Untangling the history of the Calver family starting with a box of toothpicks

Box of Tooth-Pick Holders, J. V. Calver & Co., Washington, D. C., ca. 1895

Box of Tooth-Pick Holders, J. V. Calver & Co., Washington, D. C., ca. 1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1993.2.21.1a,b (box); 1993.2.21.2-10 (tooth-pick holders. Staff photograph.

In 1992 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received over 400 Shaker items collected by Charles and Helen Upton of Brunswick, New York. Among the items was a small cardboard box containing nine nickel-plated metal tubes. Each tube can be pulled apart exposing a quill, probably from a goose, mounted to the short end of the opened tube. The quills are sharpened much like a quill pen but, instead of being intended for writing, they were to remove food from between the teeth. The devices were offered for sale at ten-cents each.

Also included with the Upton gift was a collection of 34 letters exchanged between James Valentine Calver, Jr., a Washington, D. C. dentist, and Brother Benjamin Gates, trustee and chief businessman of the Mount Lebanon Church Family. The letters, beginning in 1888, document a business relationship that developed between Dr. Calver and the Mount Lebanon Shakers. In these letters, Dr. Calver proposes to have the Shakers manufacture and package a product  he invented to relieve the pain of toothaches. He was also interested in having the product marketed under the Shakers’ name in the same way several doctors had contracted to have the Shaker name attached to their proprietary medicines. The story of Dr. Calver’s Shakers’ Toothache Pellets has been well-researched and published by M. Stephen Miller in the December, 1991, issues of The Shaker Messenger. 

In his article Miller recounts the story of the Calver family – how through contact with Elder Frederick Evans while Evans was in Philadelphia of other business, James, Sr., his wife, Susan, and their nine children – five girls and four boys – all of whom had a year or so earlier arrived in the United States from England, came to Mount Lebanon at the end of May, 1850, and took up residence in a cottage at the North Family. Shaker life was not a fit for most of the Calvers and only two daughters, Sister Amelia Calver and Sister Ellen Calver, remained Shakers for life. The Calver parents and three of the girls all left the Shakers within a few years of their arrival and the four boys, Thomas, Henry, William, and James, left the Shakers at different times.  All four of the Calver boys eventually settled in Washington, D. C. and had somewhat remarkable lives. Miller shared some of the details about the Calver boys in his article and suggests that this is, indeed, an evolving story. The box of tooth-pick holders in the Museum’s collection offers an opportunity to make a small contribution to the story of the Calver boys.

Thomas Calver (1841-1920) left the Shakers in 1855. At age twenty in 1861 it seems likely he would have joined the Union Army. In fact, he was a charter member of the James A. Garfield, Post Number 7, of the Grand Army of the Republic and was often elected as the Post’s medical director. Although he was apparently trained as a physician, in the 1890s he was working in Washington, D. C. as secretary to Senator P. W. Hitchcock of Nebraska and for the last 20 years of his life was an Auditor of the Treasury Department. He married twice, had seven children, was well known locally as a poet, and is buried in St. Paul’s Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

Invitation to Attend the Graduation of Henry Calver at the Columbian University, Law Department, Washington, D. C.

Invitation to Attend the Graduation of Henry Calver at the Columbian University, Law Department, Washington, D. C., Class of 1881, 1881, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1989.2.1.433a.                                                                           This invitation was sent to Sister Amelia Calver. It is not known if she attended the ceremony.

Henry Calver (1845-1943) left his Shaker home in 1866 and went to reside with his brother Thomas in Washington, D. C. In 1870 he enlisted in the Signal Corps and was stationed at Fort Myers, Virginia, as a weather observer. He became part of the effort by the Weather Bureau to coordinate weather reporting around the country by means of telegraphy. Henry stayed in this work until 1877 when he applied for and received an appointment in the United States Patent Office. There he took up the study of law, graduated from the Law Department of the Columbian University, and by 1883 was established as a patent attorney. Henry eventually moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he died. He is buried in the Hope Cemetery in Worcester.

William Calver (1845-1943) went to the world in March, 1872 and like others in his family eventually moved to Washington, D. C. There he became well known as an inventor. Many of his inventions and patents had to do with solar energy. According to an obituary published in The Washington Times, November 9, 1908, his interest in using the sun for energy “was impressed upon [him] while interested in mining in Arizona. Here the scarcity of fuel and the continuous torrid rays of the sun made such an invention practicable.”  William founded the Calver Universal Power Company and was known to have “built in the barren wastes of Arizona huge frames of mirrors, traveling on circular rails, so that they may be brought to face the sun at all hours between sunrise and sunset.” This array of 1600 mirrors could focus the rays of the sun that would normally fall on an acre of land onto an area of a few inches – producing enough heat to melt iron, according to Archibald Williams in The Romance of Modern Invention (1904).  William Calver is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D. C.

James Valentine Calver, Jr.  (1839-1901) was a most promising young Shaker brother. He worked as a gardener, was trained as a cabinetmaker, was a teacher in the boys’ school, a family deacon, and the second elder of the Church Family. However, James made the decision to leave the Shakers in October, 1871. He moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts and worked there in the seed business. The next year his brother William joined him and eventually both of them moved to join their other brothers in Washington, D. C. James initially worked, as did his brother Henry, as a clerk in the Signal Office. In the last years of the 1870s he apprenticed with a dentist and in 1880 he began attending The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery from which he graduated the next year. In 1888 he married Nanette Rogers Draper, a woman ten years his junior. It was during these next years that James developed and marketed his Shaker Toothache Pellets and most likely the tooth-pick holders as well, although he made no known attempt to associate this product with the Shakers. James was apparently suffering from some kind of “mental malady,” and in the late 1890s he and Nanette began spending winters in Orlando, Florida to try and regain his health.  Unfortunately, probably as a result of his “malady,” James Calver committed suicide. The Washington Post of April 3, 1901 reported his death:

“Dr. J.V. Calver, a winter resident, committed suicide here last night. For some time he has been in a nervous condition, and it was evident to his immediate friends that he was suffering from some mental malady. He left the house, and as he did not immediately return, his wife instituted a search, which resulted in finding his body in the loft of the barn on the rear of the premises. A pistol at his side and a wound in the head told the story. Dr. Calver and his wife came here from Washington two or three years ago, and he engaged in pineapple culture. He was the manufacturer of a proprietary remedy well known to pharmacies throughout the country and from which he derived an income. He also owned property in the city of Washington. The body was shipped to Washington today for interment. …. Until two years ago, Dr. Calver was a well-known dentist in this city, and for several years was the dentist in St. Elizabeth’s Asylum. He went to Florida in the hope of regaining his failing health, and expected to return to Washington to practice.”

James Irving, photographer, “Group of Shakers, [Interior of Mount Lebanon School], ca. 1871

James Irving, photographer, “Group of Shakers, [Interior of Mount Lebanon School], ca. 1871. Retrieved from: http://contentdm6.hamilton.edu/cdm/search/collection/sha-ste/searchterm/school/field/all/mode/exact/conn/and/order/title/ad/asc&hnode=135 on March 27, 2018. The male at the left of the image has been identified as Brother James V. Calver. Sister Amelia Calver is seated next to him with Sister Emma J. Neale next to her. Brother Calvin G. Reed, Superintendent of the Shaker school is seated at the desk.

Although at this time not much is known about Nanette Calver’s life after James died, she apparently at some point moved to Los Angles, California, where she died in January, 1941. Steve Miller mentions in his article about Toothache Pellets that there are some vials of the medicine that were labeled, “J. V. Calver & Co., Los Angeles, Calif.” Nanette’s move to Los Angles may explain why this product was being sold with that label.

Possibly with the help of the Calver brothers, she appears to have continued manufacturing and selling Shakers’ Toothache Pellets and possibly the tooth-pick holders. These products may have supplied her with an income, although Nanette may have had a career of her own–she attended Howard University Medical College from 1879 until 1882, according to the Howard University Medical Department’s Biographical and Statistical Souvenir published in 1900. James is buried in the Rock Creek Cemetery. Nanette died in Los Angles and was returned to rest next to her husband.

Steve Miller suggested in 1991 that the Calver story could certainly be filled out as new research is undertaken and that observation is still valid in 2018. Two interesting points for exploration come to mind. First, James Valentine Calver apparently committed suicide as a result of a psychological or nervous disorder. In 1869 James’s sister Ellen, living at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon, appears to have committed suicide by drowning herself in the family mill pond and, while her reason for going to the pond was not clear, there was suspicion that she had become deranged. Was there a genetic predisposition in the Calver family toward mental illness? Second, when James and Nanette went to spend their summers in Orlando, Florida – and “engage in pineapple culture”– it is possible that James was drawn to that location and that work by his knowledge that some of the Mount Lebanon and Watervliet Shakers had, a few years earlier, established a community just south of Orlando in Narcoossee. A quick glance at a journal titled, “Live Oak Lake Florida” in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, does include a mention of two visits by James Calver, one in August, 1898, with Brother Benjamin Gates with whom he arranged the Tooth-ache Pellet business, and one in September, 1899.  The saga continues.






“…he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers….”

In a participatory class about making soap the leader started her presentation explaining the steps that would be involved in the day’s activities. Following her welcome, she started, “First, we’ll need to slaughter, butcher, and render the fat from an old hog.” Before the students could flee the room, she announced that we would be skipping that step in light of time constraints. Her point, however, was not lost on the class. Many of the classes involving early crafts and trades have been cleansed of the unpleasant preparations our forefathers and mothers undertook without question. Such is the case with most trades associated with wood. Most woodworking projects now begin with boards of a standard thickness, width, and length and we ignore the process that historically would have been used to get them to that state — felling and limbing a tree, hauling the tree trunk, cutting it to length, splitting or sawing it into boards, drying the boards, regulating them to a particular thickness, making their faces and edges parallel, and smoothing their surfaces. All of this, done by hand, is brutal work. Until the advent of practical machines, the preparation of usable boards from rough-sawn lumber could take as much time as making the boards into something.

The Shakers were interested in reducing the amount of unnecessary labor needed to build up the physical part of their “heaven on earth,” and the thickness planer made smoothing boards easier.

fig 1 1952.6054.1_ 1

Thickness Planer (right side), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

There had been a number of attempts to ease the chore of planing. Most of the early attempts were designed to move a traditional hand plane, driven by a reciprocating shaft, back and forth over a piece of wood . The great improvement came with the use of a rotary motion to plane boards. The history of these planing machines in America features two dominate men, each with a specific approach to flattening, regulating the thickness of, and smoothing boards. William Woodworth from Hudson, New York patented a successful planing machine in 1828. His machine had two long sharp blades mounted in a rotating horizontal bar set at an adjustable height above a flat table. Mounted in the table were slowly rotating cylinders that pushed and pulled the board under the rotating planer blades. This design was the precursor of the modern planing machine. The biggest draw-back of the Woodworth machine was that, while it smoothed and regulated the thickness of a board, it did not always make it truly flat. If the board was twisted and warped before planing, it would probably still be twisted and warped after planing.

The second player in this story was Thomas E. Daniels of Worcester, Massachusetts. His was the first successful machine patented in America to truly flatten a board. His planer, patented in 1834, had a movable carriage to which a rough-sawn board could be secured so it could not move or flex. The carriage advanced under a rotating vertical shaft to which was fastened a bar parallel to the carriage. This bar had a cutting blade mounted at each end. When rotating – the power was often supplied by a waterwheel – the cutters sliced across the board removing any unevenness and leaving a truly flat surface. To make a board that was of a consistent desired thickness, the height of the cutters above the board would be set at that height; the board would be turned over, secured to the carriage, and again passed under the cutters.

Each machine had its advantages – the Daniels planer produced a board that was not twisted or warped and the Woodworth produced a smoother surface. Often a workshop would have one of each of the machines – flattening their boards on the Daniels planer and finishing them on the Woodworth machine.

Woodworth held a patent on his machine, but it was frequently contested and he was in constant litigation. He sold the rights to most of the individually patented improvements to the machine to a syndicate of three investors who manufactured them. They sold the planers, and also charged the owners on a per-linear-foot-planed basis for using them. Woodworth died in 1839 but passed on his part of the patent to his children. As the Woodworth children and the syndicate had a monopoly on this type of machine, it was a very lucrative business and as such they protected their patent until 1856, when it could no longer be extended. Litigation concerning the patent occasionally involved the Shakers. In 1851, Mount Lebanon brothers Jonathan Wood and Henry Bennet were called to court in Albany “concerning the lawsuit, pending between Gibson & Allen about the Planing Machine …There is much contention in the law about Woodworth’s patent – Gibson [one of the men who bought the patent] has lately had the right renewed 6 years – He holds the right & forbids others (us with the rest) using it without paying for it. We consider it unjust & so do others: & some, rather than submit to pay, stand against in the law.” [Quoted in Planers, Matchers and Molders in Americaby Chandler W. Jones, 1985.] The Shakers were called to testify because they were known to use machines similar to Woodworth’s at the time he “invented” the planer. In fact, in 1833 when William Woodworth’s lawyers returned from court to tell him that the judge demanded that he write up new specifications for his patent that would claim rights to only those parts of the machine he had invented, “he smiled and said the whole of them were fools, for they occupied the time of the court for three days on what he could have told them in five minutes; that he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers in the western part of the State of New York.” Joseph Turner who had been a machinist who helped build Woodworth’s first planers reported this comment adding that he “was astonished to hear him say that, after selling the patent.” [“A Domestic Journal of Daily Occurrences Kept by…Isaac N. Youngs, [1847-1855], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,  Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-70.] The Woodworth patent cases had a long-term effect on patent law and were, in part, responsible for adjustments in 1861 to change the life of patents from 14 to 17 years – 17 years without extensions.

fig 3 1952.6054.1_ 4

Thickness Planer (detail of cutting head and feed rollers), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The planing machine in the Museum’s collection is clearly a Woodworth-style planer. It has not yet been determined if the planer was made by the Shakers or if they purchased it. All of the metal parts on the planer were cast. If the Shakers had gone to the expense of making several dozen casting patterns, having them cast, and machining them to fit together properly, they would have made several of these machine. No other examples survive. There is no manufacturer’s name on the planer, however if it was commercially made the name may have been left off to guard against the maker being sued by the syndicate. The blades on the planer are marked “A. Wheeler, Brattleboro, Vt.” Wheeler is a known manufacturer of edge tools – axes, adzes, drawknives, and, apparently, planer blades.  At the same time Wheeler was in business there was a manufacturer of planing machines in Brattleboro, Calvin J. Weld, from whom the Shakers purchased a planer in the 1850s for their Tyringham, Massachusetts community. It is possible that this machine was obtained from the same source. Whatever its source, the Museum’s planer is a remarkable machine still in operating condition – sharp blades and all.




The fleshing beam: Not for weak stomachs

Agricultural pursuits were by far the most important economic engines supporting Shaker families and communities. Shaker farms produced food for the Shakers as well as excess products that were sold. In addition to farming, most Shaker families ran businesses that were designed to provide cash income for the families – cash to purchase the things that the Shakers did not or could not produce for themselves. Many of the products of these businesses – baskets, oval boxes, chairs, coopered-ware, cloaks, yarn swifts, palm-leaf bonnets, etc. – have become popular with antique collectors and essential elements in museum collections. While amazing numbers of these products survive today, there were important industries – sometimes gritty industries – that provided substantial income for some Shaker families but left little physical evidence of their importance. One of the grittiest of these industries was the tanning of hides. The Shakers in several communities operated large and profitable tanneries. The Church Family at Mount Lebanon may have had one of the most important and most successful of all of these operations. The Tan House still stands within earshot of the Meetinghouse but has been repurposed as a meeting hall and performance space for the Darrow School, the current occupants of the property.  The 32 tanning vats in the cellar have been filled in and cemented over and little other evidence of the building’s original purpose is evident. 

Fleshing Beam

Fleshing Beam, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.13021.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

In 1961 the Darrow School held an auction of Shaker materials to raise funds for the planned conversation of the 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library the following year. The object discussed here, a fleshing beam from the Tan House at the Church Family, was purchased by the Shaker Museum at that auction. 

The Beam House.

The Beam House. Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 2. Nürnberg 1550–1791. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317b.2°, from http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/75-Amb-2-317b-77-r/data, accessed October 10, 2017

In brief the tanning process alters the structure of an animal skin to slow its decomposition and make it more durable – sometimes adding color at the same time. The process always begins with an animal – animal skins (hides) were generally obtained from a slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse hides were quickly removed from the slaughtered animal and cured in salt or in the winter frozen to keep them from decomposing. Once they arrived at the tannery they were first taken to the beam house. Here the hides were soaked in lime water to soften hair and any remaining tissue. Following a soaking, the wet hides were placed on the fleshing beam where they were scraped with special knives on both sides to remove all hair and tissue. Once cleaned, the process of tanning – converting the skin to leather – could begin.  There are about as many ways to tan a hide as there are different kinds of animal skins.  There are both chemical and vegetable methods of tanning. The Shakers generally used tannins, organic compounds from which the trade of tanning takes its name, obtained from tree barks. The explanation of this chemical process is better left to chemists. 

The fleshing beam, however, is a relatively simple tool that has changed little since its inception. It is a plank held up with two legs. Tanners prefer that their beams be held at about a forty-five degree angle and that they be sturdy. This beam is made of curly maple with a black locust inlay – the locust being very moisture resistant. It is supported on chestnut legs and has layers of cloth, paper, and straw to pad the upper end. The person using the beam stood at its high end, draped the wet hide over the beam, held it in place by pressing against the padded end of the beam, and scraped the skin with a knife in a downward motion. 

Edward Deming Andrews wrote in The Community Industries of the Shakers (1932) that, “One of the most prosperous industries at the community of New Lebanon was the tanning of leather and such affiliated occupations as saddle, harness and shoe-making.” A small tan yard and tan house were set up there around 1787. The business was greatly improved when the current Tan House was built in 1834 and outfitted with efficient water-powered equipment. The related trades of saddle-making, harness-making, shoe making, braided horse and ox whips, and pads for a thriving business in hand cards for carding wool, provided these items for the family for sale at market.

While the Museum holds a number of tools related to the trades that made things from  leather, there are relatively few tools in the collection that bear directly on the tanning industry. The fleshing beam is an unlikely survivor. 




No such thing as too many irons on the fire: Shaker stoves

fig 1

Ironing Stove, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.749.1.

Shakers generally designed their own stoves. Once a design was completed, a cabinetmaker made a wooden pattern. The pattern was taken to a foundry where one or more stoves were cast in iron. When the castings were retrieved Shaker blacksmiths and mechanics would do the finishing work – making door latches and hinges and sealing the pieces to make the stove airtight.

fig 2

Photograph, Ironing Stove with Doors Open, Ironing Room, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, William F. Winter, Photographer, ca. 1930. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1962.14115.1.

This stove was designed by the Shakers specifically for heating irons in their laundry. Sad irons, smoothing irons, flat irons, polishing irons, sleeve irons, collar irons, and tailors’ gooses  – whatever they are called and however they are used – all have two things in common: they are heavy and must be re-heated often. The ironing stove has ledges cast into its sides that hold the back end of an iron so the flat part of the iron rests against the side of the hot stove. Two raised rails along the sides of the top are intended to hold larger irons – tailor’s gooses or sleeve irons – slightly above the top of the stove.  The stove is long enough to hold two dozen irons. Irons needed to be exchanged frequently to keep them hot enough to be useful. Unlike blacksmithing, you probably cannot have “too many irons in the fire.” Exchanging hot for cool irons was often the work of young Shaker girls, who quickly learned how to use a pad to hold the hot handle and how to put the hot iron down on a trivet to keep from scorching the cloth on which ironing was being done.

This ironing stove in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection was acquired by founder John S. Williams, Sr., from the South Family Shakers prior to 1946, when the property was purchased by Jerome and Sybil Count as the home for their Shaker Village Work Camp. This stove is un-cased, meaning there was no way of shielding the ironing crew from the heat of the stove in the summer. In Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message, Shaker authors White and Taylor tell of Brother George Wickersham’s invention of a summer covering – a casing – for Mount Lebanon’s Church Family’s ironing stove. The casing captured the heat radiating from the stove and vented it out of the room through a pipe that surrounded the regular stove pipe, keeping the ironing room cooler.


fig 5

Photograph (detail) , Ironing Stove, “Magnetic Lotus,” Wash House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, William F. Winter, Photographer, ca. 1930. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1962.14094.1.

Fortunately, the ironing room in the 1879 wash house renovation at the North Family at Mount Lebanon had very high ceilings to help keep the room cooler since the Shakers did not select a cased stove for the room. They purchased an ironing stove called the “Magnetic Lotus” that was not cased but did have a water tank above the fire chamber. The water chamber kept irons placed at a temperature that was more consistent than for irons placed directly against the firebox. In fitting out their new wash house ironing room the Shaker purchased laundry equipment from the Troy Washing Machine Company, in nearby, Troy, NY. That company did offer a cased stove in their 1892 catalogue but there is no evidence the Shakers purchased one.

The South Family ironing stove is on view with other artifacts of Shaker laundry at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon through October 10,2016 in the summer exhibition Wash: There is no dirt in heaven.