Reconstructing the history of a cupboard

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

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The restoration of a case piece

case of drawers union villlage smml (lees studio 1964).jpgThe Shaker Museum acquired this Union Village, Ohio case of drawers in 1964–a gift from the Museum’s founder, John S. Williams, Sr. It is unclear where Mr. Williams purchased the piece. He may have bought it while on a trip to the western Shaker communities to acquire pieces to help the museum better represent the work of Shaker craftsmen in Ohio and Kentucky or, just as likely, he purchased it at or around Canterbury, New Hampshire, where a large quantity of Union Village furniture was moved when that village closed in 1911. However it came to the Shaker Museum, it was a piece that was never prominently exhibited because at some point it had lost its original feet and sat awkwardly on the floor, as seen to the left. The case of drawers once stood proudly elevated off the floor with minimal but eye-catching decorative feet. This was known this from a small remnant left on the piece and by studying a companion piece that remained intact in the collection of the Duxbury Art Complex in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
case of drawers union village noc1964.14616.1 (kroening)

Companion case of drawers at the Duxbury Art Complex.

In 2009, the Museum asked our curatorial assistant, accomplished cabinetmaker Boyd Hutchison, if he would fabricate a new base for the piece modeled on the base of the one at Duxbury,  with adjustments accurately reflecting the remaining elements. The old base was documented, removed, and stored with the case of drawers. It was loose and apparently had been removed before. The new base was constructed as an independent piece so the case can be set securely in the base without any fasteners and can be easily restored to its condition at the time of acquisition. It is like having a new piece in the collection–one that we could move to the forefront of any exhibition and feel we were presenting an accurate representation of the Shaker craftsman’s original intent and design.

 

case of drawers union village from duxbury art complex

Case of drawers as it appears with its new base.

No carpenter or joiner: Elder Bushnell’s blanket chest

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Blanket Chest, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1 Photo by Alan Lavallee.

In June 2001 the antique firm Courcier and Wilkins of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts purchased a red painted two-drawer blanket chest. The piece had suffered moisture damage to several of its feet and, in hopes of salvaging the piece for resale, Courcier and Wilkins made arrangements to have the feet restored. When the cabinetmaker doing the restoration turned the piece upside down to work on the feet, he found an inscription written on the bottom of the drawer slide supporting the upper drawer. The inscription read:

“1866 Richard Bushnell Maker North Family Shaker Village Mt Lebanon N.Y. The first chest he ever made being no carpenter or joiner and now in the seventy-six year of his age – 1866.”

fig 3(1)

Blanket Chest (detail of inscription), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1. Photo by Robert Wilkins.

Although no carpenter or joiner, Elder Richard (1791-1873) certainly did a fine job at being one. The chest is well made and very much in the tradition of similar pieces made at Mount Lebanon. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, at that time in negotiations to acquire the North Family property, understood how important this particular piece would be in telling the story of that family and particularly of one of its most important members.

Richard Bushnell was born in Saybrook, Connecticut on November 19, 1791. He moved to New York City and learned the trade of making horn combs. When finished with his apprenticeship he set out toward Utica, New York to find a farm and a circumstance for himself. His travels brought him to New Lebanon, where he lodged for the night at a local hotel. He asked who lived in the beautiful hamlet he could see on the hillside. The hotel-keeper cautioned him about the “fanatical followers of Ann Lee,” but the curious twenty-two-year-old ignored her warning and went the next day to see for himself. The village impressed him with its order, cleanliness, and quiet – “there were no dogs, no loafers, no drinking saloons.” Elder Calvin Green noticed the “serious and thoughtful” young man at the public meeting and later investigating the grounds of the village. He invited him to rest and become acquainted with the Shaker faith.

fig 4(1)

“Group of Shakers (detail),” Stereograph, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1953.6118.1. Photo by James Irving. Elder Richard Bushnell is the man sitting in front of the fence with his hat on his knee.

Richard’s visit shaped the rest of his life. He quickly accepted the Shaker faith, put his business affairs in order, and in 1813 became a Shaker. As a Shaker Brother Richard was quickly identified as a strong force in the North Family. In 1821 he was appointed the family Trustee and six year later the Second Elder under Calvin Green, whom he replaced in 1832. Bushnell was known for his strong leadership, his frugal care of the family’s resources, and his hard work. In 1850, he set out 1,200 locust trees in “the Grove” for the Shakers to harvest as fence posts to use and to sell. Many of the locust trees still growing in the North Family are volunteers from Elder Richard’s first crop. In 1858 Bushnell resigned his Eldership at the North Family to stand as the Second Elder in the Lebanon Ministry, but “due to a nervous disorder” he never took up residence at the Church Family. He was apparently resistant to assume his new role in the Ministry and it was eventually decided he would remain at the North Family and take up making seed boxes. In 1861, working at the North Family Saw Mill, he cut off some fingers with the buzz saw, but apparently continued to be able to work with wood as evidenced by the blanket chest featured here.

Eldress Anna White wrote of Elder Richard Bushnell that he “was a spiritual father of the purest and holiest type, beloved by his family and held in highest confidence and esteem in the whole region where his life was spent,” and Elder Frederick Evans, who succeeded Bushnell as the North Family Elder, wrote, “A brother who I esteem as one of the best men now living upon the earth.”

 

Cloak cutting counter

cloak counter from assouline book

Counter for Cutting Cloak Material, 1850s. Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY. Pine, maple pulls, brass tacks, red paint. 1950.382.1

This counter was last used by Sister Emma J. Neale in the Mount Lebanon workshop where she directed the manufacture of the famous Shaker cloaks. It is likely the same counter at which she was photographed (below) working in the cloak shop in the early 1900s.

cloak counter in use in cloak shop 8964

[In the Cloak Workshop], Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1905. 1957.008964

The counter is more than ten and a half feet long and over a yard wide, allowing for a substantial amount of material to be rolled out and cut. Its size and the arrangement of drawers is unusual and a good demonstration of the Shakers’ precision and their adherence to utility in all their designs. The counter has sixteen drawers, no two of which are the same size, instead increasing in depth from top to bottom and in width from left to right. The topmost drawers are very shallow and barely noticeable under the lip of the counter-top. No doubt each drawer had its own individual purpose.

Brass round-headed tacks are located along the edge of the top: one foot from the left end and at three foot (one yard) intervals along the length of the counter, allowing quick measurements of cloth. The counter has substantial wooden rollers built into its base, making it possible to pull the counter out from the wall in order to work on both sides. It is finished on the back and ends with vertical beaded boards to give the piece a finished look from any aspect. The finish appears to be a single thin coat of red paint.

Emma Neale was eight years old when she and her five siblings joined the Mount Lebanon community in 1855. By 1901 she was one of the trustees (administrative and spiritual leaders) of the community. At the time the Shakers were in serious debt due to the purchase of land for an ultimately unsuccessful community in Florida, and she launched “E.J. Neale & Co.,” a cloak manufacturing company. She was a shrewd businesswoman, managing the family’s finances and selling  cloaks and other fancy goods until she was overtaken by ill health in 1940. She died in 1943, having spent 88 of her 96 years as a Shaker and 58 of those as a trustee.