked with Brother Edward’s name.

A 1772 Bible passes through many hands

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The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments … Edinburgh : Printed by Alexander Kincaid, 1772, North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY, 1960.12747.1

There are a number of things that can rightly be associated with Elder Frederick William Evans in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection. We have presented two – a garden fork and a cane that were used by Elder Frederick. In the library there are numerous newspaper articles and pamphlets he wrote, manuscript journals and essays, a dozen or so photographs of the Elder, and of course, each and every building (with the exception of the 1829 Brethren’s Workshop) now standing at Mount Lebanon’s North Family was built after his Shaker life began there in 1830. If he was not the “architect” for the 1859 Great Stone Barn, it was, for certain, a manifestation of his concept of a modern large-scale dairy barn. Now, we present what we have always called “Elder Frederick’s Bible.”

The Bible, an unpaginated duodecimo volume, was printed by Alexander Kincaid – “His Majesty’s (i.e., King George III) Printer” – in Edinburgh in 1772. Clearly printed long before Elder Frederick’s birth on June 8, 1808, the Bible likely belonged to the Elder’s mother, Sarah Wight Evans. The book, although it appears to be in its original leather binding, has had its front paste-down and free end paper replaced. On the front past-down leaf is glued a scrap of paper bearing the inscription, “Sarah Wight, her book,  January 15th. 1782.” On the free end paper there is another scrap with the inscription – with a bit of guessing at deteriorated script – “1804 June 22d were Married George Evans to Sarah Wight – She Died alf past six O-clock mor [i.e., morning] June 13th, 1811. Her[?] Father Died July 29, 1814.” Another inscription on that same scrap of paper, in a different hand, reads, “Proctor Sampson From F. W. Evans 1831.” On the back paste-down cover is a listing of some of the children of George and Sarah Evans. The two most relevant inscriptions include, “Bromyard [Herefordshire ]1805 March 25 was born George Henry Evans Son of George and Sarah Evans at Eleven O’Clock at night. Godfather, Rob’t Cox and Samuel Fincher – God Mother Sarah Evans,” and Bromyard [Herefordshire ] 1808 June 9th was born Frederick William Evans quarter before one o’clock in the day. Godfathers Thos. Jones and James Barburton, God Mothers Mrs. Burnell and Miss Deacker.” The other two inscriptions are for Cecelia Coningsby Evans, Elder Frederick’s sister who died only months after Frederick was born and his younger brother Charles Evans who died in 1810. Both of these scraps appear to have been salvaged from the original end papers and remounted on the new ones. 

Although we call it “Elder Frederick’s Bible,” it appears that he possessed it for a shorter period than any of the other people with whom it is associated. When Elder Frederick’s mother died he was eventually taken to live with relatives at Chadwick Hall southeast of Birmingham, England. Just prior to his twelfth birthday he was retrieved by his father and his brother George Henry and brought to the United States. It seems doubtful that his father would have given him his mother’s Bible when he was eleven. In our last article we mentioned that Elder Frederick traveled back to England in 1887. He had also made a missionary trip there in 1871. He was an old hand at ocean crossings: in the spring of 1829, just prior to his coming to unite with the North Family, he had sailed to England and visited his family at Chadwick Hall. He returned to New York in January 1830. It is reasonable to think that either Frederick’s father gave him the Bible when he became an adult or that it had been left in England and his relatives gave it to him when he visited.

However he came to have his mother’s Bible, shortly after he became a Shaker he gave the Bible to Brother Proctor Sampson, a substantial force and eventually a family elder at the North Family. Brother Proctor was about sixty when he received the Bible and Frederick was a mere three years younger than Brother Proctor’s son Joseph, who had died at the age of twenty. Brother Proctor had come to the North Family in 1814, bringing his son Adam (renamed Joseph) and daughter Rachael with him. Joseph went to live at the Church Family, where he died in 1825. A year after receiving the Bible, Brother Proctor was appointed to stand with Elder Richard Bushnell in the Elders’ Order of the North Family. In 1847, seventy-five year old Proctor went to reside at the Church Family where he died in 1855. The Bible must have remained in that family. When the remnants of Mount Lebanon publications and written records were gathered together and transferred to the Canterbury Shakers, the Bible appears to have been among those materials. It was included (No. 255 in the Reference Section) by Elder Irving Greenwood and Sister Aida Elam in a Catalogue of Shaker Literature compiled in 1936. The Bible returned to New York when it was purchased in 1960 by John S. Williams, Sr., for the museum.