“We have a set of new dishes on our table…they are pretty and costly we know.”

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Round Serving Bowl, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1961.13237.1

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was recently given a shallow 4 and 7/8’s-inch-diameter bowl made by the Union Porcelain Works (UPW). The bowl is decorated with a green border, small flowers, and the words, “Shakers  Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” These three additions to the Museum’s collection of twenty-eight other pieces of Mount Lebanon porcelain give cause to revisit this subject.

An 1887 entry in a sister’s diary from Mount Lebanon’s Church Family mentions some new dishes bought for the family. She wrote, “We have a set of new dishes on our table [this] morning, marked Shakers, Mt Lebanon, they are pretty and costly we know.” In the early 1950s Shaker Museum Curator Phelps Clawson catalogued the first two piece of this china acquired for the collection. He repeated information believed to have been supplied by a Shaker at Mount Lebanon indicating these dishes had been used initially by the Shakers for daily meals, with later versions sold to visitors as souvenirs. There was speculation in the antiques world that these pieces were made solely as souvenirs since it seemed unlikely that pride-averse Shakers would have found dishes marked with their name suitable. Clawson’s notes, however, are supported by photographic evidence in the Museum’s collection showing pieces of this china on the table in the family’s dining room.

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Church Family Dining Room, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1960.12527.1

Further examination of Shaker records expanded the sister’s initial comment about the new dishes. Church Family trustee, Brother Benjamin Gates and family deaconesses Sisters Cornelia French and Mary Hazard went to New York City on October 12, 1886 “on business concerning dishes for table use; to be made by Order.” Exercising their duty to see to the domestic concerns of the family, they placed their order for new china with the Union Porcelain Works, once located in the Highpoint (now Greenpoint) section of Brooklyn, New York. The manufacturer of the dishes is clearly identified by the UPW trademark on the bottom of each dish. The trademark on the Mount Lebanon dishes include the numerals “12” and “86” or “1” and “87” indicating that they were made in either December 1886 or January 1887 – a period that fits perfectly between the date the Shakers went to New York and the date the dishes appeared on the family’s table. Only two pieces in the Museum’s collection, two shallow saucers, bear the 1887 date, suggesting that most of the order was completed in 1886, although the Museum’s collection contains most, but not all of the types of dishes made for the Shakers.

UPW began producing hard paste porcelain in the mid-1860s and was the first company in the United State to achieve long-lasting success producing china. Porcelain is made of kaolin, a white clay, and feldspar, a mineral that when heated to a high temperature forms a glassy cement that permanently binds the clay and makes it translucent. In the 19th century only a small number of manufacturers in the United States produced porcelain that compared favorably with European imports.

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Cup and Caucer, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8257.1 (cup), 1950.3985.1 (saucer)

At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Charles de Busy, a French member of the International Jury, described the porcelain of Greenpoint (UPW) as “second to none in quality of paste and hardness of glaze.” While some of the pieces were described as “heavy,” de Busy said that “thinner pieces, such as tea and coffee cups, … would figure honorably among the production of Europe.” The pieces in the Museum’s collection bear this out – the serving bowls being heavy and opaque while the cups and their saucers are lighter with a translucence associated with quality porcelain.

To date, no documentation of the cost of the new dishes has been discovered, but an entry in another Shaker sister’s diary suggests that it was not cheap. She wrote, “We have a surprise of great value, on our breakfast table; a set of new dishes. Porcelain ware marked for us Shaker &c. … We hope it may be long ere we need another set.” In the mid-1880s the Church Family at Mount Lebanon had nearly seventy members. Considering that there were probably dinner plates, luncheon plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dessert bowls, and cups and saucers for each member of the family as well as three sizes of oval serving bowls, large round serving bowls, syrup and water pitchers, and relish plates included in the set, the sheer number of pieces could have been well over five-hundred.

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Relish Dish and Small Pitcher, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8254.1 (relish dish), 1957.8253.1 (small pitcher)

It was originally hypothesized that the variety of decoration grouped themselves into three distinct patterns. Since then it has become clear that the decoration is much less organized. The green border and the words “Shakers Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” appear to have been done by printed decal-like transfers while the floral and botanic decoration was hand-painted. The transfer decoration was a common offering of Union Porcelain Works as they made large quantities of what they called “thick” and “half-thick” dishes for hotels – usually decorated with a colored band and the name or logo of the hotel. Why the Shakers opted not to stop with this common offering is a mystery. The management of UPW did offer workspace for amateur painters who wanted to be trained in porcelain decorating to come for supervised practice. It may have been that the wide variety in the painted decoration on the Shakers’ dished was a result of having this group of would-be-painters do that work for little extra cost.

We are pleased to hold such a fine representation of dishes used by the Mount Lebanon Shakers and hope that over the years some of the missing forms and some better examples of forms we have will be added to the collection.

A four ton trip hammer

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Forge, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2016, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph.

In the winter of 1846 the First and Second Order of the Church Family determined to build a new blacksmith shop, one of stone with waterpower that would operate a lathe, drilling works, a grindstone, bellows for the forge, and a trip hammer. The shop was to be built 34 feet by 44 feet and located in the corner of the Deming Lot at the northeast corner of the land bordered by the main road that ran through the village (now called Darrow Road) and the road that runs downhill to the Shaker gristmill (now called Ann Lee Lane on the east end and Cherry Lane on the west end). The shop still stands and is now a private residence. The 1845 Shakers’ census notes that there were three blacksmiths in what is now called the Center Family – Brothers Arba Noyes, James Vail, and George Long.

Construction was largely done by members of the Second Order with considerable help from hired Irish laborers who did much of the digging for the pit for the waterwheel and laid up most of the stonework. By mid-summer the wheel pit, the drain to carry away water from the wheel, and the masonry work were completed. In the early fall, the hired labor returned to build the dam to create the pond to supply water to power the shop. The dam is still standing and pond is on the east side of the road.

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Interior of the Church Family Forge with the Trip Hammer in its Original Location, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. John S. Williams, Sr., photographer.

The decision to include a trip hammer in their new blacksmith’s shop was bold, but one that greatly increased the Shakers’ ability to fabricate and manufacture items out of iron. Trip hammers of many designs have been used for a couple of thousand years. The basic principle is that some kind of power is applied, in some manner, to raise a hammer larger than can be lifted by a man so that when it is dropped it will come down with more force than a man can exert alone. Trip hammers, in addition to forging iron, have been used for hulling and grinding grain, pounding rags for papermaking, and crushing iron ore to make it easier to extract the metal from the rock. In blacksmithing, trip hammers are often used to draw out flat sheets of metal from an iron bar and to shape a piece of square iron rod, for instance flattening the end of an iron bar to make a shovel and or making round ends on a square bar to make an axel for a wagon.

The Shakers documented their new trip hammer in their journals. In January 1846, Center Family Elder Amos Stewart experimented with a model for a windmill, hoping that he could use wind power “to tilt a triphammer.” This attempt, although it would have saved building a dam for the shop, apparently failed. The next month, Brother Hiram Rude, the family mechanic, went to Lee, Massachusetts to see a “gang of Triphammers.” The Shakers frequently went to visit businesses and factories to stay abreast of new technologies. Apparently in the next few weeks a design for the hammer was drawn up and casting patterns made for the metal parts. Elder Amos and Brother Peter went to Albany to see about castings for the gearing for the hammer. It was nine months later – after the new shop was finished and its forge fired up – that Elder Amos and Brother Braman Wicks, a carpenter from the Church Family, began working again on the gearing to drive the hammer. In July, a tree was cut for the frame to hold the hammer. Apparently by winter that year the Shakers were rethinking the design of the trip hammer. Elder Amos and Brother Hiram went to Cohose, New York, to look at another trip hammer and two days after that trip they had settled “upon the form for a Hammer & spoke for castings in Troy.” This final design was completed and the trip hammer seemed to be in use shortly after that.

While trip hammers were associated primarily with iron work, the Shakers appeared to have another idea for using it quite early on – maybe even before they began planning to built it: pounding black ash logs to break down the bond between the tree’s natural growth rings. When the growth rings are separated, they are easily peeled off in long strips and become the treasured materials from which baskets are woven. Most basket makers would do this work by pounding a log with a sledge hammer. For the Shakers, the ability to more efficiently produce basket weaving material meant that they could greatly increase their production of all kinds of baskets. In November of 1847, Elder Daniel Boler of the Church Family worked “at the blacksmith shop preparing trip hammer for pounding out basket stuff.” The Shakers were so dependent on having basket materials prepared by machine that in  1863, when apparently their own trip hammer was not available, they took ash logs to Bromley King’s forging shop in Waterford, New York, to get them pounded.

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Trip Hammer on xhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca.1985, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Paul Rocheleau, photographer.

This trip hammer is among the largest and heaviest non-architectural objects made by the Shakers. It is over fifteen feet long, six and a half feet high, just over four feet wide, and is thought to weigh around four tons. The machine has two hammers – a large one at one end and a small one at the other end. It was powered by a waterwheel connected by a belt to the wooden drive pulley. Once the hammer got up to speed and the massive cast iron flywheel was rotating to preserve its inertia, one or both hammers could be engaged.

Watch a trip hammer demonstration from Thomas Ironworks, Seville, Ohio 

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Interior of the Blacksmith’s Shop Exhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca. 1955, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. C. E. Simmons, photographer.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s acquisition of the trip hammer has some tales and legends associated with it. In the 1940s John S. Williams, Sr., the museum’s founder, heard that the Shakers were breaking up the equipment in the blacksmith’s shop in preparation for selling the building. He appealed to have the work stopped until he could move the hammer and the forge and bellows to the museum. It was war-time in America and the scarcity of trucks made it difficult to find someone who could move such a heavy piece of equipment. Fortunately, Williams’s good friend Albert Callan, the owner of the Chatham Courier newspaper, had a new printing press being delivered around this time and once the delivery of the press was complete the truck headed to Mount Lebanon to move the trip hammer. Once loaded, they then had to find a route back to the Museum that did not involve crossing a bridge that could not bear the weight of the truck and hammer. Somehow it all worked out and the trip hammer has been at the Shaker Museum ever since.

Apostasy and carpentry: The tale of a shoemaker’s bench

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Shoemaker’s Bench, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12839.1.

As shoemakers’ benches go, this Shaker example is a luxury version of a basic workbench. It has ample drawers for tools and a back rest and padded leather seat. Many of these benches only have trays fastened to the bench top to hold tacks, nails, and shoe pegs, with maybe a single drawer slung underneath for tools. The seat is usually carved into the top of the bench without much or any padding. Shoemakers sat low on their benches as they used their laps for much of their work – the knees being a suitable vise for holding something as irregularly shaped as a shoe or boot.

The quality of this bench speaks to why its proper name is a shoemaker’s bench rather than a “cobbler’s bench.” Although the terms shoemaker and cobbler are now used interchangeably, historically a shoemaker refered to the trained tradesperson who made shoes and boots, whereas a cobbler, as Webster informed people in his dictionary (1900 edition), was “A mender of shoes … a clumsy workman.”  This is much like what has happened to the differentiation between a tinsmith and a tinker – the tinsmith being the maker of tin ware and the tinker “the itinerant mender of domestic tin utensils … a clumsy workman; a botcher.” That being cleared up, this shoemaker’s bench has more to tell us about the Shakers than that they were well-shod by trained artisans.

On the bottom of one of the small drawers is a faint and partly obliterated inscription that appears once to have clearly read, “Dec. 1st 18__ Made by Richard B. Woodrow.” Richard Bushnell Woodrow was a member of the Second Order of Mount Lebanon’s Church Family (now referred to as the Center Family). He was born March 5, 1828 in Philadelphia. His mother Sarah Woodrow was a member of an experimental community in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That community was founded in 1826 as the “Friendly Association of Mutual Interest” by as many as 300 followers of the English social reformer, Robert Owen. The community’s first members settled in the house that had been George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge. They wrote a constitution that committed members to industrious work and to share equally in the profits of that work. They had a commitment to equality between men and women. The experiment did not make it through the first year as a result of conflict between the Association members and the surrounding communities. As members looked for another opportunity to live in, some found their way to the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Eventually as many as 30 of them came to live at Mount Lebanon’s North Family. Shakers such as John and Levi Shaw; John, Deborah, and Anna Dodgson; Abel, Israel, Sarah, and Jane Knight; Tabitha and Maria Lapsley; George Wickersham; Clawson Middleton; and Sarah Woodrow, satisfied with their new home, lived out their lives as Shakers, most of them as stalwarts of the North Family.

Three-year-old Richard came with his then twenty-four-old mother and was eventually placed in the children’s order at the Center Family as soon as he could be separated from his mother. At age 11, in an accounting of membership in the Church and Center families, he is listed among the boys at the Center Family. At age 21 he is listed among the brothers as a 5 foot 10 inch tall carpenter and mill-wright.  Brother Richard’s work was varied but generally of a mechanical nature.  In 1848 and 1849, he set up a foot-powered lathe, repaired the family’s waterwheel, built a wash-mill, put up eave troughs, made a “great cask,” framed the dairy house, laid floors; made portable bedsteads, a yarn stretcher, and a seeder for beet seeds; tore down the family’s old mill and framed a new one “pretty much alone.” In October, 1849 the Lebanon Shakers were confronted with a lack of space in their main graveyard. They decided to use an earlier graveyard to compensate. In doing so they dug up the bones of Father Joseph Meacham to reposition his grave. Brother Richard made the coffin to receive his bones for the re-interment.  This kind of work continued steadily until February 2, 1853 when “Warren Chase, Richard Woodrow, Louisa S[ears] and Fanny Crocker conclude[d] to forsake their Father’s house & seek asylum in some other region.” This was not Richard’s first decision to leave Shaker life. At age eighteen he had been one of eight young brothers and sisters who departed the Center Family in one of the most devastating rebellions the Shakers ever experienced. Unlike the other seven who left, Richard returned less than a month later, begging a new privilege, “after having humbly acknowledged his mistake in having left.”

Richard’s loss was devastating to the family. It was noted in a journalist’s commentary: “Richard was their principal carpenter & Joiner there, and left a heavy & important job, a large barn, partly framed, & has left no regular draft of it; and someone will have a hard task to get a clear idea of it, and doubtless the Chh will be obliged to hire it done.” Just prior to leaving Richard had completed making the 300 diagonal braces that were to be used in the new dairy barn. Louisa Sears and Fanny Crocker were caretakers of the young girls – another difficult job to fill. Warren, Richard, and Fanny had all lived together since childhood.

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Photograph (cropped), Center Family Barn (1853), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, James Irving, Photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2000.21522.1. This is the barn that Richard Woodrow was in charge of framing when he left the Shakers.

Richard’s life in the world is sketchily documented. It appears that he and Louisa (or Loiza) Sears married in Burlington Township, New Jersey two days after leaving the Shakers. [Burlington County, NJ, Marriage Records]  Although  the particular circumstances and not, at present, known, Louisa Woodrow died on July 2, 1857 in Gloucester, New Jersey – according to recorded “New Jersey, Deaths, 1670-1988.” Two years after Louisa’s death, Richard married Elizabeth M. Paul in Clarksboro, New Jersey. They had two children, Mary L. Woodrow, born in 1863, and Howard H. Woodrow, born in 1868. Around this time Richard moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a carpenter and eventually managed a hardware store – jobs fitting of his Shaker training. Richard Woodrow died in the city of his birth on March 6, 1909 having lost Elizabeth five years earlier. They are both buried in the Mickleton Friend’s Burial Bround, Upper Greenwich, New Jersey, suggesting that he and Elizabeth were Quakers.

Although Richard’s post-Shaker life is certainly not completely documented, it is rare that it is possible to trace the lives of those leaving the Shakers to see how their Shaker life may have informed the remainder of their lives.

The shoemaker’s  bench was purchased August 5, 1961 at an auction of Shaker items collected from the Church and Center families at Mount Lebanon and owned by Darrow School. The auction provided funds to aid in the conversion of the Shakers’ 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library.

There is more to this story. The shoemaker’s bench is only one a half-dozen objects in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon that appears to be connected to the life and work of Richard Bushnell Woodrow. The rest of these objects will be discussed is subsequent articles in this blog.