The Shaker Improved Washing Machine

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Washing Machine, Church Family, Canterbury, New Hampshire, ca. 1877. Photograph by Lees’ Studio, Chatham, New York, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1955.7843.1. This is the washing machine acquired from and once used by the Canterbury Shakers at their laundry in 1955 as it was exhibited at the Shaker Museum around 1960.

A perfect confluence of need, will, skill, and capital made it possible for the Shakers to make innovative improvements in the machinery for doing their laundry. The challenge of keeping a communal family of 50 to 100 members in clean clothes and linens clearly created a need for mechanization, and the Shaker communal system of cooperative work made available the different trades necessary to build something as complicated as a wash-mill. The mechanics, woodworkers, blacksmiths, and machinists in the community could build complex machines and in precept and practice were trained to work together. The Shakers had built wash-mills of different types during the early part of the nineteenth century, but in 1858 they took what they had learned about doing wash with mechanical power to the marketplace by engineering, building, and patenting an improvement in washing machines. Although the Shakers received a patent for an “Improved Washing Machine” on January 26, 1858, they had been manufacturing and selling the machine prior to that and mentioned the success of the machine in the patent description.

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Letters Patent, granted to Nicholas A. Briggs and Elijah H. Knowles, Shaker Village, New Hampshire, 1877, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.5117.1

The washing machine appears to have been developed at Mount Lebanon in the early 1850s. Nicholas Bennett, a Shaker mechanic at Mount Lebanon, probably developed and began manufacturing the machine, but when he died at the end of 1857 the Shakers thought it best to assign the patent to Brother David Parker, a Trustee in the Church Family at Canterbury. It was the Canterbury Shakers who manufactured and marketed the washing machine.

In the introduction to their 1862 catalogue for the Shakers’ Washing Machine they summarized their experience in the laundry business: “The Societies of Shakers have had much and long experience in the attempt to wash clothes by power machines, and, after trying several different kinds, have never found any that give such general satisfaction as this machine.” In presenting their new improved machine they also took into account the problems that doing laundry by mechanical means have caused. They wrote, “We are fully aware of the great imposition which has been practiced by the introduction of washing machines, and of the injury to clothes, loss, disappointment, and waste of soap resulting there from, having been ourselves sufferers with others; hence the greater necessity of carefully examining into this all-important subject. Although subjected to some disadvantages in starting this machine, against the feelings and prejudices of washerwomen, who, as a general rule, are opposed to any labor-saving machinery, yet, so far as we know and believe, every machine now in operation gives great satisfaction, as the accompanying Testimonials will bear witness.”

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“The Shaker Washing Machine,” Scientific American 2 (March 10, 1860), Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

In 1860, the Scientific American devoted a front page article to the Shakers’ machine along with an illustration of it in use and a list of hotels using it with satisfaction.

By 1876 when the Canterbury Shakers exhibited the washing machine in Machinery Hall at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, they had sold over three hundred machines and had made further improvements in its operation. The wash tubs in the original machine were agitated by swinging from rods much like a porch swing but on the improved machine shown at the Exposition the tubs slid back and forth on metal tracks. In both machines the agitating power was supplied by a water-powered crank-shaft connected to the tubs by a reciprocating arm. The washing machine could be operated by water or steam power by way of a drive pulley and line-shaft powered by either source. Dirt was removed by the repeated compression of clothes against the washer’s wall and the churning movement provided by the agitators.

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Photograph, [Shaker Washing Machine as Displayed at the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, PA, 1876], Edward l. Wilson & W. Irving Adams, photographers, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.5119.1.

There are a number of documents and artifacts in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection associated with the Shakers’ manufacturing and marketing of the washing machine. In addition to a three-tub version of the 1877 machine and the original Letters Patent for 1858 and 1877 machines, there is a small manuscript book that contains drawings of the parts for the machine that had to be cast at an iron foundry, and many of the original printing blocks that were used to promote the machine in the press and catalogues.

Learn more about Shaker laundry at the summer exhibition Wash: There is no dirt in heaven on view at Mount Lebanon through October 10, 2016.

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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.