A sewing desk from a butternut springs

Sewing Desk, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895

Sewing Desk, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952.4837.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

When doing an historic evaluation of something made by the Shakers, three questions are standard: Where was it made? When was it made? Who made it? The sewing desk discussed here provides answers to two of these questions. On the bottom of lowest right-hand drawer is written: “These two sewing desks were made from Mother Hannah’s Butternut trees grown South of Ministries Shop. Were cared for her when saplings. Desks made by Elder Henry C. Blinn.” Knowing this desk and its missing mate were made by Elder Henry, we also know they were made in the Church Family at Canterbury, New Hampshire, where, at 14 years old, he became a resident, remaining there until his death in 1905. Narrowing down the date the desk was made, however, is more challenging.

Sewing Desk (detail of inscription), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895

Sewing Desk (detail of inscription), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952.4837.1. Staff photograph.

Sewing desks of this form – a case of drawers with a pull-out work surface and a gallery of small drawers for tools and odds and ends – became popular among the Shakers around 1860. They were made in a similar form in nearly every eastern Shaker community for the next three decades. Stylistically this piece seems to have been influenced by the increasing decorative elements of the Victorian Era – the use of a variety of decorative woods, applied walnut moldings, and white porcelain drawer pulls. Museum records and authors who have included the piece in their publications, however, have generally dated the piece around 1870, seemingly earlier than the style would dictate. One clue to the date that Elder Henry made the desk may lie in the inscription. If it can be determined when Mother Hannah’s butternut trees were cut down, that would supply a “no earlier than” date. 

Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848,

“Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1848, Collection of Canterbury Shaker Village.  From, Shaker Life, Art, and Architecture bu Scott T. Swank (1999), p. 95.

Mother Hannah Goodrich, born in 1752, was one of the original members of the Shaker Community in Hancock when it was gathered in 1790.  She was sent with Father Job Bishop to lead the newly formed community at Canterbury, New Hampshire in 1792. She remained there until her death in 1820. At some time, according to the inscription, she took some interest in cultivating butternut trees. The oily nuts from the butternut tree are edible. The trees can be tapped for syrup in the same manner as maple trees. The nut can be pressed for oil and parts of the tree are used medicinally. Most likely, Mother Hannah encouraged the cultivation of the trees to use the shells of their nuts for dying cloth. Butternut dyed cloth was very common in early Shaker clothing. Whatever the reason for growing them, the inscription establishes their historical significance among the Shakers. Elder Henry drew a map of his village titled, “Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848.” On this map he includes the buildings, roads, walks, fields, orchards, and a few significant trees in the village. He depicts a row of trees along the main road by the family’s Office and the fir trees planted around the newly established outdoor feast ground – Pleasant Grove. Two trees, south and slightly east of the Ministry’s Workshop, appear to have some special significance as they were also included in the map. Could these have been Mother Hannah’s butternut trees?  They are south of the Ministry’s Workshop. Butternut trees are slow growing trees and rarely live to be more than seventy-five years old. Had Mother Hannah’s trees been saplings when she first came to Canterbury, they would probably have been harvested in the late 1860s, making lumber from the trees available to Elder Henry in the early 1870s, whereas had she planted and cared for them in the last few years of her life they probably would have been harvested in the late 1880s, pushing the date when their lumber was available to Elder Henry to around 1890. 

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Two photographs in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection may help to unlock the mystery of when the trees were harvested – should the dates of the photographs be determined. Both photographs were by the Kimball studio in Concord, New Hampshire. Since photographers from that studio worked over a broad time period, that information is not particularly helpful in narrowing down the date. The first photograph shows the Canterbury Meetinghouse and the Ministry’s Workshop (then also its residence) with some Shakers, including Elder Henry himself, standing and sitting in the yard. Just behind the Ministry’s Workshop, the upper canopy of a tree can be seen. Again, could this be one or both of Mother Hannah’s butternut trees? A second photograph taken from the south looking across what Elder Henry called the “Meeting House Field,” one can see on the far right part of a tree that has a canopy similar to that of a butternut. Elder Henry located the two trees shown on his 1848 map on the south side of what appears to be either a fence or a lane bordering the northern side of the Meeting House Field. The tree shown in the second photograph also appears to be on the south side of a fence along that side of the field.  

fig 6

Elder Henry Clay Blinn, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca 1880. W. W. C. Kimball, Concord, NH, photographer.

Elder Henry Clay Blinn was a very busy Shaker. In addition to serving in the Canterbury leadership he was a printer, the editor of the Manifesto, a dentist, a beekeeper, an author, a tinker, a teacher, and a tailor. It is not clear whether he did much cabinetmaking in his early years. In an addendum to his “Autobiographical Notes,” published in In Memoriam. Elder Henry C. Blinn, 1824-1905, the author mentions, “That he might have all the care needful in his decline, apartments at the Infirmary were kept at his disposal; though he was never better pleased than when able to spend the day at his carpenter’s bench, engaged in light cabinet work, a favorite occupation.” It may have been during these less busy days that he had time to do some “light cabinet work.” 

Of course, even knowing the date that the trees were harvested does not date the making of the desks – the lumber may have been dried and stored for years or decades before it was used. Even knowing that none of this information provides a conclusive answer to the question of when Elder Henry would have had access to the lumber from Mother Hannah’s butternut trees, it has been an interesting investigation in using documentary evidence to try and answer the haunting question of “When was it made?” Of course, any information on dating the photographs, or the date that Mother Hannah’s trees were cut down, will be appreciated. 



Popcorn ball press


Fig 1: Popcorn Ball Press and Accessories, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6589.1 (press) and 1953.6590.1-.3 (cylinders)

Shaping popcorn into balls when it is covered in hot sugar syrup or molasses is hard on the hands, especially in quantity. This popcorn ball press relieved that discomfort and made consistently sized balls.

Using the press was pretty simple – the metal cylinders were filled with sticky popcorn and then placed on the base of the press. The arm was pushed down until the two recesses met, trapping a perfectly round ball between them. The finished popcorn balls were then either served or wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper to be eaten or sold later. Though there’s no documentation of the Shakers selling popcorn balls, the three accompanying metal cylinders suggest a vigorous production.

The Museum’s 1953 accession records for the popcorn ball press provide two significant pieces of information: That the press was made by Canterbury Brother Alexander Cochran (sometimes Cochrane), and that it was used for making “molasses popcorn balls.” Brother Alexander Y. Cochran was born May 14, 1848. Much of Brother Alexander’s life story eludes us, but we know he was the natural brother of Eldress Dorothea T. Cochran at Canterbury. Eldress Dorothea was born in 1844 in Duntalker, Scotland. While the 1860 census gives Alexander’s birthplace as Massachusetts, it is likely his parents came to this country between 1844 and 1848. Brother Alexander was second elder in the Canterbury Church Family and worked closely with Ministry Elder Henry Blinn on managing correspondence and financial matters pertaining to the publication of the Manifesto up until May, 1890, when he decided to leave the Shakers. Little more is known about his post-Shaker life, except that an Alexander Y. Cochrane of Waverly, Massachusetts, was granted patent 584,922 on July 22, 1897 for an improvement in a “yielding wire seat frame” and that he was, in 1920, married to Louise F. Cochrane. Among Eldress Dorothy’s vital statistics it is recorded that she had a brother living in Waverly, Massachusetts, so it’s likely this is the same Alexander Cochran. We don’t know whether the popcorn ball press was a harbinger of Brother Alexander’s inventive nature, but his departure from the Shakers in 1890 does provide a date before which the press was made and used.

There are two scenarios for the Canterbury Shakers popcorn ball adventures  – one, that they made traditional blackstrap molasses popcorn balls and the second, that molasses, in this case, refers to maple molasses. Any readers with special knowledge of the history of popcorn balls in New England are encouraged to weigh in.

Maple Molasses: About two miles from the Shaker Village at Canterbury, the Shakers had an 800-tree sugar bush that they tapped for over a half a century. The trees produced over 50 barrels of sap per day during sugaring season and the sugar house workers could turn that into 50 gallons of syrup or 350 pounds of maple sugar. The Canterbury sisters made a variety of maple candies to sell from the sugar and it is reasonable to think that maple molasses popcorn balls may have been among their offerings for sale. A simple recipe for maple molasses popcorn balls can be found at here.

Blackstrap Molasses: In the 1880s the cane sugar and molasses jockeyed for position as the more expensive sweetener. Cane sugar had historically been the more expensive of the two, but as improvements in processing sugar cane were made it eventually became quite inexpensive and a premium emerged for those who preferred the taste of blackstrap molasses. If you have not tasted molasses popcorn, think Cracker Jacks, America’s first “The More You Eat the More You Want” junk food. Its flavor is an acquired taste (and today’s corn syrup Cracker Jacks do not do the original justice), but apparently once a devotee, it was greatly preferred by some in some foods – popcorn balls being one of them. There are a number of recipes available for making molasses popcorn balls. One five-star recipe for “bare-bones popcorn balls” that uses just popped corn, molasses, and refined sugar can be found here. The final step in this recipe is to “eat whatever sticks to your fingers.”  Bon appetit!



Molasses Popcorn Balls from Tori Avey: Tori’s Kitchen website.


We all know the oval boxes, but an oval pail?

At first glance this simple Shaker pail, or bucket if you prefer, seems straightforward in its intended use – it’s a pail – it holds water, or whatever else is put in it. Upon careful examination, however, a story emerges.

fig 1

Pail, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1956.8084.

Made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, it bears characteristics of pails made in that community. Canterbury coopers used a V-shaped tongue-and-groove to join the staves of their pails together – a feature not seen in pails made elsewhere, but present in this pail. The iron hoops terminate in a typical Canterbury V-shape. The bail plates that hold the wire handle are of an uncommon, but not unknown, shape for Canterbury pails and the pail has the initials “F.W.” stamped into its bottom. These initials, the initials of Francis Winkley, were used to mark Shaker products offered for sale such as spinning wheels, cooper-ware, and garden seeds. Winkley was a deacon at the Church Family at Canterbury and, as such, was responsible for the sale of Shaker products.

fig 2

Pail, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1956.8084.

The uniqueness of this pail begins to show itself when measured. The pail is only 6 inches high to the rim and is 12 3/4 inches in diameter in the direction the handle is mounted and 11 5/8 inches in the other direction, measured at the top of the rim. This mere 1 1/8 inch difference makes the pail oval rather than round. All other known Shaker pails are round. The answer to why this pail was constructed in an oval shape lies buried beneath a thick layer of old gray-green paint. Using a raking light with the bottom of the pail held at just the right angle, the word “Foot” can be read beneath the  paint and just above that, the letters “SY.” At the Canterbury Church Family, the abbreviation “SY” was used to identify objects that belonged in the Infirmary. So, at one time this pail was likely used in the Infirmary for foot baths. With 10 1/2 inches at the bottom of the pail, a man with a size 10 shoe could fit his foot into the pail comfortably – a woman with a size 11 shoe could do the same. For Shaker brothers or sisters with larger feet, there were always wash tubs.

One curious thing about this pail is why it was stamped with Francis Winkley’s initials at all. Usually, products that were intended for sale were marked – not objects intended for home use. Winkley was not the make – only the purveyor. Perhaps someday the explanation will come to light.

The Shaker Improved Washing Machine

fig 1

Washing Machine, Church Family, Canterbury, New Hampshire, ca. 1877. Photograph by Lees’ Studio, Chatham, New York, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1955.7843.1. This is the washing machine acquired from and once used by the Canterbury Shakers at their laundry in 1955 as it was exhibited at the Shaker Museum around 1960.

A perfect confluence of need, will, skill, and capital made it possible for the Shakers to make innovative improvements in the machinery for doing their laundry. The challenge of keeping a communal family of 50 to 100 members in clean clothes and linens clearly created a need for mechanization, and the Shaker communal system of cooperative work made available the different trades necessary to build something as complicated as a wash-mill. The mechanics, woodworkers, blacksmiths, and machinists in the community could build complex machines and in precept and practice were trained to work together. The Shakers had built wash-mills of different types during the early part of the nineteenth century, but in 1858 they took what they had learned about doing wash with mechanical power to the marketplace by engineering, building, and patenting an improvement in washing machines. Although the Shakers received a patent for an “Improved Washing Machine” on January 26, 1858, they had been manufacturing and selling the machine prior to that and mentioned the success of the machine in the patent description.

fig 4

Letters Patent, granted to Nicholas A. Briggs and Elijah H. Knowles, Shaker Village, New Hampshire, 1877, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.5117.1

The washing machine appears to have been developed at Mount Lebanon in the early 1850s. Nicholas Bennett, a Shaker mechanic at Mount Lebanon, probably developed and began manufacturing the machine, but when he died at the end of 1857 the Shakers thought it best to assign the patent to Brother David Parker, a Trustee in the Church Family at Canterbury. It was the Canterbury Shakers who manufactured and marketed the washing machine.

In the introduction to their 1862 catalogue for the Shakers’ Washing Machine they summarized their experience in the laundry business: “The Societies of Shakers have had much and long experience in the attempt to wash clothes by power machines, and, after trying several different kinds, have never found any that give such general satisfaction as this machine.” In presenting their new improved machine they also took into account the problems that doing laundry by mechanical means have caused. They wrote, “We are fully aware of the great imposition which has been practiced by the introduction of washing machines, and of the injury to clothes, loss, disappointment, and waste of soap resulting there from, having been ourselves sufferers with others; hence the greater necessity of carefully examining into this all-important subject. Although subjected to some disadvantages in starting this machine, against the feelings and prejudices of washerwomen, who, as a general rule, are opposed to any labor-saving machinery, yet, so far as we know and believe, every machine now in operation gives great satisfaction, as the accompanying Testimonials will bear witness.”

fig 2

“The Shaker Washing Machine,” Scientific American 2 (March 10, 1860), Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

In 1860, the Scientific American devoted a front page article to the Shakers’ machine along with an illustration of it in use and a list of hotels using it with satisfaction.

By 1876 when the Canterbury Shakers exhibited the washing machine in Machinery Hall at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, they had sold over three hundred machines and had made further improvements in its operation. The wash tubs in the original machine were agitated by swinging from rods much like a porch swing but on the improved machine shown at the Exposition the tubs slid back and forth on metal tracks. In both machines the agitating power was supplied by a water-powered crank-shaft connected to the tubs by a reciprocating arm. The washing machine could be operated by water or steam power by way of a drive pulley and line-shaft powered by either source. Dirt was removed by the repeated compression of clothes against the washer’s wall and the churning movement provided by the agitators.

fig 5

Photograph, [Shaker Washing Machine as Displayed at the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, PA, 1876], Edward l. Wilson & W. Irving Adams, photographers, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.5119.1.

There are a number of documents and artifacts in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection associated with the Shakers’ manufacturing and marketing of the washing machine. In addition to a three-tub version of the 1877 machine and the original Letters Patent for 1858 and 1877 machines, there is a small manuscript book that contains drawings of the parts for the machine that had to be cast at an iron foundry, and many of the original printing blocks that were used to promote the machine in the press and catalogues.

Learn more about Shaker laundry at the summer exhibition Wash: There is no dirt in heaven on view at Mount Lebanon through October 10, 2016.

The mysterious basket and its lining

fig 1

Basket, Canterbury or Enfield, NH, ca. 1835. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1950.4164.1.

Ascertaining the original use of a particular basket is difficult. In the absence of historical documentation museums often use terms such as utility basket, carrying basket, work basket, and fruit basket. Sometimes the use is more specifically identified – apple basket, chip basket, or laundry basket. The function of the basket shown here is hard to define. Its size–an interior volume close to eleven and a half cubic feet–suggests it was a work basket or utility basket used to carry or store a large quantity of something. Its lining suggests either that whatever was put in it (e.g. wool) should not be allowed to catch on the rough strips of the uprights or weavers, or something small, such as grain, that might otherwise leak through the holes in the basket. But, even the lightest wheat bran weighs twenty pounds per cubic foot and would make the full basket weigh nearly 250 pounds.

When Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s founder John Williams acquired the basket in mid-November, 1950, the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, may have been perfectly correct when they asserted the basket was used for “holding herbs and flower petals.”

One of the more interesting features of the basket, other than its size, is its lining. The bottom and lower sides of the basket are lined with a black oilcloth-like material. The upper sides are lined with cloth painted a yellow ochre color. The black cloth has a stenciled design applied over the black paint that seems at first unusual for the normally austere Shakers. An following article from the New England Farmer, and Gardener’s Journal for June 29, 1836, however, may shed light on this lining material:

“Table Covers.—The Shakers of Lebanon, N. H. are engaged in the manufacture of an article for table covers which resembles oil-cloth, but has many advantages over it, inasmuch as it is perfectly pliable, and will double as readily as linen cloth. It is made of common sheeting, painted with gum elastic and other ingredients, in a very tasteful manner, with borders of garlands, wreaths and vines, presenting an unique and very handsome appearance.” (“Table Covers,” New England Farmer, and Gardener’s Journal  14 (June 29, 1836): p. 402.)

Although this basket was acquired from the Canterbury Shakers, it’s possible it had its beginnings with the Enfield Shakers near Lebanon, New Hampshire, as many Enfield items were brought to Canterbury when Enfield was closed in 1923. If the lining material for the basket – at least the black decorated pieces – are pieces of the Shakers’ table covers, it is possible that they were either unsalable for some reason or were just not sold and found a new use in the bottom of a basket. And if they are, in fact, part of the Shaker table cover business, they are a significant, if not unique, remnant of that business.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is grateful to the Eugene V. and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust for their recent support for a project to photograph and catalog the basket collection.

Basket, Canterbury or Enfield, NH, ca. 1835. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1950.4164.1.

Flagroot candy not so sweet for its maker

flag root box  21901.1

Flag Root Box, Canterbury, NH, c. 1950. 200?.21901.1

All of us here at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon suffer under the distinct disadvantage of never having tasted candied flag root, so can only preface this discussion with a comment Sister Marie Burgess (1920-2001), who  worked in the Shakers’ confectionery business for thirty years, made one day to our Director of Collections and Research in the kitchen at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. She said one of her least favorite jobs while a Shaker was making candied flag and that after all the disagreeable work she no longer cared for the taste of it either!

As the population of Shaker brothers declined in the last half of the nineteenth century, it fell to the sisters to develop and manufacture marketable new products to bolster the income for their families. The Shaker sisters at Canterbury and other Shaker communities prepared a variety of foodstuffs for sale: among them, candied flag root.

Dried sweet flag root

Sweet flag (acorus calamus), often called calamus, has a rhizomatic root that would look familiar to anyone who has divided irises. Both the leaves and the roots are aromatic, and the dried root has been used in place of ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Its medicinal properties have been utilized in many traditions, including Ayureveda and among some American Indian tribes, including the Penobscot. It’s believed to carry sedative and digestive benefits, and has been used as an hallucinogen as well.


Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

Sweet flag was harvested, cleaned, thinly sliced, boiled several times, and candied with crystals of sugar. The slicing, clearly the most tedious part of the process, was made easier by a special rotary cutter powered by an old Boston brand sewing machine. The sewing machine, given to Eldress B. King by her grandmother, was converted to a flag root cutter by the Canterbury brothers. They removed the part of the sewing machine that moved the sewing needle up and down and re-purposed the spinning motion produced by the foot treadle to power an attached four-bladed cutting head that thinly sliced the flag root. The tin-covered trough helped guide the root into the cutters and the sliced pieces were collected in a tin container at the front of the machine.The candied flag was packaged in boxes and sold in Shaker gift shops. It continued to be made at SabbathDay Lake well into the 1950s.

flag root cutter noc1953.6582.1-2 (fredericks)

Flag Root Cutter, Boston Sewing Machine, Canterbury, NH, c. 1873. 1953.6582.1