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.






We all know the oval boxes, but an oval pail?

At first glance this simple Shaker pail, or bucket if you prefer, seems straightforward in its intended use – it’s a pail – it holds water, or whatever else is put in it. Upon careful examination, however, a story emerges.

fig 1

Pail, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1956.8084.

Made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, it bears characteristics of pails made in that community. Canterbury coopers used a V-shaped tongue-and-groove to join the staves of their pails together – a feature not seen in pails made elsewhere, but present in this pail. The iron hoops terminate in a typical Canterbury V-shape. The bail plates that hold the wire handle are of an uncommon, but not unknown, shape for Canterbury pails and the pail has the initials “F.W.” stamped into its bottom. These initials, the initials of Francis Winkley, were used to mark Shaker products offered for sale such as spinning wheels, cooper-ware, and garden seeds. Winkley was a deacon at the Church Family at Canterbury and, as such, was responsible for the sale of Shaker products.

fig 2

Pail, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1956.8084.

The uniqueness of this pail begins to show itself when measured. The pail is only 6 inches high to the rim and is 12 3/4 inches in diameter in the direction the handle is mounted and 11 5/8 inches in the other direction, measured at the top of the rim. This mere 1 1/8 inch difference makes the pail oval rather than round. All other known Shaker pails are round. The answer to why this pail was constructed in an oval shape lies buried beneath a thick layer of old gray-green paint. Using a raking light with the bottom of the pail held at just the right angle, the word “Foot” can be read beneath the  paint and just above that, the letters “SY.” At the Canterbury Church Family, the abbreviation “SY” was used to identify objects that belonged in the Infirmary. So, at one time this pail was likely used in the Infirmary for foot baths. With 10 1/2 inches at the bottom of the pail, a man with a size 10 shoe could fit his foot into the pail comfortably – a woman with a size 11 shoe could do the same. For Shaker brothers or sisters with larger feet, there were always wash tubs.

One curious thing about this pail is why it was stamped with Francis Winkley’s initials at all. Usually, products that were intended for sale were marked – not objects intended for home use. Winkley was not the make – only the purveyor. Perhaps someday the explanation will come to light.