Reconstructing the history of a cupboard

As frequent readers of this blog already know, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is photographing and electronically cataloging its collection in order to create an online catalog that will be shared with the public beginning in 2018. The project, funded by a $750,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, provides the opportunity for staff to re-examine many pieces from the collection.

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA

Cupboard with Three Doors, Church Family, Hancock, MA, ca. 1820s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10448.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

Such is the case with this three-door cupboard. The cupboard was obtained in 1958 from the ironing room located in the Shakers’ Machine Shop and Laundry building at the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts. As the cupboard was being photographed recently, it was possible to examine its construction closely and verify that the piece was originally built into the fabric of the room from which it was removed. It appears that the tongue-and-groove boards used to close in the back of the cupboard were not original to the piece because these boards were likely destroyed during removal. The boards on its back and proper right end were replaced by the Shaker Museum with recycled Shaker boards and it is hard to discern whether the piece ever had a proper back and right end.

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Ironing Room, Laundry and Machine Shop, Church Family, Hancock, MA, 1931, Historic American Buildings Survey,  HABS MASS,2-HANC,14—12, William F. Winter, Jr., photographer.

Photographs of the ironing room taken in 1931 by William F. Winter, Jr., now in the collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey, show the cupboard in its original location. A quick trip to Hancock Shaker Village and an examination of that location provided further information on the history of the piece. The wall against which the cupboard was built in retains a rail with iron hooks. There are two cuts in this rail – one that allowed the left end of the cupboard to fit tight against the wall and one where the board dividing the two compartments was likewise fit against the wall. A short piece of rail mounted on the wall against which the right end of the cupboard butted also has a cut out that allowed the front of the cupboard to fit against that wall. This evidence – the cuts in the rail and the Shaker-replaced back boards — strongly suggest that the piece was not originally built for this location and that it very well may have been moved there from another building and installed against the wall. In its original location the back of the cupboard may have merely been the wall against which it was built – explaining why the Shakers had added tongue-and-groove boards to create a back. 

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Interior View of Ironing Room, East Wall, Church Family, Hancock, MA, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, staff photograph.

It is relatively rare to be able to connect a piece of built-in furniture with the building and the specific location from which it was removed. Often the demolition of the building was the reason the piece was available in the first place. This cupboard, with the Historic American Buildings Survey photographic documentation of its last Shaker location and the existing evidence from the building, now has a much clearer history. 

 

 

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The Shakers produce a very early version of the wheelchair

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830

Wheelchair, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.8417.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The Shakers made a sincere effort to accommodate the needs of all members of their community, including young, old, and disabled people. This wheelchair is a fine example of endeavors to ensure members with special needs could participate in community life. The chair, while not a suitable vehicle for a Shaker to transport himself or herself outdoors on flagstone walks, was certainly useful in moving around within the dwelling house. Several items in the Museum’s collection speak to the care of those with specific physical needs: an orthopedic shoe, canes, and a walker.  

This modified rocking chair was made at Watervliet or possibly Mount Lebanon. While it seems odd at first glance that the chair would have both rockers and wheels, most all arm chairs used in Shaker communities would have had rockers; side chairs with arms were unusual during the first half of the nineteenth century, well before the first patent was taken out on a self-propelled wheelchair in 1869. The date for the conversion of the rocker into a wheelchair is not known, but it was probably done in the first half of the nineteenth century. All of the metal parts for the chair are hand-forged and no commercial fittings were used. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon had among them both spinning wheel makers and wagon makers so fabricating the wheels for the chair would not have been particularly difficult. The wheels on the chair had “tires” made of leather that fit into half-round grooves in the outside of their rims.  The chair, evidenced from two notches in the middle front stretcher (rung), was once fitted with some type of foot rest attached to that stretcher. 

The wheelchair was acquired in 1957 at Hancock Shaker Village from Eldress Emma B. King, but was, according to the Museum’s accession records, one of the thousands of items brought to Hancock from Mount Lebanon when the latter community closed. 

Though we don’t know who this wheelchair was made for, another mystery is why the middle front stretcher, the one from which the wheelchair’s footrest was hung, is so close to the front seat stretcher. This is a unique stretcher placement for a Shaker chair. There is no evidence that this stretcher was added later and no evidence that there had been middle stretcher where one would usually be found. If the stretcher placement indicates that the chair was built originally as a wheelchair, then why the vestigial rockers? Share your guesses in the comments!

 

 

 

To a green bench in a green shade

fig 1Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1914, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1971.17371.1.

This bench was made to be used outdoors; was painted dark green, a traditional color for outdoor furniture; and was once placed between the North Family Dwelling House and the family’s Wood House/Wash House. On the upper back rail is carved “August | North Family Shakers | 1914.” If there was an event to memorialize on that date, it hasn’t come to light yet.

 

Brother William Perkins, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Postcard, Brother William Perkins, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9505.1, photographer unidentified.

The bench was likely made by Brother William H. Perkins, an immigrant from England, who, although usually associated with the Second Family at Mount Lebanon, was a member of the North Family from June 4, 1914, until he moved to the Second Family on March 31, 1915. The bench certainly fits nicely into his tenure as a North Family brother. Prior to becoming a Shaker, Perkins was a trained wood carver by trade. The bench is made of oak rather than the white pine that would have been the natural choice of New Englanders. An Englishman, on the other hand, would consider oak the traditional wood for this kind of project. The bench was painted over at some point in its post-Shaker life with dark green high-gloss paint. Underneath is a single coat of dark green, applied much more sparingly. 

Sister Sadie Maynard Standing behind a Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Photograph, Sister Sadie Maynard Standing behind a Bench, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1996.5.1, photographer unidentified.

A photograph in the Museum’s collection shows the bench in the dooryard just west of the family Dwelling House. Standing behind the bench is Sister Sadie Maynard. Sister Sadie arrived at the North Family on July 24, 1918, from the Harvard, MA, Shaker community where she had lived since joining the Shakers in 1899. She was one of the last six sisters to live at that community before it closed and she moved to the North Family at Mount Lebanon. She remained at Mount Lebanon until that community also closed and she was one of seven remaining Shakers moved to Hancock, MA. She died there in 1953.

 

 

“[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.

 

 

The wonderful world of joinery

Those engaged in the art and mystery of joining pieces of wood together to make a chair, a table, a case of drawers, a cupboard, or any other useful piece of furniture, architectural feature, or household accessory, have a wide choice of “joints” suited to making such things strong and beautiful. Shaker woodworkers, like their counterparts in the outside world, demonstrated their mastery of mortise and tenon, rabbet, half-lap, dovetail, dado, miter, spline, finger, and tongue and groove joints. For a few specific purposes Shaker woodworkers used a particular method of joining pieces of wood that, while not unknown in the outside world, was not common. That method involved turning the common round mortise and tenon joint – that is inserting a round peg in a round hole – into a stronger joint by cutting threads inside the mortise and on the outside of the tenon and screwing them together like iron nuts and bolts. This joint, because it did not require glue, had the advantage of being relatively easy to take apart.

There are three common examples of Shakers using this joinery technique to great advantage – the pulls (or knobs) on drawers and cabinet doors, the omnipresent pegs (or pins) mounted in boards circling the interior of nearly every Shaker room, and window screws.

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Threaded Drawer Pull from Shaker Blanket Chest, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10625.1

Pulls. Drawer pulls with glued unthreaded mortises and tenons tend to loosen over the years as wooden drawer fronts expand and contract year to year from summer to winter. The heavier the drawer the more the stress put on the pull every time the drawer is opened. The threaded mortise and tenon is a mechanical joint that relies on the interlocking of the threads rather than glue. Alternatives to threading the pull – used more in non-Shaker pieces – were to either leave the tenon long, protruding into the drawer, and put a pin through it so it could not pull out, or cutting a slot in the tenon and driving a wedge into the slot, flaring the end of the tenon so it was too big to pull out of the hole.

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Illustration of Shaker Threaded Pegs in Peg Board, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, drawn by staff

Pegs and Peg Board. Could anything be more annoying to the Shaker than grabbing his or her wrap from the hallway peg board and half-way across the door yard finding the peg on which it hung still tangled in the collar? Threaded pegs, like pulls, did not accidentally come loose from the board. Peg board was made in two parts – one piece of rough wood nailed to the studs that supported the plastered walls and a finished piece of wood that covered the rough board and the joint between that board and the plaster. The rough board had threaded holes to receive the pegs while the finished board had a slightly larger hole through which the peg could pass on its way to the threaded board beneath. In cases where this technique was used, the pegs actually held the finished peg board on the wall. Removing the pegs and peg finished peg board allowed rooms to be painted without having to worry about getting paint or whitewash on the peg boards.

Window Screws. In a number of Shaker buildings the windows were designed such that there was a thin board that overlapped the movable window sash. This board, much like the finished piece of peg board, could be tightened against the sash by turning a thumbscrew that passed through it but tightened into a board beneath. This feature made it possible to hold the sash open without using a stick or counterweights.

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Tap and Die, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12900.1a,b

Making  wooden threads was done with two tools: a tap for cutting the threads inside the mortise and a die or “screwbox” for cutting the threads on the tenon. These tools would not have been common in every toolbox but specialized woodworkers may have invested in or made these specialized tools. For example, making spinning wheels, which Shakers in a number of communities did, required threaded tensioning screws for keeping the cord that connected the large drive wheel with the spindle where the fiber was twisted tight. Toolmakers made hand screws for clamping pieces of wood together that required long threaded wooden rods and threaded mortises and some woodworkers specialized in making large, one and one-half to three inch diameter wooden screws and nuts for large vises on cabinetmakers’ workbenches.

In the collection of Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon is a purpose-made tool for threading the tenons on pegs for peg boards that also has a changeable cutter for doing the same for drawer pulls. The tool is thought to have been made at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, a clever mechanic and woodworker. Faced with the task of making tens-of-thousands of threaded pegs, it seems a worthy project for a clever brother.

There is one example in the Museum’s collection where one unidentified cabinetmaker used the “treaded mortise and tenon joint” in a less common way. Two tripod stands – candlestands – were made with their tops joined to their pedestal bases with wooden screws. Round cleats, screwed to the bottom of the stands’ tops have threaded mortises that screw on threaded tenons protruding from the tops of the stands’ pedestals. The Shaker cabinetmaker was probably thinking of the mechanical strength of the joint and not taking the stand apart for shipping – but it is a design worthy of consideration by Ikea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.
case of drawers union village noc1964.14616.1 (kroening)

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.

fig 4(1)

“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.