“[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.

 

 

Shakers combat knock-offs with trademark

With the rising success of Mount Lebanon’s South Family chair business in the 1860s and early 1870,s the Shakers were confronted with a number of companies making “knock-offs” of their chairs and marketing them as “Shaker.” The Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory in Troy, New York, the L. & G. Stickley Company in Fayetteville, New York, and the Enterprise Chair Manufacturing Company, in Oxford, New York, all produced chairs that were either called “Shaker” or were so stylistically similar to chairs made by the Shakers that the Shakers felt it necessary to warn their customers about the deception. In their 1874 catalogue, the Shaker published the following:

“Beware of imitation chairs which are sold for our make, and which are called Shakers’ chairs. Read, and remember where you can send for the Shakers’ chairs and get the genuine. Send your orders to headquarters, as we have only one price and quality to all consumers, and by this hall all men know that they are getting the genuine article.”

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Catalogue, “Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of the Shakers’ Chairs, H. F. Reynolds, Lebanon Springs, N. Y., 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Richmond Number 242, 1995.1.1.

The following year, to further protect their product from imitators, the Shakers developed a trade-mark for their chairs. The trade-mark appears on the back cover of their 1875 catalogue with the notice: “The above Trade-Mark will be attached to every genuine Shaker Chair, and none others are of our make notwithstanding any claims to the contrary.” The next year when the Shakers exhibited their chairs at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the special catalogue produced for that event added that their trade-mark “is a gold transfer, and is designed to be ornamental.”  Even though the Shakers gave instruction on how to remove the trade-mark after it was purchased, most unrefinished chairs retain their trade-marks. The gold transfers, decalcomanias (decals for short), were produced by Palm, Fechteler & Company of New York and Chicago. This business began in 1856 as a company that decorated carriages, but around 1865, Charles Palm introduced decals to the United States. Decals originated in England in the mid-1750s as a way to add decoration to pottery – the pottery decorated in this way was commonly called transferware – but it was also a way to inexpensively add fancy decorations to carriages and most anything else. Almost any line art or lithographic print can be made in to a decal.

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Die, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. 1957.8527.1.

It appears that the Shakers were experimenting with methods to trade-mark their chairs. While decals were a relatively new product in the U. S., there was a method for printing labels – hot stamping gold leaf on paper – that was well known to printers and bookbinders. The Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon holds in its collection a die that was made to hot stamp gold leaf and a label made with the die that identified  chairs as being Shaker made. While the manufacturer of the die is not known. It is noteworthy that the front and back covers of the Shakers’ 1875 chair catalogue, printed by B. F. Reynolds, a book and job printer, in Lebanon Springs, New York, appears to be stamped with gold leaf. The knowledge of how to make paper labels with gold lettering was only a short walk away from the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. A printer such as Reynolds certainly would have known where to obtain the proper die to print gold leaf labels. A second gold-leaf stamped label in the Museum’s collection is of a different size and style. To our knowledge the metal die used to make this label has not yet surfaced. The existence of the two different labels suggests that the Shaker were trying out different techniques to produce a practical trade-mark.

 

One final observation about the Shakers’ adventures in trade-marking: both the decals made by Palm, Fechteler & Company and the die present the Shakers’ name in the singular possessive – Shaker’s –  whereas, the Shakers seemed to prefer to use the  plural possessive – Shakers’ – when they put their name on a product. This deviation suggests that either the Shaker who contracted with the maker of the die and with Palm, Fechteler & Company made the apparent error, or the Palm, Fechteler & Company made this decision and could have been  the maker of the die as well as the decals.

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Sheet of Decalcomanias for Shaker’s Chairs, Palm, Fechteler & Co, New York and Chicago, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

The history of a sign

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[sign], Second and South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1870-1920s, pine, paint. 1950.1095.1

This sign directing people to where they could purchase the well-known Shaker chairs has had a more varied life than one would guess at first glance.
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Stereograph, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. 1953.6117.3

By the mid-nineteenth century most Shaker families at Mount Lebanon had an Office from which they conducted public commerce; most of these Offices also housed a store where the public could buy Shaker products. The public road that ran through Mount Lebanon was peppered with signs that read Office & Store. The North, Church, Center, Second, and South Families all had signs like this one. This particular sign appears to have had three incarnations over the years as its purpose and location changed. It was apparently first mounted on the door cap, the wedge-shaped porch roofs used on Shaker buildings to protect their doorways and steps, of the Second Family’s Office and Store.  It is painted to read OFFICE & STORE and appearance and location is preserved in a stereograph probably dating from the 1870s.

 

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[Sarah Collins in Front of the Chair Shop], Mount Lebanon, NY ca. 1910. 2012.023252.001

By the 1920s the sign appears in several photographs at the South Family, where it hung above the door of the Brethren’s Workshop where chairs were sold. By this time the word OFFICE had been modified to read CHAIR, the “and” or “&” removed and the word STORE possibly touched up but mostly unchanged.
When William F. Winter was photographing buildings at Mount Lebanon in the 1920s for the New York State Museum (later to be incorporated into the Historic American Buildings Survey’s photographic documentation of Shakers at Mount Lebanon), the word STORE had been painted over with the word SHOP. That remains the sign’s message.