Jas. X. Smith

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Jas. X. Smith’s Stamp in Wood, ca. 1950, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Die stamps were standard tools used by cabinetmakers to mark their tools, especially when they worked in a workshop where their tools might become mixed up with those of other workers. This set of stamps was used by James X. Smith to make his mark “Jas. X. Smith” and “New-Lebanon” on his cabinetmaking planes and other tools. While it is common to find initials stamped into the ends of woodworkers’ hand planes and occasionally a full last name, it is less common to find the owner’s whole name and place of residence marked. Brother James X. Smith was a member of the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Born in 1806 in Norwich, New York, his father, also James had unsuccessfully tried to become a Shaker at New Lebanon in the 18th century. Failing this, he dedicated himself to the work of farming and met with considerable success. He married and had eight children, including James X. Smith. Although comfortably rewarded by his labor, he never found spiritual peace. In a complex series of steps having to do with his earlier experience with the Shakers and with his duty to his wife and family, James Sr. and most of his family united with the Shakers at New Lebanon in 1816. By 1843 Brother James X. Smith was serving as the assistant elder at the Second Family. In 1858 he was moved to the Center Family where he worked in the herb business. Two years later he was appointed the Elder at the East Family, but due to poor health was sent to the Church Family where he led a productive life until he died in the faith in 1888.

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Die Stamps made by Benjamin C. True, Albany, NY for Brother James X. Smith, New Lebanon, NY, 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1403, 1950.1404

The stamps Brother James used were made by and purchased from die-cutter Benjamin C. True of Albany, NY, and marked “B. C. True, Albany.” True was active in the 1830s with a shop on Beaver Street. The process of making dies was challenging—carving very small letters into iron that is hard enough to be driven repeatedly into hard wood without damaging the die. The process involves forging the general shape of the die at the blacksmith’s forge, then annealing or softening the iron by heating it to the temperature at which it is no longer attracted to a magnet – somewhere around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – and then letting it cool very slowly. Done properly, the iron will be soft enough to be worked with small chisels, files, drills, and engravers’ tools. The die-maker works with letters in reverse so they will make a right-reading mark. Once the die is cut, it is hardened by bringing it evenly back to around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and quenching, that is, quickly cooling the iron. Done properly the die will withstand repeated use.

Earlier this week Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon sponsored a tour of the current Shaker exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met,” on view through June 25,2017. The exhibition, curated by Alyce Englund, Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts, features Shaker pieces once owned by pioneer collectors and scholars of Shaker history, Edward and Faith Andrews, along with other Shaker items from the Met’s collection; examples of American furniture contemporary with Shaker pieces; and modern pieces inspired by the Shakers, including a 1958 screening of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring ballet. The Museum’s Director of Collections and Research, Jerry Grant, was invited to join Englund in discussion of the objects in the exhibition.

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Work Stand, Made by Brother James X. Smith, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1843, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

One of the extraordinary pieces in the exhibition is a six-drawer work table from Mount Lebanon made in 1843 by Brother James X. Smith while he lived at the Second Family. Brother James used the set of dies to stamp “Jas. X. Smith New-Lebanon N. Y.” across the dovetails of one of the piece’s drawers. The work table is unusual in that it is of panel-and-frame construction at a time when Shakers would usually have made such a piece with wide pine boards to make the sides. The front legs and the boards between the drawers are framed with beading. Brother James edged with top with a strip of wood to keep things from rolling off and marked the front strip to be a 32 inch measuring stick. In anticipation of discussing this piece, Grant brought photographs of Brother James’ stamps for Englund. The Met was unaware of the existence of these stamps and the knowledge of them enhances the story of this particular piece of Shaker furniture.

 

Reproducing a ca. 1820 rocking chair

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Rocking Chair, Enfield, Connecticut, ca. 1820s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1993.1.24.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has partnered with Tappan Chairs in New Hampshire, to offer a limited edition handmade reproduction of one of the rocking chairs in its collection.

This rocking chair, a fine example of the work of early chair makers at Enfield, Connecticut, is typical of Enfield rocking chairs – made of figured maple with stretchers of a courser grained wood (probably hickory), with front posts and three-inch diameter mushroom-shaped handholds turned from a single piece of wood, four back slats, minimally shaped rockers that do not protrude beyond the front posts, and finials at the top of the back posts that are typical of Enfield chairs.

 

The shape of the finials used on Enfield chairs is very similar to those found on chairs made at Watervliet, New York. On the former they are somewhat flatter at the tip, and the neck, just above the cylindrical post, is thinner and more delicate. This thin-necked finial may have been a problem as chairs were tipped over and finials broken, or perhaps the chair makers anticipated this might happen. Either way, a number of Enfield chairs have quarter-inch iron rods inserted from the top of the finial about five inches into the post to strengthen the neck. When we first examined the example at hand we found that where we might expect to find the top end of an iron rod there was only wood. We tested it with a magnet and found no attraction. The initial conclusion was that the Shakers had inserted a wooden dowel through the finial to strengthen it. It seemed unlikely, however, that a wooden dowel, even one of a wood slightly stronger than hard maple, would have improved the strength of the neck enough to make it worth the trouble. Finally, with a stronger magnet held at the neck of the finial, it was clear, as the magnet clung to the neck, that there was indeed an iron rod inside the finial – however, in this case the top of the iron rod had been covered with a small wooden plug rather than being exposed as on other Enfield chairs. In The Shaker Chair by Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman (The Canal Press, 1984), page 81, the authors illustrate the Enfield finial strengthening with an X-ray, which we reproduce here.

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Reproduction Enfield, CT Shaker Rocker – Limited Edition – From Tappan Chairs

Tappan Chairs, located in New Hampshire, has been in nearly continuous existence since the 19th century and uses traditional methods and equipment. Adam Nudd-Homeyer, proprietor and chairmaker, made multiple study trips to collections storage at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in order to create an accurate but modern version of the Enfield rocker. The finished product features pinned joinery, scribed mortises, mushroom-topped front posts, and filed slats. Made from authentically stained and sealed maple and ash, and seated with a natural rush bottom, the only variations from the original are a slightly larger seat area and longer rockers to prevent tipping.

Only 20 reproduction rockers are available and each is numbered and stamped. The first in the edition was auctioned at the museum’s annual gala in August, 2016. A portion of the proceeds from all sales benefit Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. To order for local pick-up in the Old Chatham, New York area, please contact the museum at 518-794-9100. To choose a different finish or a woven tape seat, and for all orders that must be shipped, visit the Tappan Chairs website.

 

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.
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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

 

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.

Cloak cutting counter

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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.

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[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.