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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The rooms are all numbered, but not with any Showy sign or label”

The Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

The Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871, Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon, Accession Number: 1960.12583.1. James Irving, Photographer

No single Shaker building provided a physical environment that harmonized more perfectly with the Shakers’ vision of what it meant to live outside the common course of the world than the “Great House” – the Church Family Dwelling – at Mount Lebanon. The architecture, furnishings, personal accessories, and conveniences of daily life were the pinnacle of Shaker design as it reflected the Shakers’ spiritual life. “It is advisable for the center families in each bishopric, to avoid hiring the world to make household furniture…” states Part four, paragraph twenty-eight of the “Millennial Laws,” as revised in 1845, and it can be assumed that as the living quarters of the most central of all families in the most central of all bishoprics, the Great House was carefully furnished with little hint of worldly style and fashion. We will never know for certain, however, because on February 6, 1875, Charles Harris, a disgruntled employee at the family’s medicine shops, burned it all down. Harris set a fire that burned eight buildings at the Church Family and nearly destroyed several others, including the 1824 Meetinghouse. Later in the month he burned down the Herb House as well. As a result, even though the Shakers made every effort to save their belongings, we know of very few objects that can absolutely be associated with the Great House. Harris eventually was convicted of the crime, jailed, and died in prison at his own hands,

Selection of Paper Labels for Marking Objects in the Great House

Selection of Paper Labels for Marking Objects in the Great House, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1833, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.376.1

One object in the collection of Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon related to the Great House is a box of paper labels with numerals and letters printed on them. The box and its contents were made in 1833 by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs (1793-1865). Brother Isaac, a resident of the Great House for all of his adult life, was a fastidious brother with a passion for order. He described how the paper labels were used in a December, 1833, letter to Elder Benjamin Seth Youngs, at South Union, Kentucky: “the rooms are all numbered, but not with any Showy sign or label—then we have large figures printed on paper about an inch in depth for which I made some types on purpose which we paste onto the furniture, chairs, brooms—store things, &c. &c. that belong to the several apartments which helps much to keep things in their place.” A few objects have surfaced over the years with Brother Isaac’s numbers pasted on them, including two books in the Museum’s collection, but most of the items must have burned. The books most likely survived by having been taken elsewhere before the fire. One, a Holy Bible printed by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1802 is marked on the cover with the numeral “9,” and a copy of Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee (1827) in a blue paper binding is marked with a numeral “7” label.  It is interesting to note that room “7” was Brother Isaac’s room until he was moved to another room in 1840. The box itself was likely kept in Brother Isaac’s workshop rather than in his retiring room, and thus survived the fire.

vHoly Bible and Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee

Holy Bible (Worcester, 1802) and Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee (Albany, 1827), Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.3319.1 (Testimonies) and 1950.3312.1 (Holy Bible). John Mulligan, Photographer

The box itself is neatly made. About the size of a Shaker seed box, it is hand dovetailed with a lid with cleats to keep it from warping. It is divided into thirty-six compartments. On the inside of the lid, Brother Isaac inscribed, “December 10, 1833,” and is signed with his distinctive pencil flourish that includes this initial, “i. n. y.”

Compartmented Box with Numbered Labels

Compartmented Box with Numbered Labels, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1833, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.376.1. John Mulligan, Photographer

In a eulogy to Brother Isaac written by Brother Elisha Blakeman in 1866, he describes this very useful Shaker brother: “His mechanical genius was remarkable. In him was combined, The Carpenter, Cabinetmaker, Clock and Watch-maker; which obligation he filled to the last. He many years did the Tayloring, and when needed, could turn Machinist, Mason, or anything that could promote the general good. Very many of our little conveniences which added so much of our domestic happiness owe their origin to B[rother] Isaac…”(1)

 

 

A box in search of its rastrum

Edward Langford came to live at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon at age 11, but eloped in 1892 with Inez Platt, a 20-year old sister who lived at the Second Family.

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Case for Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1829, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11613.1

Almost 70 years later, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received from relatives of the Langfords a small box, which at the time of the gift held a single ivory toothpick. The bottom of the box is made of a single piece of wood, hollowed out to create the cavity that held the toothpick. The cavity is only one-quarter inch wide at one end but widens abruptly, one and one-half inches from the other end to just over one-half inch. It took a number of years and the appearance of other such boxes to understand that it was not made to hold a toothpick but rather was the case for a Shaker rastrum. Rastrums are pens with multiple points used to scribe lined staffs for music manuscripts. The Shakers wrote down thousands of their unique songs, hymns, and anthems using a music system in which the letters “a” through “g,” instead of the now-common round notes, were written on a standard four or five line staff. This box once held one of these pens. The bottom of the cavity is lined with a brilliant yellow paper and at the wide end of the paper it is possible to see five small evenly-spaced dots where the five tips of the pen came to rest when place in its case.

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Music Staff Pen and Case, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1820s, Private Collection.

Several of these pens have letterpress printed instructions pasted either on the outside of the case or inside the cavity, as shown here in an example from a private collection. “This pen may be used either side up: – but if it will not make good lines without bearing on too hard, it needs some repair.” This instruction is followed by the initials “I. N. Y.” Brother Isaac Newton Youngs (1793-1865) lived at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon from 1807 until his death. Brother Isaac is described by a Shaker brother and friend in a eulogy, “His mechanical genius was remarkable. In him was combined, The Carpenter, Cabinetmaker, Clock and Watch-maker; which obligation he filled to the last. He many years did the Tailoring, and when needed, could turn Machinest, Mason, or anything that could promote the general good. Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to Brother Isaac…” Much of Brother Isaac’s success in making those conveniences (and much of what, at times, made him challenging for others) was his commitment to perfection and precision.

Brother Isaac was also, for many years, the family scribe – keeping the daily family journal, spiritual records, and correspondence. He had a passionate interest in music and made special efforts to standardize Shaker singing. Shakers did not use musical instruments to keep them on pitch during Brother Isaac’s lifetime. To keep the Shakers “in union” so they would all sing the same music in the same way, he likely developed two instruments – one, a toneometer, used to set the pitch, and a modeometer, used to set the speed. In 1843 he printed a small book of music instruction to help others understand these concepts and to teach the Shaker system of letter-notation.

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Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1835, Private Collection. Purchased at Willis Henry Auction 2013, Lot 77.

The five-pointed music pen – a tool he would have found most useful in recording hundreds, if not thousands, of Shaker songs – seems a natural outgrowth of his precise mechanical nature, his obligation to record keeping, and his interest in music. Brother Isaac was also skilled in making the pens from coin silver sold by Shakers at Mount Lebanon and Watervliet. Another example from a private collection is shown above.

While the pen itself remains missing, its case provides more about its history. On the outside of the case is written, “Sarah Bates Nov. 29th 1829.” Sister Sarah Bates was also a resident at the Church Family. She and Brother Isaac were nearly the same age. She was born November 29, 1792; Isaac was born July 4, 1793. Both first lived at the Shakers’ Watervliet community, Isaac beginning his life at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon in 1807 and Sister Sarah coming there in 1811. Sister Sarah Bates was a school teacher, likely a scribe for the family, and is known to have written several songs. It seem perfectly reasonable that Brother Isaac made a music pen and its case for Sister Sarah and the fact that it is dated on her thirty-seventh birthday suggests it was a very useful gift. It’s not known how Edward Langford or his descendants came into possession of the box.

More than a half-dozen of Brother Isaac’s music pens survive in private and public collections. There is always some hope that someday a Shaker rastrum, if not THE Shaker rostrum that once filled this case, might complete this story for Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.