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.

 

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.

Shakers combat knock-offs with trademark

With the rising success of Mount Lebanon’s South Family chair business in the 1860s and early 1870,s the Shakers were confronted with a number of companies making “knock-offs” of their chairs and marketing them as “Shaker.” The Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory in Troy, New York, the L. & G. Stickley Company in Fayetteville, New York, and the Enterprise Chair Manufacturing Company, in Oxford, New York, all produced chairs that were either called “Shaker” or were so stylistically similar to chairs made by the Shakers that the Shakers felt it necessary to warn their customers about the deception. In their 1874 catalogue, the Shaker published the following:

“Beware of imitation chairs which are sold for our make, and which are called Shakers’ chairs. Read, and remember where you can send for the Shakers’ chairs and get the genuine. Send your orders to headquarters, as we have only one price and quality to all consumers, and by this hall all men know that they are getting the genuine article.”

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Catalogue, “Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of the Shakers’ Chairs, H. F. Reynolds, Lebanon Springs, N. Y., 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Richmond Number 242, 1995.1.1.

The following year, to further protect their product from imitators, the Shakers developed a trade-mark for their chairs. The trade-mark appears on the back cover of their 1875 catalogue with the notice: “The above Trade-Mark will be attached to every genuine Shaker Chair, and none others are of our make notwithstanding any claims to the contrary.” The next year when the Shakers exhibited their chairs at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the special catalogue produced for that event added that their trade-mark “is a gold transfer, and is designed to be ornamental.”  Even though the Shakers gave instruction on how to remove the trade-mark after it was purchased, most unrefinished chairs retain their trade-marks. The gold transfers, decalcomanias (decals for short), were produced by Palm, Fechteler & Company of New York and Chicago. This business began in 1856 as a company that decorated carriages, but around 1865, Charles Palm introduced decals to the United States. Decals originated in England in the mid-1750s as a way to add decoration to pottery – the pottery decorated in this way was commonly called transferware – but it was also a way to inexpensively add fancy decorations to carriages and most anything else. Almost any line art or lithographic print can be made in to a decal.

fig. 1

Die, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. 1957.8527.1.

It appears that the Shakers were experimenting with methods to trade-mark their chairs. While decals were a relatively new product in the U. S., there was a method for printing labels – hot stamping gold leaf on paper – that was well known to printers and bookbinders. The Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon holds in its collection a die that was made to hot stamp gold leaf and a label made with the die that identified  chairs as being Shaker made. While the manufacturer of the die is not known. It is noteworthy that the front and back covers of the Shakers’ 1875 chair catalogue, printed by B. F. Reynolds, a book and job printer, in Lebanon Springs, New York, appears to be stamped with gold leaf. The knowledge of how to make paper labels with gold lettering was only a short walk away from the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. A printer such as Reynolds certainly would have known where to obtain the proper die to print gold leaf labels. A second gold-leaf stamped label in the Museum’s collection is of a different size and style. To our knowledge the metal die used to make this label has not yet surfaced. The existence of the two different labels suggests that the Shaker were trying out different techniques to produce a practical trade-mark.

 

One final observation about the Shakers’ adventures in trade-marking: both the decals made by Palm, Fechteler & Company and the die present the Shakers’ name in the singular possessive – Shaker’s –  whereas, the Shakers seemed to prefer to use the  plural possessive – Shakers’ – when they put their name on a product. This deviation suggests that either the Shaker who contracted with the maker of the die and with Palm, Fechteler & Company made the apparent error, or the Palm, Fechteler & Company made this decision and could have been  the maker of the die as well as the decals.

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Sheet of Decalcomanias for Shaker’s Chairs, Palm, Fechteler & Co, New York and Chicago, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

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.

Cloak cutting counter

cloak counter from assouline book

Counter for Cutting Cloak Material, 1850s. Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY. Pine, maple pulls, brass tacks, red paint. 1950.382.1

This counter was last used by Sister Emma J. Neale in the Mount Lebanon workshop where she directed the manufacture of the famous Shaker cloaks. It is likely the same counter at which she was photographed (below) working in the cloak shop in the early 1900s.

cloak counter in use in cloak shop 8964

[In the Cloak Workshop], Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1905. 1957.008964

The counter is more than ten and a half feet long and over a yard wide, allowing for a substantial amount of material to be rolled out and cut. Its size and the arrangement of drawers is unusual and a good demonstration of the Shakers’ precision and their adherence to utility in all their designs. The counter has sixteen drawers, no two of which are the same size, instead increasing in depth from top to bottom and in width from left to right. The topmost drawers are very shallow and barely noticeable under the lip of the counter-top. No doubt each drawer had its own individual purpose.

Brass round-headed tacks are located along the edge of the top: one foot from the left end and at three foot (one yard) intervals along the length of the counter, allowing quick measurements of cloth. The counter has substantial wooden rollers built into its base, making it possible to pull the counter out from the wall in order to work on both sides. It is finished on the back and ends with vertical beaded boards to give the piece a finished look from any aspect. The finish appears to be a single thin coat of red paint.

Emma Neale was eight years old when she and her five siblings joined the Mount Lebanon community in 1855. By 1901 she was one of the trustees (administrative and spiritual leaders) of the community. At the time the Shakers were in serious debt due to the purchase of land for an ultimately unsuccessful community in Florida, and she launched “E.J. Neale & Co.,” a cloak manufacturing company. She was a shrewd businesswoman, managing the family’s finances and selling  cloaks and other fancy goods until she was overtaken by ill health in 1940. She died in 1943, having spent 88 of her 96 years as a Shaker and 58 of those as a trustee.

 

 

 

Flagroot candy not so sweet for its maker

flag root box  21901.1

Flag Root Box, Canterbury, NH, c. 1950. 200?.21901.1

All of us here at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon suffer under the distinct disadvantage of never having tasted candied flag root, so can only preface this discussion with a comment Sister Marie Burgess (1920-2001), who  worked in the Shakers’ confectionery business for thirty years, made one day to our Director of Collections and Research in the kitchen at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. She said one of her least favorite jobs while a Shaker was making candied flag and that after all the disagreeable work she no longer cared for the taste of it either!

As the population of Shaker brothers declined in the last half of the nineteenth century, it fell to the sisters to develop and manufacture marketable new products to bolster the income for their families. The Shaker sisters at Canterbury and other Shaker communities prepared a variety of foodstuffs for sale: among them, candied flag root.
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Dried sweet flag root

Sweet flag (acorus calamus), often called calamus, has a rhizomatic root that would look familiar to anyone who has divided irises. Both the leaves and the roots are aromatic, and the dried root has been used in place of ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Its medicinal properties have been utilized in many traditions, including Ayureveda and among some American Indian tribes, including the Penobscot. It’s believed to carry sedative and digestive benefits, and has been used as an hallucinogen as well.

66fa21875ad323225215234f9423bc12

Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

Sweet flag was harvested, cleaned, thinly sliced, boiled several times, and candied with crystals of sugar. The slicing, clearly the most tedious part of the process, was made easier by a special rotary cutter powered by an old Boston brand sewing machine. The sewing machine, given to Eldress B. King by her grandmother, was converted to a flag root cutter by the Canterbury brothers. They removed the part of the sewing machine that moved the sewing needle up and down and re-purposed the spinning motion produced by the foot treadle to power an attached four-bladed cutting head that thinly sliced the flag root. The tin-covered trough helped guide the root into the cutters and the sliced pieces were collected in a tin container at the front of the machine.The candied flag was packaged in boxes and sold in Shaker gift shops. It continued to be made at SabbathDay Lake well into the 1950s.

flag root cutter noc1953.6582.1-2 (fredericks)

Flag Root Cutter, Boston Sewing Machine, Canterbury, NH, c. 1873. 1953.6582.1