Reading a photograph

The last blog post addressed the value of carefully assessing apparent duplicate copies of hand-printed photographs. At the discretion of the photographer, slightly different parts of a negative might be printed, resulting in two photographs that at first appear to be identical but may, in fact, contain different information. This was common, especially during the early years of stereographic photographs. 

An additional stereograph in which this is apparent also provides an opportunity to look at how written documentation can be used to narrow down a possible date for a photograph and an opportunity to think about how much influence the Shakers had some on the photographs that a photographer was allowed to take.  

Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871

Fig. 1: Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871, Hamilton College, Special Collections, Shaker Stereographs. James Irving, photographer.

Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871

Fig. 2: Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871, Shaker Museum |Mount Lebanon: 1951.4391.1. James Irving, photographer.

Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871

Fig. 3: Group of Shakers, [North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY], ca. 1871, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6113.1. James Irving, photographer

An article in the July 2008 issue of American Communal Societies Quarterly, published by the Richard W. Couper Press at Hamilton College, discussed a stereograph (Fig. 1) titled “Group of Shakers” created by James Irving, an itinerant photographer from Troy, New York. The stereograph depicts seventeen members of the Mount Lebanon North Family posed in front of the sisters’ entrance of the First Dwelling. In the discussion, the writer makes a valiant effort to identify all of the Shaker brothers and sisters pictured in the image. This stereograph includes Sister Catherine Allen standing at the far left in both of the images. In a copy of this stereograph in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection (Fig. 2) Sister Catherine Allen appears at the far left of the left-hand image but only a slight glimpse of her shoulder is included in the right-hand image. In yet a third version of this stereograph (Fig. 3), the photographer printed the image in such a way as to exclude all but the slightest sliver of Sister Catherine’s cheek and shoulder. It is printed, however, to show more of the vertical height of the First Dwelling House and less of the grass in the foreground – apparently an artistic decision. 

Hamilton College dates this stereograph to 1871. It certainly was made between August 1869, the time when James Irving first photographed Mount Lebanon, and 1873, when several of the Shakers pictured either left the Church or passed away. One piece of documentary evidence possibly substantiates the 1871 date. With the identification of the Shakers in the photograph it becomes apparent that three of the four members of the North Family’s Elders’ Order are present – Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, her assistant Sister Anna White, and Brother Daniel Offord (missing is Elder Frederick Evans). In June, 1871, the Lebanon Ministry “opened the gift” that Elder Frederick should go on a missionary journey to England. He left his home at the North Family on June 19 that year and did not return until early September. It seems highly likely that Elder Frederick would have been included in this “Group of Shakers” had he been available. It may be that Richard Bushnell  – seated with his hat on his knee – was included in the photograph as a “stand-in” for Elder Frederick since he had been Evans’s predecessor as family elder.  In support of the possibility that this photograph was made during Elder Frederick Evans’s absence is the fact that a North Family journal noted that on July 10, 1871, “Irvin[g] the Troy Photographer and woman are here.”  If Bushnell is considered as Elder Frederick’s “stand-in” then it is also interesting to note that all four of the Shakers who were or had been members of the Elders Order are seated – three behind the fence and Bushnell in front of the fence – while all the other Shakers are standing. The seating arrangement – Eldress Antoinette Doolittle seated behind the fence on the far left is facing Sister Anna White, her helpmate, and Brother Daniel Offord is seated on the far right behind the fence facing the spot where one can imagine Elder Frederick could have been seated to complete the vignette. The interesting question arising from this arrangement is whether the Shakers orchestrated the seating arrangement or Irving understood the Shakers’ leadership system and knew the family members well enough to make the seating decision. 




The Mount Lebanon Shakers and their support for African American education in South Carolina

On April 3, 1885 the mercury reached 46 degrees Fahrenheit at Mount Lebanon’s North Family according to Brother Daniel Offord’s entry in the family’s garden journal. It was a mild cloudy Friday and the hired men were working at getting the year’s firewood cut, split, and under cover while a few of the brothers were working at the family’s saw mill.  To what seemed to be an uneventful day, Brother Daniel added a curious note: “Sent a bbl of lamps tin ware literature &c &c to Martha Schofield.”

Schofield staff

Schofield School staff, date unknown, retrieved from

Martha Schofield was born in 1839 into a Quaker family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her parents were strong abolitionists who frequently had Reverend Edward Hicks and James and Lucretia Mott as guests in their home and on occasion were known to harbor fugitive slaves. As a young girl, Martha, strongly affected by these experiences, began teaching runaway slaves to read and write and when she turned 18 began her professional teaching career in Bayside, Long Island. In October of 1865, with the end of the Civil War, and in response to President Lincoln’s call to help emancipated slaves, she moved to Edisto Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. Three years later, and after recovering from malaria or tuberculosis back at her family home, she returned south with her life savings and promises of support from people like her friend Susan B. Anthony and founded the Schofield Normal and Industrial School in Aiken, South Carolina, to serve the area’s freed slaves. A school building was completed in 1870 and with three teachers, including Schofield, the school taught and boarded 68 students. The school grew rapidly and focused on training young African Americans in the trades and to become teachers. In 1882 Schofield was able to build a large brick two-story schoolhouse but was in need of additional dormitory space to house an ever-growing population of students.

The First and Second Schoolhouses for the Schofield Normal and Industrial School, Aiken, SC, ca. 1885

Schofield Normal and Industrial School, First (1870) and Second (1882) Schoolhouses from, South Carolina Bureau, The Augusta Chronicle, “Schoolhouse Inspires Students,” retrieved from

An article appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 19, 1885 concerning two young African-American men, Alfred W. Nicholson and Hampton Matthias, who were teachers at the Bettis School in Edgefield County, South Carolina. In an effort to keep ahead of their students they decided they both needed additional education so, while Matthias taught, Nicholson attended university and then when his course works was done for the year – they switched. Both had been students at the Schofield School and Martha Schofield took the opportunity of having two of her students featured in the Tribune to make an appeal for support for her school. In a February 26 article she expressed her concern about the challenge of accommodating an increasing demand for African American teachers. She wrote: “Here there is such a pressure behind us we dare not stand still; we are pushed on to new burdens, the completion of which is only seen by the eye of faith shining under the light of Divine guidance. We are being forced to erect a girls’ boarding hall….The cost, with careful management, will be about $1500. Over $500 has been subscribed and the lumber is on the ground and paid for. No debt will be incurred. Carpenters stop when the money gives out.”

Carte-de--Visite, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle

Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1962.13962.1,

It was apparently this appeal to which the North Family Shakers responded both in money and with a barrel of goods. In a letter to the Tribune published March 1, 1885, Eldress Antoinette Doolittle expressed her family’s respect and support for Martha Schofield’s work. She notes that they, the North Family, had been aware of her efforts in educating African American students for several years. With the letter, the North Family included a check for five-dollars to be sent on to Schofield to aid in the building of the school. Eldress Antoinette’s letter, transcribed below, addresses her experiences with freed slaves who worked in the hotels in Lebanon Springs, New York, where she grew up until she joined the Shakers in her teens.



To the editor of The Tribune.

FRIEND: We read with interest the letter of February 26 from Martha Schofield addressed to the TRIBUNE, asking aid for building a schoolhouse in which to educate some of the colored people, to whom at present she seems to be giving her life labors unselfishly. We have watched her course of action several years, and have admired her as a heroine in striving, against persecution and many adverse storms, to be a friend to the friendless, and to uplift the lowly and oppressed who through circumstances over which they had had no control, have been subjected to the grossest wrongs, and suffered and sorrowed beyond language to portray.

I well remember when a small child of hearing a colored man say that if he could be a white man he would be willing to be skinned alive. He might justly have been considered a gentleman in manners and address, to some degree a man of letters, whose greatest fault seemed to be that his skin was very dark, and on that account he suffered many indignities from those of a lighter complexion. I also have a vivid recollection of an old slave called Venus who was employed as a washerwoman in some of our public hotels. Many hours I say by her side hearing her relate her sufferings at the South when under the lash of her cruel master. Her hands and fingers were ill-shapen and deformed. When she told me the wrongs inflicted upon her my young heart was deeply touched, and almost bled with sympathy as I saw the scalding, bitter tears course their way down her furrowed cheeks.

I remember those things in the dark days of our late Civil War and, while we deeply regretted the cruel effects of that war upon many households and the mourners who were bereft of loved one[s] who fallen in battle, yet the cries and groans of downtrodden, oppressed slaves were greater, piercing the heavens, and He who heareth the orphan’s cry and feedeth the ravens struck a blow that broke the strong chains that bound them, and the manacles fell! We watched with intense prayerful interest the events of those never-to-be-forgotten days, and now rejoice that there is a way open for the slaves, who were once thought to be almost soulless and devoid of intellect, gradually rising in the ascending scale of knowledge, moral worth and spiritual unfoldment.

We sent THE TRIBUNE five dollars ($5) [roughly $120 in today’s dollars] to aid in the erection of a schoolhouse above referred to in hopes that this small contribution, given in sympathy for the cause of freedom, may induce others to add thereto, and thus create a little fund that may be forwarded in safety to Martha Schofield, who we honor for her work’s sake.        Sincerely, ANTOINETTE DOOLITTLE.

Mt. Lebanon, N. Y., Feb 27, 1885.

The Schofield School – incorporated into the public schools of Aiken, South Carolina and integrated in the 1960s – continues its educational mission. If Ms. Schofield responded to Eldress Antoinette’s letter and if the North Family continued to support the school is still to be discovered.


Why didn’t the Shakers talk about having their pictures taken?


Photograph of Eldress Anna White, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2017.24190.1.

Recently Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired a carte-de-visite of North Family Eldress Anna White that was created by the Notman Photographic  Company in Albany, New York. In addition to this image the Museum holds two other Notman photos, one of North Family Eldress Antoinette Doolittle and one of that family’s businessman, Brother Levi Shaw. Despite the hundreds if not thousands of photographs taken of Shakers in commercial photographers’ studios, information about these experiences are woefully under-recorded in Shaker records.

William Notman, a Canadian photographer based in Montreal, was both a successful photographer and a successful businessman. Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826 and moved to Montreal in 1856. Already established as a photographer, he set up a studio in the town’s business center shortly after his arrival. He experienced considerable success, including receiving a good medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. (As an aside, his work with the Centennial Exposition included producing photographic identification cards for those working at the Exposition, and in doing so became the father of the modern “photo-ID.”) Following on his success in Philadelphia, he decided to open a studio in Albany, New York, in 1877. It was this studio that was visited by the three Shakers from the North Family.


Photograph of Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11977.2

The two eldresses seem to have made the trip at the same time. Their cartes-de-visite are nearly identical with the exception of the portrait itself. In both cases the oval image is embossed – rising above the background card. Both images have a number written in pencil at the upper right-hand corner of the back of the card – on Doolittle’s card the number is “5003” and on White’s, “5004,” suggesting they are the sequential negative numbers from which the prints were made.

Notman’s Albany studio was in operation between 1877 and the mid-1890s. Although primarily owned by William Notman, the studio employed local Albany photographers to do the artistic work. When Notman died in 1891 his son took over the business and the studio began to falter. While it is possible to date these photographs with a decade – the studio began operating in 1877 and Doolittle died in 1886 – there is no indication in North Family records that the two eldresses set off to Albany together to have their portraits made. On the back of Eldress Ann White’s card someone has written the date “Ca. 1880” which seems to be a reasonable guess.


Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.12238.1

The carte-de-visite of Brother Levi Shaw is not an embossed image but resembles the other photographs in every other aspect. The penciled inscription of the negative number reads “3082” on his photograph, suggesting that it was done earlier than those of the two eldresses.

We are interested in knowing about other photographs of Shakers created at Notman’s Albany studio and, of course, any mention of Shakers traveling somewhere with the intention of having their pictures taken. If you have any information to share, please do so in the comments below.