The Shakers produce a very early version of the wheelchair

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8417.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The Shakers made a sincere effort to accommodate the needs of all members of their community, including young, old, and disabled people. This wheelchair is a fine example of endeavors to ensure members with special needs could participate in community life. The chair, while not a suitable vehicle for a Shaker to transport himself or herself outdoors on flagstone walks, was certainly useful in moving around within the dwelling house. Several items in the Museum’s collection speak to the care of those with specific physical needs: an orthopedic shoe, canes, and a walker.  

This modified rocking chair was made at Watervliet or possibly Mount Lebanon. While it seems odd at first glance that the chair would have both rockers and wheels, most all arm chairs used in Shaker communities would have had rockers; side chairs with arms were unusual during the first half of the nineteenth century, well before the first patent was taken out on a self-propelled wheelchair in 1869. The date for the conversion of the rocker into a wheelchair is not known, but it was probably done in the first half of the nineteenth century. All of the metal parts for the chair are hand-forged and no commercial fittings were used. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon had among them both spinning wheel makers and wagon makers so fabricating the wheels for the chair would not have been particularly difficult. The wheels on the chair had “tires” made of leather that fit into half-round grooves in the outside of their rims.  The chair, evidenced from two notches in the middle front stretcher (rung), was once fitted with some type of foot rest attached to that stretcher. 

The wheelchair was acquired in 1957 at Hancock Shaker Village from Eldress Emma B. King, but was, according to the Museum’s accession records, one of the thousands of items brought to Hancock from Mount Lebanon when the latter community closed. 

Though we don’t know who this wheelchair was made for, another mystery is why the middle front stretcher, the one from which the wheelchair’s footrest was hung, is so close to the front seat stretcher. This is a unique stretcher placement for a Shaker chair. There is no evidence that this stretcher was added later and no evidence that there had been middle stretcher where one would usually be found. If the stretcher placement indicates that the chair was built originally as a wheelchair, then why the vestigial rockers? Share your guesses in the comments!





It’s not what you think it is

Bull Blinder

Bull Blinder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1850-1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.4625.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

Sometimes objects in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection are just plain fun, as with the object at hand – a leather contraption that seems as if it would be more at home in an Icelandic legend or on a Viking battlefield than in a Shaker community. (It’s especially fun to solicit guesses from visitors as to the purpose of this object) The device, however, is a perfect fit for a Shaker farm. It was called a bull blinder and was placed over the head of a bull to prevent him from seeing anything. Bulls are well-known for their unpredictable and sometime aggressive temperament. Moving these one-ton, often dangerously-horned animals from place to place always has to be done with caution, and when potential mates or competing bulls are in view, the challenge increases. When Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the bull blinder from the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, Eldress Emma B. King told the Museum staff that  it was used, “to prevent the bull from trundling the cow.” Trundling or not, Carl Friesch, a Midwestern collector of antique farm equipment, explained, “When a bull’s head is down, that’s when he does damage.” A commonly used commercially-made bull blinder, patented in the 1920s by Henry Masbruch for the Russell Manufacturing Company, Platteville, Wisconsin, had small slits at the bottom of the eye cups allowing the bull to see to graze but kept his head upright when moving around – a position generally minimizing any mischief. The Shakers’ blinder does not have slits and relied solely on not allowing the bull to see anything as he was moved from barn to pasture or pasture to pasture. At the North Family, Mount Lebanon, bulls were kept in the east end of the Great Stone Barn. Bulls had a separate doorway leading past as few cows as possible and directly into what was called the “bull pasture” – a pasture enclosed with a substantial stone wall. 


Bull in Commercial Blinder

Bull in Commercial Blinder, Rural Ohio, 2016, photograph by Gloria Jarrett, from her blog, Amish Faith, Family, and Furrow,


Not All That Appears to Be Shaker, Is Shaker: “Shaker Sisters” at the Relief Bazaar. 

fig 1Carte-de-Visite, “The Quaker (i.e., Shaker) Booth at Our Fair,” 1864

Carte-de-Visite, “The Quaker (i.e., Shaker) Booth at Our Fair,” 1864, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, Churchill & Denison, photographers. 2017.24233.1

This intriguing carte-de-visite shows five women standing in a semi-circle in Shaker costume. On the back is written, “The Quaker [i.e., Shaker] Booth at Our Fair,” suggesting that the women pictured were the costumed volunteers that staffed the Shaker booth at a fair. The fair was no ordinary event however, but rather a fair held in 1864 to raise money to support soldiers wounded or taken sick in battle and their impacted families. There are two questions raised by the photograph: First, were these Shaker sisters? And second, how were the Shakers involved in the fair? 

On June 18, 1861, the Federal Government created the United States Sanitary Commission as a private agency charged with serving wounded soldiers and supporting their families. The agency, based on a British model developed during the Crimean War (1853-1856), raised an estimated 25 million dollars. Much of that money was generated by a number of “Relief Bazaars” held around the country. These events, often lasting months or even years, were similar to large agricultural fairs – groups representing various ethnic, business, trade, and religious groups constructed and manned booths that showed a variety of objects and foodstuffs associated with each group. They were often manned by people dressed in costume appropriate to the theme of the booth. 

“Diagram of the Fair,” The Canteen, February 22, 1864, p. 1.

“Diagram of the Fair,” The Canteen, February 22, 1864, p. 1. This diagram of the floor plan for the Relief Fair shows the location (highlighted in red) of the Shaker Booth.

Albany, one of the three major centers for mustering soldiers in and out of the Union Army in New York, was filled with sick and wounded troops that needed to be fed and doctored. Families who lost fathers and sons were destitute and needed care. The mayor of Albany, George Thatcher, formed the Citizens Military Relief Fund and the Ladies’ Army Relief Fund. These groups, in turn, organized the Great Sanitary Fair held in Academy Park on Washington Avenue. A special temporary building was constructed in the park in the shape of a great double Greek cross. There were booths representing the towns of Albany, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, and Troy; booths representing Spain, Japan, Holland, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Russia; an Indian wigwam representing Native Americans; a “Gypsy” tent; and wedged between the American booth and the curiosity booth was a Shaker booth. They were all competing with each other to see which could raise the most money to support the troops. All manner of fund-raising took place. The most single exciting feature at the fair was an original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation donated by President Lincoln as the prize in a one-dollar-a-chance lottery. The winner donated it back to the Relief Fair and it was subsequently sold to the New York Department of Education with the understanding that it would not ever leave Albany. When the final draft of the Proclamation burned in the Chicago fire of 1871, the Albany copy became the only copy in Lincoln’s hand to survive.

Photograph, “Shaker Booth,” 1864

Photograph, “Shaker Booth,” 1864, Albany Institute of History & Art, Churchill & Denison, photographers. Ser 30/106.

This carte-de-visite bears the name of the photographers on its back, Churchill & Denison. Rensselaer Emmett Churchill (1820 – 1892) and Daniel Denison (1814 – 1899) were active photographers in Albany between 1863 and 1869. They appear to have been the official photographers for the Relief Fair and a number of their photographs of the fair exist. A larger copy of the “sisters” from the Shaker Booth is in the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art. That copy confirms that the women posed in the photograph are not Shakers. They are named as follows, left to right: Miss Mary Carpenter, Miss Emerson, Mrs. Frank Townsend, Miss Barns of New York, and Miss Abby W. Redfield. Had they been Shaker sisters posed in a photograph taken in 1864, it would have been one of the earliest surviving photographic images of Shakers. The Shakers’ support and involvement in the Relief Fair is more elusive. While there is no mention in the Watervliet Church and South Family journals of the event, a poem published in The Canteen, the official paper of the fair, suggests that the Shaker did support the effort. The poem reads, in part: 

“Perish the thought I Let no man scold—
‘Tis for the lame and sick all—
Not silver seek we—nor yet gold—
Nor even the precious nickel—;
Premium forbid, But never mind—
Have you not goods or deeds?
New Lebanon forever kind,
Has sent in Garden Seeds —;

And Niskayuna not outdone
And moved by generous throes,
When asked for bread, would not give stone,
And sent a load potatoes—;
‘Twas mighty well—the sick must eat,
The garden must be planted—
And so the Shaker charity,
Was just the thing we wanted.” 

These lines indicate that the Shakers at both Mount Lebanon and Watervliet made contributions to support the fair. 

In this year in which Women’s Suffrage is being celebrated in New York State, it should be mentioned that these fairs were largely organized and manned by women. Dorothea Dix, well known for her work in prison reform and providing for the mentally ill, served as the superintendent for the fairs. She convinced the army medical corps that women could be of great value in its work. More than 1,500 women worked in hospitals – generally in nursing care, but also with surgeons, administering medicine, supervising feeding, cleaning beds, writing letters dictated by wounded men to their families, and general giving good cheer and comfort. 

In all, the fair is supposed to have generated over 110,000 dollars, which against costs, provided over 80,000 dollars (well over $2 million in today’s dollars) to be used for direct service to soldiers and their families. 


To a green bench in a green shade

fig 1Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1914, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1971.17371.1.

This bench was made to be used outdoors; was painted dark green, a traditional color for outdoor furniture; and was once placed between the North Family Dwelling House and the family’s Wood House/Wash House. On the upper back rail is carved “August | North Family Shakers | 1914.” If there was an event to memorialize on that date, it hasn’t come to light yet.


Brother William Perkins, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Postcard, Brother William Perkins, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9505.1, photographer unidentified.

The bench was likely made by Brother William H. Perkins, an immigrant from England, who, although usually associated with the Second Family at Mount Lebanon, was a member of the North Family from June 4, 1914, until he moved to the Second Family on March 31, 1915. The bench certainly fits nicely into his tenure as a North Family brother. Prior to becoming a Shaker, Perkins was a trained wood carver by trade. The bench is made of oak rather than the white pine that would have been the natural choice of New Englanders. An Englishman, on the other hand, would consider oak the traditional wood for this kind of project. The bench was painted over at some point in its post-Shaker life with dark green high-gloss paint. Underneath is a single coat of dark green, applied much more sparingly. 

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

Photograph, Sister Sadie Maynard Standing behind a Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1996.5.1, photographer unidentified.

A photograph in the Museum’s collection shows the bench in the dooryard just west of the family Dwelling House. Standing behind the bench is Sister Sadie Maynard. Sister Sadie arrived at the North Family on July 24, 1918, from the Harvard, MA, Shaker community where she had lived since joining the Shakers in 1899. She was one of the last six sisters to live at that community before it closed and she moved to the North Family at Mount Lebanon. She remained at Mount Lebanon until that community also closed and she was one of seven remaining Shakers moved to Hancock, MA. She died there in 1953.



The Shakers invite Abraham Lincoln to visit

The best known letter between President Abraham Lincoln and the Shakers is Lincoln’s August, 1864 note thanking the Shakers for a rocking chair they’d sent him. That letter is in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection and a draft of it is in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Most other correspondence between the Shakers and Lincoln concerned the Shakers’ desire for exemption from military service. There are, however, drafts of two letters in the museum’s collection that add insight into the Shakers’ opinion of and concern for the President as the Civil War came to an end.

Letter. Elder F. W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to Edwin M. Stanton and William H. Steward, March 19, 1865.

Letter. Elder F. W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to Edwin M. Stanton and William H. Steward, March 19, 1865, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.10195.1

These letters, written by Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates, are both dated March 19, 1865, barely a month before President Lincoln’s assassination. The first is addressed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of State William H. Steward, urging them to “send and entrust him [Lincoln] to us,” so the Shakers could “nurse him up with the ‘milk of human kindness’ administered by Common Sense.” It was meant to accompany the second letter, a direct invitation to the President to come to Mount Lebanon to recover his health after the stresses of the war. It reads:

Letter. Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to President Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1865.

Letter. Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin Gates to President Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1865, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.10196.1

We are impressed to invite you to our quiet home in Mount Lebanon, as a place of rest for body and mind. 

If you prefer, come incog. leaving the President in Washington, to be worshiped and worried by the ‘Sovereign People.’ 

We will meet and receive you as sympathizing friends; brothers and sisters in Christ, who regard you as a servant of God to humanity, on the outer wheel. 

We will ask for no favors, and you shall hear no complaints; nor any petitions, except to God for the restoration of your health and that you may be strengthened to accomplish your allotted task in the order of Divine Providence. 

It is not known if letters prepared from these drafts were ever sent and, if sent, were received; if received, answered. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon contributed copies of these letters to the Abraham Lincoln Papers with the hope they will be connected eventually with pieces of related correspondence as the project’s editors continue to work through Lincoln’s papers.


A Shaker relic

Framed piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Framed Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

This framed piece of fabric was given to the Shaker Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr., in 1953 by Sister Marguerite Frost of the Church Family, Canterbury, NH. Williams’s son, Warden, recalled that his father was at Canterbury negotiating for the purchase of a number of objects for the Museum. By this time some of the Shakers had become invested in and committed to helping him establish a museum that they hoped would tell their story. Some had become particularly fond of Williams himself. At the end of the session, Sister Marguerite handed him a paper bag and told him not to open it until he got in his car. “Dad forgot to pick up the bag when he left the room and the Sisters had to come to his car and hand him the bag,” said Warden. When Williams had driven down the road a bit, he stopped the car and opened the bag to discover it contained a piece of fabric from the dress worn by Mother Ann Lee on her voyage from England to America in 1774. Warden remembered that this moment brought his usually stoic father to tears. The fabric is flanked by two pieces of paper with an inscription identifying the fragment on one and its provenance on the other: “Given to Sr. M. E. Hastings when at Mt. Leb., N.Y. in 1846. By her presented to Sister L. A. Shepard 1885.” Marcia E. Hastings (1811-1891) was a Canterbury Church Family Eldress and received this gift during a visit Mount Lebanon. In 1885 she passed it on to Sister Lucy Ann Shepard (1836-1926), best known for her work as a Canterbury Trustee responsible for the cloak business. The fabric was framed by the Shakers and was probably displayed in the community rather than being secreted away. Similar remembrances exist in several collections. The Shakers kept and protected them over the years, treasuring the connection they provided with early pillars of their church.

Piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

The fabric has been identified as hand woven of hand-spun linen tread, but has not been definitively dated to the period of the Shakers’ ocean voyage. While there is no reason to think the piece is not legitimate, its authenticity is of little importance. What is important is that the Shakers believed it was real and treated it as if Mother Ann Lee had indeed worn it aboard Mariah sometime between May 10, 1774, when the small group of Shakers left Liverpool, and August 6, 1774, when they disembarked in New York City.

Years later, a poem title, “Last Remains of Mother’s Wardrobe, … Carefully preserved by Jennet Angus,” Watervliet, N. Y., was written about this or one of the other remembrances of Mother Ann. The manuscript poem is preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society Library:

Unborn generations

Who come to Mother’s fold,

May feel some satisfaction

This relic to behold;

To know that Mother saw it,

And held it in her hand;

To know it cross’d the Ocean

With her, from Britain’s Land;

Will please her faithful children,

And bring her spirit near,

The Mother of all Zion,

Who lived and suffered here.”


Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon exhibition, 2017.

This object is on display at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon this summer in the exhibition Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage. Supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and celebrating the centennial of women winning the right to vote in New York State, the exhibition opens with objects associated with Mother Ann Lee and a discussion of her role in founding the Shaker Church. From the beginning women were afforded a more significant role in every aspect of shaping the sect’s beliefs and practices than in most other churches or in society in general. The Shakers’ belief that God is both male and female and the example of a charismatic female founder and leader afforded Shaker women an advantage over groups believing in a paternalistic God-head.

The exhibition is accessible by guided tour only, Fridays through Mondays at 11:00, 12:00, and 2:00. Learn more by clicking here.



Sticks and scraps: A handle pattern survives

Pattern for the Handle for Large Carriers

Pattern for the Handle for Large Carriers, Church Family, Sabbathday Lake, ME, ca. 1950s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2017.4.1.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s founder, John S. Williams, Sr., often collected things that others ignored – Shaker things that others left behind or probably kicked aside. It was perhaps his time on the Board of Trustees for the Museum of the American Indian in New York City where he absorbed a cultural anthropologist’s approach to collecting rather than that of a fine arts curator. However it developed, Williams made it a point to acquire not only fine examples of the Shakers’ work, but the tools that they used and the scraps that were left behind as well. The museum hold a variety of scraps – bits and pieces of metal from the Shakers’ forges; uprights, weavers, handles, and rims from the basket-makers’ shop; pieces of cloth from the cloak workshop; bottles and corks from the medicinal business; leather from the shoemakers; bone from the button makers; and various pieces of unfinished work from the oval box shop. While these scraps have meaning in the course of researching these various industries, once in a while they play a part in a larger story. Such is the case with a thin 17 3/8″ long, 5/8″ wide stick that was acquired from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

fig 3

Brother Delmer C. Wilson in his Oval Carrier Workshop, Church Family, Sabbathday Lake, ME, ca. 1911, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1956.8025.1. “Presented by Brother Delmer Wilson of Sabbathday Lake, Me. Brought to Museum by Eldress Gertrude Soule & Sisters Mildred Barker and Ethel Peacock of Sabbathday Leke, Me., in May (23), 1956.”

The “stick” may have been picked up accidentally with other bits from a workshop or may have been a deliberate gift from its maker that later became mixed up with other non-distinct parts. The stick has an inscription carefully written on both sides with a fountain pen: “Sample of handle from large box – Made by Delmer C. Wilson. Do not destroy.” Brother Delmer Charles Wilson was born in Topsham, Maine, in 1873 and came to live with the Shakers as a boy of eight. Brother Delmer was a skilled mechanic and woodworker. In 1894 two sisters at Sabbathday Lake took two oval carriers that they were given at Mount Lebanon, lined them with cloth and most likely the fittings to make them into useful sewing boxes, took them to the Poland Springs Hotel, and sold them. This began a brisk market of selling all the old oval boxes that could be rounded up and renovated. In 1896, Brother Delmer began making new oval carriers for the sisters to line and fit out for sale. His work on carriers is well documented in an article that appeared in the Shaker Quarterly (Volume 15, Winter, 1987 and Volume 16, Spring, 1988) based on his journal “Carrier Notes,” and summarized by John Wilson. Brother Delmer died a few weeks before Christmas 1961 but had continued to make some carriers and boxes most of his life.

The Museum holds a number of examples of Brother Delmer’s carriers – mostly lined and fitted out for sale. Some were purchased fresh out of Brother Delmer’s workshop by John Williams at the Shaker store at Sabbathday Lake. The sample for the handle – as stated – is meant to give the precise size for the handles for Brother Delmer’s large carriers and, in fact, does exactly match the handles on large carriers in the Museum’s collection.



“Several of the best Mediums”: Shakers, Spiritualism, and camp meetings


The Shakers were no strangers to the concept of camp meetings. In the early days of the Shaker Church they saw such meetings – then usually very much of a religious nature – as an opportunity to testify about the Shaker faith and Shaker life with the hope of finding potential converts. As religious revivals burned through the Taconic Hills on the Massachusetts / New York border and later in the western part of New York State, the Shakers often sent missionaries to witness the work that was going on and to see if there was an opening for them to step forward and present themselves and their message of salvation. When the Great Kentucky Revival camp meetings at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, took hold in the early 1800s, Mother Lucy Wright sent three missionaries to what was then considered the West to preach the Shaker gospel to those gathered there. This effort resulted in a half-dozen Shaker communities being founded in Ohio and Kentucky.

In later years, camp meetings still retained a religious tone but began to stray beyond the strictly holy. Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings promoted vegetarianism and served only vegetarian meals. The camp meetings on Lake Chautauqua, New York, which started as Methodist meetings in the 1870s, soon evolved into a formal slate of lectures and performances that continue today. Pacifists gathered by the thousands outdoors in the pine groves of Salt Point, New York, to report on and discuss progress in the peace movement. The Shakers, proponents of many progressive movements, were particularly interested in the Spiritualists. The Shakers received messages from Mother Ann Lee and other departed leaders during the Era of Manifestations from the 1830s through the 1850s, and they believed this gave them a unique advantage in finding converts within the Spiritualist movement of the later 19th century.


In 1870 a camp meeting ground with 75 tent lots was established on the shore of Lake Pleasant, in the town of Montague, Massachusetts, and by 1872 it had become a favorite meetings place for Spiritualists. In 1874 Henry Buddington and Joseph Beals organized the New England Spiritualist Campmeeting Association. New cabins were built and more tenting lots created, and by August 1900 the population of the meeting ground could reach as high as 2,000 people.

Spiritualist’ and Liberalists’ Camp-Meeting. Lake Pleasant. Montague, Mass. August 4th. To August 30th. 1875

“Spiritualist’ and Liberalists’ Camp-Meeting. Lake Pleasant. Montague, Mass. August 4th. To August 30th. 1875,” Springfield, MA: G. E. Lyman & Co., Printers, 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2009.12.1.

The advertising flyer pictured here promoted the 1875 season. The description promised “a large Pavilion with tight roof, polished floor, open sides, built for dancing parties, dining salons, refreshment stands, boats, swings, bathing houses for ladies, sequestered walks by the Lake, artesian wells, affording soft, pure, cool, water; overlooking the auditorium, a bluff on which the tents are placed, under pine trees, … free from mosquitoes …” With this kind of promotion it seems an unlikely place for the Shakers to venture, but venture they did. In 1879, Elder Frederick Evans and Brother Emil Bretzner from Mount Lebanon’s North Family attended the camp and the next year a rather large contingent of Shakers from Mount Lebanon and Watervliet, New York, and Harvard, Massachusetts – 34 Shakers in all, went to Lake Pleasant. At the meeting on Wednesday, August 18, noted spiritual medium, Emma Hardinge Britten,  reported, “The Shakers were present in force, and conducted the exercises both morning and afternoon. Elder Evans, Eldress Doolittle, and other members of the party spoke. The singing was a novel portion of the exercises. Elder Evans is a radical speaker, and some of his remarks were loudly applauded. The audiences were very large during the day.”

“Lake Pleasant Camp-Meeting,” Montague, MA, 1880

“Lake Pleasant Camp-Meeting,” Montague, MA, 1880, Frank Crosier, Readsboro, VT, photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1951.4407.1.

This photograph, taken in front of Joseph Beals’s tent, shows 20 of the Shakers who traveled to Lake Pleasant. Beals, one of the founders of the camp meetings, was a dentist and amateur photographer. Whether his tent was merely his August residence, a dental office, or a photographic studio is not known, but it is interesting that the photographer, Frank Crosier from Readsboro, Vermont, chose to take his picture of the Shakers in front of another photographer’s tent. While a number of Shakers are identifiable in the photograph – Elder Daniel Offord, Brother Orren Haskins, Sister Martha Anderson, Elder William Anderson, Brother Charles Greaves, Elder Amos Stewart, Elder Timothy Rayson, and one of the Sizer brothers – noticeably absent are Elder Frederick Evans and Eldress Antoinette Doolittle who we might guess were off lecturing the crowd.


“[A] new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors”

Side Chair with Pewter Tilter Buttons

Side Chair with Pewter Tilter Buttons, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1855, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.215.1

The Shakers were clever, design savvy, and committed to caring for their property, as demonstrated by their use of the chair “tilter.” In the fall of 1819 Freegift Wells, an elder and woodworker at the Church Family, Watervliet, New York, recorded in his diary that he, “Began to trim off & ball the chairs,” that he had been making for the family. “Balling” the chairs was the term he used to describe inserting a small round wooden ball in the bottom of the back legs of chairs. The balls, flattened on their bottoms, were able to rotate within a socket in the bottom of the chair posts. The balls were held in place with a leather thong or cord passing through the bottom of the ball and then through a hole in the chair post, exiting on the side of the post where it was either tacked or wedged in its hole to keep the ball held tight in its socket. The purpose of the device was to reduce the marring of the softwood (usually pine) floor by the hardwood (usually maple or birch) chair legs when brothers or sisters, as they apparently did, leaned back in their chairs. Raising the front legs off the floor increased the pressure on the back legs and the sharp edge of the back legs often left dents in the floor. The tilters were meant to prevent this damage.

Patent Model of the Shakers’ Patent for the Tilter Button (replica)

Patent Model of the Shakers’ Patent for the Tilter Button (replica). The original of this patent model is described in Expressions of Eloquence: The Jane Katcher Collection,Volume I. [The replica was made and is on loan from Timothy D. Rieman, co-author with Charles R. Muller, of The Shaker Chair.]

While chairs made for community use were often fitted with tilters, it is not clear whether they were sold with that option before a broadside was printed sometime in the 1850s by the Second Family giving the prices of chairs that included an option for “Button joint Tilts” at a cost of twenty-five cents. The offering of tilters on chairs for sale may have been made possible with the patenting of a metal tilter that could be fabricated separately from the chair-making process and installed on the back posts when the chair was finished. This device was patented (U. S. Patent Office Letters Patent No. 8,771) on March 2, 1852 in the name of “Geo. O. Donnell, of New Lebanon, New York.” George O. Donnell, or more likely O’Donnell, was a Shaker brother at the Second Family at Mount Lebanon, New York. According to census records for 1850, had was 27 years old and worked as a chair-maker. The Letters Patent begin: “Be it known that I, George O. Donnell, of Shaker Village, in the town of New Lebanon, in the county of Columbia and State of New York, have invented a new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors, caused by the corners of the back posts of chairs as they take their natural motion of rocking backward and forward …” At the time of the patent, Brother George was also serving as the second elder in the family as well as working in the chair business. He later left the Shakers. There are two issues that are not completely clear about this patent. First, Brother George’s last name is given in the Shaker records as “O’Donnell.” It is likely that this is his correct name and that for some reason – possibly because of negative feelings toward the huge influx of refugees from the great famine in Ireland in the second half of the 1840s – it was thought better (maybe by the patent attorney or agent) to lose the apostrophe and give him the appearance of having a middle name beginning with the letter “O.” This would not have been uncommon at the time. Second, although the Letters Patent identify Brother George as the inventor, it is possible that his name appeared on the document because of his position in the elders’ order and not because he actually created the metal tilter.

The metal tilter buttons were made in a variety of forms – some, such as a pair on a side chair in the Museum’s collection are made only of pewter, some only of brass, and some of a combination. Some are stamped with the date “1852” and one pair is stamped “Pat. 1852.” It appears that there was a lot of experimenting going on as to the best way to manufacture these new tilters, however, in the end, whichever way was thought best, a relatively small number were actually used on chairs. The survival rate is very low and in the 1870s when the Shakers continued to offer tilter buttons on their production side chairs – they returned to the wood style.



If I had a crandall hammer….

Crandall Hammer

Crandall Hammer, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1825, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanonr: 1950.1483.1

Sometimes the brutish hard work it took to construct the built environment we have come to admire in Shaker villages can be conveyed in a single object. Such an object is the crandall hammer in Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon’s collection. A crandall is a tool used by stone cutters to give stone a particular look and finish. That finish, a relatively even stippling, was usually achieved with one of two tools, a bush hammer or a crandall. A bush hammer looks something like a meat tenderizer with a face several inches square, cut with a grid of sharp points. The crandall is similar but the hammer head is made from a gathering of individual pointed chisels that are wedged together to make the face of the hammer. The crandall in the museum’s collection is unusual in that the pointed chisels are gathered into a round-shaped head rather than the more usual elongated ax-like head made from stacking the chisels in a line. The museum’s crandall originated at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon and shows all the characteristics of being made by a blacksmith. It’s about twenty-two inches long. It’s face is three-and-one-half inches in diameter and the chisels are about seven inches long. One advantage of a crandall over the bush hammer is that the chisels can be removed, sharpened, and replaced whereas re-cutting the face of a bush hammer is difficult.

Foundation Stones, Second Meetinghouse

Foundation Stones showing stippling, Second Meetinghouse, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY.

There are a number of examples of the Shakers’ use of dressed stone at Mount Lebanon. The most obvious and probably most ambitious one is the marble foundation of the Second Meetinghouse. In 1822 when the Shakers were planning and beginning to prepare materials for the construction of the new meetinghouse, they recorded in a journal, “we were favored with a man qualified to cut and prepare stone, & the foundation was laid of cut stone.” To accomplish this “white stone” (marble) was obtained in Berkshire County and hauled over the mountain by ox team. Once at Mount Lebanon, the stone was sawn into properly sized blocks at the Shakers’ water-powered stone saw. To finish the exterior surface of the stone, it face was worked with a crandall or a bush hammer to give it an even textured appearance. The stippling on each block of marble was framed with a one-inch margin chiseled around its perimeter.

The Second Meetinghouse’s marble foundation rises three feet above the ground and its facing stones cover nearly one-thousand square feet. All of that was hand hammered to achieve the desired finish. An expert on stone cutting could offer an opinion on whether this is crandall or bush hammer work.