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.

fig 2

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. 

fig 3

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. 




A Shaker “Ne plus ultra”

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 1870s, the Shakers at Hancock manufactured expandable/collapsible yarn swifts for sale.  Among other occasional uses, swifts processed skeins of yarn into balls for knitting or crocheting.  A knitter faced with this task could ask someone to spread his or her arms and hold the looped skein as it was slowly wound off into a ball, or lacking a willing assistant, could place the skein over the slats of a swift, expand its slats (much like opening an umbrella), and, with the skein held securely, wind a ball of yarn without help.

It appears that, like oval box making in other Shaker communities, at Hancock swift-making fell to the community elders as it was work that could easily be put aside when their administrative duties took precedent. Elders Grove Wright (1789-1861) and Thomas Damon (1819-1880) are the two names associated with Hancock’s swift business and both are known to have been accomplished woodworkers. The number of swifts made by one or both of these two brothers averaged over 900 pairs per year between 1854 and 1860.


Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

All of the pieces necessary for assembling a swift were turned on a lathe with the exception of the slats that held the yarn. Each swift required one or two of each of the turned pieces, but required twenty-four slats for the swift to be completed. Producing nine hundred swifts required over 21,000 slats. That arduous task apparently set Elder Thomas on the road to making a machine that would lighten this burden. His solution was to design and build a machine that took a rough-sawn piece of wood, smoothed its flat sides, made it the required thickness and width, and slightly rounded its edges – all with a single pass through the machine. His planning and construction of this machine paid off, for on October 10, 1854, he recorded in his diary that he, “Started a new machine for planing & edging Swift slats, it worked charmingly and bid fair to be the ‘Ne plus ultra’ in that line.” The remaining work of preparing the slats was relatively easy. Once the ends were rounded and it had holes drilled in it, it was ready for assembly. While we do not have production statistics for swifts made in years prior to 1854, when this machine was put in service, it is likely that the number greatly increased.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

In the woodworking industry, machines similar to Elder Thomas’s machine are called four-sided molding machines and are commonly used to make decorative moldings for houses and furniture. The Shakers’ four-sided molding machine was purchased by the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon from the Hancock Shakers’ workshops in 1958.


Did Shakers Vote?

As the election season is upon us we thought we would share an object from our collection and some thoughts on the Shakers and their relationship to the federal government.

noc1987.1.1-2 (fredericks)

Lapel Pin, “I Like Ike,” Hancock, MA, 1956. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1987.1.1. Michael Frederick, photographer.

This pin was probably produced for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 presidential campaign. It was owned by Shaker Eldress Frances Hall (1876-1957). Eldress Frances, from age eight until her death, lived at Hancock, Massachusetts. She served there as a Trustee and assistant to Ministry Elder Joseph Holden. She eventually rose to being first in the Shaker Ministry in 1946 and it was she who made the final decision to close the Mount Lebanon community in 1947 and move the Shaker Ministry to Pittsfield in 1950.

The pin was a gift from Eldress Frances to young James Upton, son of Russell Sage College professors and Shaker collectors Charles and Helen Upton. The Uptons became friends with the Eldress in the early 1950s and she was fond of Jim. In 1957 she gave this pin to Jim during his first year of collecting political memorabilia. Jim made a gift of the pin to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in 1987.

Whether Eldress Frances ever wore the pin or if she supported Eisenhower and voted for him is unknown; that she had the pin suggests some interest in his election.

In general Shakers didn’t vote. Voting encourages people to take sides – as the Shakers would say, “get into a party spirit” – and taking sides creates disunion. Dwelling on issues that are raised in political discussions gets Shakers too involved in the concerns of the outside world. The Shakers were not at all anti-government or anti-democracy. In fact, Elder James S. Prescott of the North Union, Ohio, Shakers wrote, “The ‘ballot’ is one of the best institutions the world [meaning those who are not Shakers] have to preserve order on the earth plane, where the laws of voting, and the ballot box is kept sacred, and not perverted to a wrong use. The world have a right to the ‘ballot,’ it is their privilege to vote,” in an article in the February 1885 issue of The Manifesto. He continued to explain, however, “There is no law requiring every citizen of the United States to vote, because he is a citizen, and it is right it should be so, otherwise our country would not be a free country.” Shakers chose not to vote. Prescott gets to the heart of the matter by telling a story of an Elder at Union Village, Ohio: “’Brethren! Are there any parties among you?’” asked the Elder, ‘If so, I will tell you just which side I will join. Neither! Christ is not divided. His people are called to be one people, of one heart, and of one mind.’”

Frederick W. Evans, Elder of the Mount Lebanon North Family made the same point in an article titled, “Why Do Not Shaker Vote?” published in The Shaker Manifesto (October, 1880), answering the question with, “For the same reason that they do not marry, nor fight, nor hold individual private property. They are a church, not connected with any civil government; do not believe in church and state union, not even with the American republic.” In the same article Evans stresses that the American system will not be a perfect system “until their Shaker sisters are equally citizens with themselves [the brethren] – until woman is not only a law-abiding but a law-making factor.” So, the article might be re-titled, at least, until women’s suffrage in 1917 – “Why Do Not Shaker Men Vote?”

The Shakers did occasionally find reason to vote in local elections and on referendums where they were of one mind and the issue directly involved them. After all, they paid taxes and made use of the civil authorities that those taxes paid for when it was necessary. Following the Civil War some of the communities relaxed their restrictions on voting and members were allowed to cast their ballots.




The knit rugs of Elvira Hulett

rug 1

Rug, Church Family, Hancock, MA, c. 1890. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.8574.1. Matthew Kroening, photographer.

A small group of rugs, similar in their style of manufacture and aesthetic features, are associated with Elvira Hulett, a Shaker Sister who lived her life at Hancock, Massachusetts.

Elvira Curtis Hulett was born on August 6, 1805 – thirty one years to the day from when the Shakers first set foot in New York City. She was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, an abutting town to Northampton. She was apparently the second born in a family of three boys and two girls. Her parents were Anthony Hulett and Charlotte Curtis Hulett. Something happened in the Hulett family following the birth of their fifth child – Theodore Graves Hulett on June 13, 1811 – for in 1812 all the family but Elvira’s father came to live with the Shakers at Hancock.

Sister Elvira lived a long and useful life among the Hancock Shakers. She resided with Hancock’s West Family for nearly a half century, moving into the Church Family where she worked as a weaver, baker, tailoress, and eventually the Eldress of the family. Her mother, Charlotte, died in the faith as did her brother Chester, who served as a trustee at the West Family. The other three children, Charlotta (called Hortency in her Shaker life), Walter, and Theodore all apparently left in their youth.

Of the five rugs that are associated with Sister Elvira, only one is signed by the maker – that one, now in a private collection, bears a cross-stitched label that reads, “Made in 1892 by Sister Elvira in her 88th year.” The only Elvira this could be among the Shakers was Elvira Hulett. One of the five known rugs was sold at the Ralph O. Esmerian sale at Sotheby’s in late January, 2014. The remaining three rugs are in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. They were all acquired at Hancock from Sister Mary Frances Dahm in 1957. They are all round, ranging in diameter from 44 1/4 inches to 56 3/4 inches. They are all knit with a spiraling center several rotations wide surrounded by concentric circles of knit strips. The rugs are bound in a traditional three-strand braid to protect the outer edge of the knitting. All three are backed with heavy denim that helps them to lay flat.

rug 4

Rug, Hooked, Knit and Braided, Hancock, MA, c. 1890. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.8576.1

A fourth rug in the Museum’s collection, pictured above, needs to be further studied as possibly associated with Sister Elvira. This rug, a traditional hooked rug (the hooking probably not the work of Sister Elvira) has a knit border applied to it with a typical braided boarder protecting its outer edge. It, like the three round knitted rugs, was acquired from Sister Mary Dahm at Hancock in 1957. The style of the knitting, the braided border, and the patterns used are so much like the other work of Sister Elvira that it seems that this rug should be added to this Sister’s portfolio. All of the rugs associated with Sister Elvira appear to have been made in the late 1880s and early 1890s, a period when the Shakers had relaxed the prohibition of unnecessary ornament in their household furnishings.

In the late summer of 1882, Elvira traveled from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ira Race, who were not Shakers (although it may have been her sister Hortency and her husband), to Niagara County, New York, to visit Elvira’s natural brother, Theodore Hulett. It was Sister Elvira’s first trip outside Massachusetts. She visited Niagara Falls.

Her brother Theodore was an interesting character. His biographies in various histories of Niagara County tell that at twelve years of age he left home and apprenticed himself to a carriage maker in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His days as a Shaker youth are not mentioned. As an apprentice he is said to have studied law in his free time and by 1834 made his way to Niagara Falls. There he began several careers – one as a construction manager and the other in the legal field. He was superintendent of construction for the first suspension bridge to cross the Niagara River connecting the United States and Canada. To get the first cable across the river Hulett suggested that a contest be held to see who could fly a kite across to the other side. Once the winning string was tied to a tree, heavier and heavier strings, ropes, and cables could be pulled across the gorge eventually leading to the establishment of a cable capable of holding an iron basket that he and the bridge’s engineer, Charles Elett, Jr. of Philadelphia, had devised to transport workers from one side to the other. He was so confident in the safety of the basket that he sent his own daughter Elvira (clearly named for his older sister) across on its maiden voyage – “never imagining for a moment the possibility that it could tumble down into the gorge taking little Elvira to a most violent death.” Fortunately, she arrived safely on the other side becoming the first woman to be carried across the Niagara gorge in a basket. Elvira Hulett Gates lived in Warsaw, New York, dying there at age 85 in 1927.

These two members of the Hulett family from apparently difficult and challenging beginnings, both had success in finding their way to positions of leadership in their different communities and in expressing their creative prowess in ways that we can still appreciate and even marvel at today.