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.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.