Photo-engraved printing blocks

These two printing blocks were made by a process of photo-engraving and, when inked and printed, produce a half-tone image – a printing surface made up of small dots to produce a picture that shows some shading rather than being starkly black and white. The buildings on the blocks – the Mount Lebanon Meetinghouse (1824) and the Church Family Dwelling at Mount Lebanon (1875) – are both still standing. The images are based on photographs; the image of the Meetinghouse is taken from a stereograph produced by James Irving of Troy, New York, sometime prior to 1873 and, while the original photograph on which the image of the Dwelling is based is still unknown to us, it post-dates the building’s completed construction in 1876. The Meetinghouse block was acquired by Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon in 1957 from materials that had been moved to Hancock Shaker Village when Mount Lebanon closed. The block depicting the Dwelling was purchased in 2009 from an independent dealer who traced its provenance to Eldress Emma B. King at Canterbury, New Hampshire in the 1950s.

Both blocks were used to illustrate the article, “A Quaint and Curious People. A Century of Shaker Life on the Lebanon Hills,” in the June, 1883 issue of Outing: An Illustrated Magazine of Recreation. Outing, published in Boston, Massachusetts, was in its second year of publication and originally focused on bicycling as a popular recreation. In its first year it was published under the title The Wheelman. It is likely the Shakers were offered up as an interesting sightseeing trip as part of a ride over the Lebanon Hills.

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Library Stationary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY ca. 1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4255.2

The article appeared at a time when the Shakers were using similar illustrations of Shaker villages as cover art on their publication, The Manifesto, but neither of these illustrations was ever used in that or any other Shaker publication. It therefore seems likely that the publishers of Outing had the blocks made specifically for the article and may have retained them for a number of years, making it impossible for the Shakers to use the images. It does appear that at some later date the Shakers were able to acquire the blocks because before the end of the century the block illustrating the Dwelling was used on letterhead stationery for the Church Family Library at Mount Lebanon.

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Advertisement for Hiram Ferguson from Albany City Directory for 1883

The blocks themselves were made in Albany, New York, by Hiram Ferguson, best known in the Shaker world as the wood engraver who produced the images of Shaker chairs and oval boxes that were used to illustrate any number of Shaker chair catalogs. For the illustrations in the chair catalogs, Ferguson worked from photographs as well, but he used the photographs as the basis for his wood engravings – the art form for which he was best known in the 1870s. To produce multiple copies of the wood engravings so they could be used over years for the publication of the chair catalogues, Ferguson would have had them copied as type-metal blocks – a process that was much cheaper than duplicating the wood engravings. Ferguson’s advertisements in various Albany City Directories in the 1870s promote him as a wood engraver, but by the 1880s he had added “Photo-Electro Plates” and “Electrotyping” to his repertoire.

As an aside to the story of the Shakers and their relationship with Hiram Ferguson, it was noted in the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle for December 30, 1900, that on the day before “One of the boldest crimes that was ever committed in this city [Albany, NY] and the motive for which is shrouded in mystery, happened to-day when Hiram Ferguson, who is about 75 years of age is suffering from a fractured skull and his recovery is doubtful. The weapon used was a stove shaker, with which the assailant struck Ferguson twice over the ear…. The assailant has thus far eluded the police.”

There is obviously more to be learned about these printing blocks. Anyone knowing about the source for the image of the Dwelling House or additional uses of these images in Shaker or non-Shaker publications, we hope, will be kind enough to share them.

“Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon,… March 12th 1848.”

 

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Partial View to North Family – Looking North-West, ca. 1880. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4014.1

This anonymously written poem notes and described the 36 members of the North Family at the beginning of 1848. Where some members are noted only by their first names their surnames have been supplied in brackets. The document is useful in its description of the employments of many of the family’s members. That information coupled with other manuscripts from the family for that year gives us a rich view of life in the family.

Verses composed in the North Family of Believers at New Lebanon, in which all the members of said family are briefly noticed who were residing therein March 12th 1848.

In describing the members of this family,

We’ll labor to exercise some charity.

And if by and by we should chance to espy,

Some very small mote in a brother’s eye,

We’ll seek to remove it as we have been shown,

By taking out firstly the beam from our own.

Impress’d with this maxim we’ll now pass along,

And notice each member in our little song.

 

Here kind Elder Richard [Bushnell] stands first on the list,

And kind Brother Frederick [Evans] stands next to assist,

Now both our kind Elders we love and revere,

And give them our blessing their spirits to cheer.

Our Elders so kind we are bound to obey,

They watch for our souls that we go not astray;

So we will be faithful and labor to bless,

Our kind loving Elders for their faithfulness.

Eldress Sarah [Smith], now stands at the feminine head,

By whose wise example good Sisters are led;

The same bright-example now daily is set,

By our loving sister we call Antoinette [Doolittle].

By both have a burden of labor and care

Their love for lost-souls makes them willing to bear

Our kind Elder Sisters deserve our best love.

They are striving to lead us to heaven above.

Charles Bushnell and Clawson [Middleton] good Deacons have been,

In supporting the gospel which saves us from sin;

In love and good works they do always abound,

And faithful and true they have ever been found.

Armeda [Sherman] and Anna [Crosman] are two faithful souls,

As ever existed between the two poles;

Their labors of love are extended to all,

The sick and the healthy the great and the small.

And now, Thomas Estes we’ll next call to mind

He’s faithful in labor, obliging and kind

John Shaw we’ll remember who makes all our shoes;

And by his example much strength does diffuse,

Now Amy [Bennet] kind Sister must not be forgot,

She’s patient in bearing what falls to her lot;

She’ll long be remember’d beloved and blest

For labors bestow’d on the sick and distress’d

We’ll also remember our good Phebe Ann [Jones],

Who daily is striving to do all she can,

She works at the Palm leaf and makes summer hats,

Likewise pretty fans and some table mats;

In all her employment, she’s cheerful and bright,

And her smiling countenance gives us delight.

Now, Anthony Roberts and George [Wickersham] we will name

They both are mechanicks of much skill and fame.

They are gifted in skill like the workmen of old

Who wrought for the temple wood, silver and gold

And as they in faith and good works do abound,

With pure love and union they both shall be crown’d

Let kind sister Sally [Bushnell] come next if you please,

And Patty [Bushnell] who make our good butter and cheese,

We know they are faithful in all their employ,

They cultivate good but the evil destroy.

Henry Cantrell and Chauncey [Sears] are worthy of praise,

Their labors are useful in various ways;

In the shop, at the mill on the farm with the team,

Their good deeds are flowing in one constant stream;

These brethren so faithful in all their employ.

We give them our blessing and wish them much joy;

And when all their labors are finishe’d and done,

We trust they will reign with the Daughter and Son.

Now Nancy [Lockwood] and Charlotte [Bowns] kind Sisters are they,

Both careful to walk in the strait narrow way;

In deep tribulation they always endure,

And march on their way with the humble and pure.

Of Levi [Shaw] and Daniel [Fraser] we’ll next-take a view,

We know they are faithful, kind, honest and true;

Their faith by their works they’ve both fully shown,

We love them sincerely we freely must own.

Now Phebe [Van Houten] we’ll notice like Dorcas of old,

She’s made many garments which we can behold.

And Catharine [Van Houten] also is true in her place,

While smiles of contentment enliven her face.

These two worthy sisters so loving and kind

Are belov’d by all for their pureness of mind.

Resembling each other as near as two pins,

They bring to the mind two young roes that are twins.

Here’s Andrew [Firkey] and Luther [Dunnels] quite faithful we find,

They’re both honest farmers to labor inclin’d;

The cause of the gospel they wish to promote,

Their time and their talents they freely devote;

These brethren obliging and kind are to all,

And while they are faithful they never will fall.

Jane Knight, loves employment she’s neat as a pin,

She gives wholesome counsel to those who come in;

In her conversation she’s meek and she’s mild,

And in her behavior a true gospel child.

And Harriet Bullard kind sister we love,

The spirit is pure as the innocent dove,

She is faithful in duty in every place,

And virtues bright image is stamp’d on her face.

John Brown is a brother quite clever and kind,

He’s taken some pains in improving his mind.

He’s faithful in duty takes care of the hens

He cultivates good bur the evil condemns

John Robe is a brother quite cheerful and free

In search of Mount Zion he sailed o’er the sea

And since he was faithful and did persevere

We give him our blessing and welcome him here

Now, Sarah Jane Epwell the gospel obeys

And kind Hannah Wilson is worthy of praise

They both do stand faithful and firm for the truth

They’ve given their strength to the Lord in their youth

For such there’s a blessing for greater we know

Than all the vain pleasures this world can bestow.

 

Our young brother Henry [Cantrell] does all that he can

To build up the gospel of good Mother Ann

And Timothy Rayson is striving to be

Attentive to labor obliging and free

We know if they’re giving their strength to the Lord

Now while in their youth they will have their reward

And if they are faithful to keep in the fold

They’ll gain greater riches than mountains of gold

Of Elizaette Sutton and Rhoda [Hollister] we’ll speak

They’re pure in their manners obliging and meek

The world they’ve forsaken with all its vain toys

To find more substantial and heavenly joys

Now, Moses [Clement] we’ll mention who’s set out to break

The ties of old nature for the gospel’s sake

And Solomon Goddard has also begun

The snares of the tempter henceforth for to shun

We love these young brethren we’re free to confess

We give them our blessing that they may progress

________________

This poem was transcribed many years ago from a manuscript in the collection in one of the repositories holding Shaker materials, but the transcriber does not remember which repository. It is shared here both for your reading pleasure and for your help in locating its source. If you can identify the poem, please comment below.

 

Reading a print: “Shakers, their mode of worship”

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Lithograph, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,” D. W. Kellogg and Company, Hartford, CT, ca. 1835, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10574.1

There are many versions of this illustration, published in dozens of works on the Shakers. The history of its publication by various printmakers and printers has been well told by Robert P. Emlen in his article titled “The Shaker Dance Prints,” in Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society in the autumn of 1992. Emlen, in establishing the order in which versions of the print appeared for sale and in magazines, settled on a date around 1829 or 1830 for the earliest known printing. The print shown here, “Shakers, their mode of Worship,” published by D. W. Kellogg & Company, dates from sometime between 1832/1833 and 1840. It is a hand-colored lithograph and was sold as an individual print.

The diminutive man at the head of the second row of Shakers is likely Brother David Rowley. It was just after Christmas 1809 when David Rowley left his wife and young son in the world to unite with the Shakers. Brother David was a trained cabinetmaker when he joined the North Family at Mount Lebanon, New York, and continued in that work as a Shaker until his death of influenza in the fall of 1855. Shaker journals record Brother David’s height at four feet ten and three-eighth inches, and at the time the artist attended Shaker meeting and made his sketch for the print, Brother David was around fifty years of age. As a member of the North Family, “our good little brother,” as the Shakers referred to him, would have been at the community’s public meeting – the only meeting the author would have been allowed to attend. In June of 1830, Brother David moved from the North to the Church Family to work as that family’s cabinetmaker. As a member of the Church Family, Brother David would not have attended public meeting. This change of residence may help narrow the date when the original version of the print was made by providing the latest date when the artist would have seen Brother David in meeting.

One of the reasons this print has so often been used is the presence of the two African American men on the far right side of the image. The Shakers are well known for their willingness to include all, regardless of race or national origin, who were willing to bear the cross of a celibate life, live out of the common course of the world, and give themselves completely to the Church. Whereas a number of African Americans united with the Shakers in Kentucky and Ohio, the numbers were much smaller in the New England communities. At Mount Lebanon, a community of as many as five to six hundred members, for example, there were probably never even a dozen African American Shakers living there at any given time. One African American Brother that is documented to be a member of the North Family at the time the artist depicted the meeting was Brother Tower Smith. Brother Tower’s arrival in the family is described in the language of the day by Elder Calvin Green on August 3, 1821: “The Brethren reap & stack the rye on Amos’s mountain … a Black man from Hudson here, by name of Tower Smith wants to live with us — he had some faith years ago. We finish pulling flax.” Brother Tower was taken into the family and is mentioned a few times over the years before April, 1834, when Brother Abel Knight took him to Hudson, where, the journalist records, “like most others, [he] wants to be with those who were most congenial to his sense & state.” The journalist concludes with the comment, “poor old man I hope he may not spend the remainder of his days in suffering.”

It is interesting to note that none of the sisters were drawn with enough “character” to distinguish them one from another, whereas the artist seemed to take a lot of care to find unique characteristics in the brothers. This may have had to do with where he sat and how well he could see the sisters. While there are probably not many more identifiable characters in “The Shakers, their mode of Worship” – although there must be a story about a Shaker brother who wears a knit hat to meeting or, of course, the other African American brother – the more we are able to populate these images with real people, the better we are able to understand the Shaker experience.

 

 

The music was very fine: Brother Elisha’s piano-violin

In the mid-1860s a local “Professor of Music” encouraged the singers at the Shaker Village at Canterbury, New Hampshire, to explore the study of music in order to improve the presentation of their traditional songs. The result was a change from the unique letteral notation the Shakers used for transcribing the melodies of songs to the more generally used round-headed notes, the introduction of singing in parts rather than only in unison, and the eventual introduction of instrumental music by way of organ and piano. Some Shakers believed these and other changes were necessary in order to keep pace with the times and continue to attract converts.  

In the midst of this transition, an inventive Shaker brother, Elisha D’Alembert Blakeman, struck out on a course that he thought would help attract new adherents through music. Brother Elisha was born in 1819 in Clyde, New York. His father, Elisha Sr., a medical doctor, became acquainted with the Shakers at Sodus Bay when they were in need of his medical expertise. When Elisha’s mother died in 1830, his father and Elisa Jr. both united with the Shakers. They eventually moved to Mount Lebanon, the senior Blakeman at the North Family and younger at the Church Family. At age 15, young Elisha began learning  the trade of cabinetmaking. With an inventive, occasionally whimsical mind and a readiness to serve the community, Brother Elisha created and patented a fly-trap; designed “a self-regulating ventilator for lodging rooms &c – to be set under or over the sash of the windows – operated by the wind”; and, when the family’s water power failed, built a swing to which a churn was attached so “one, two or more, then get into the swing, [and] have the delicious pleasure of a swing, while the churn is bringing forth butter.”  Late in the 1860s Brother Elisha, most likely very familiar with a “monochord” used by the family to set the pitch for their songs, set out to make an improvement in the instrument  that would make it not only a useful tool but an instrument which could accompany singers.

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Piano-Violin, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1869, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12948.1

The monochord that the Shakers used in setting the pitch for songs was developed by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs to regularize the performance and presentation of Shaker music from family to family and community to community. Brother Isaac’s monochord was a simple instrument consisting of a string stretched over a hollow box that would reverberate when placed on an empty chest or a table. The pitch of a given song could be set by holding a wooden block down on the string at a marked interval and striking the string to produce the sound. Brother Elisha improved this simple instrument by adding metal keys to replace the wooden block and substituted a violin bow for the pluck of a finger to give the instrument a sweeter sound.

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U.S. Patent 114,520 for an Improvement in Piano-Violins by E. D. Blakeman, 1871, U. S. Patent Office.

In 1871 Brother Elisha sought and received a patent for his improved monochord under the name “Piano-Violin.” The patent was secured by Munn & Company, editors of Scientific American and patent agents. Brother Elisha continued to make improvements on his instrument to the point that on May 6, 1871 he gave a concert on his “new instruments, ‘Piano-Violins.’ The two built of chestnut wood in tune with each other, and my old big cherry, built two years since which carried double base—for the first trial of the three in harmony, the music was very fine.”  Following the publication of the patent, Brother Elisha received inquiries from people who wanted to be agents to sell his new instrument. To promote its usefulness he gave demonstrations to school teachers to encourage its use as a teaching tool. Brother Elisha, convinced he could benefit the Church with his new instrument by giving concerts to attract new members, approached the Ministry for permission to do so. The Ministry did not support his offer. The allure of manufacturing and selling his piano-violin combined with his disappointment in not being able to use the instrument to further the Shaker Church, caused Brother Elisha to leave his Shaker home in March of 1872.

Whether Elisha Blakeman went on to manufacture his piano-violins has not been determined. He did live nearly three decades after leaving the Shakers, dying in Chillicothe, Ohio on April 11, 1900.

The Piano-Violin in the collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is the only one known to have survived. It is, of course, possible that there are others in various collections of musical instruments that have not been connected with their Shaker origin. The Museum’s instrument can be traced to Sister Sadie Neale at Mount Lebanon.

 

 

Why didn’t the Shakers talk about having their pictures taken?

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Photograph of Eldress Anna White, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2017.24190.1.

Recently Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired a carte-de-visite of North Family Eldress Anna White that was created by the Notman Photographic  Company in Albany, New York. In addition to this image the Museum holds two other Notman photos, one of North Family Eldress Antoinette Doolittle and one of that family’s businessman, Brother Levi Shaw. Despite the hundreds if not thousands of photographs taken of Shakers in commercial photographers’ studios, information about these experiences are woefully under-recorded in Shaker records.

William Notman, a Canadian photographer based in Montreal, was both a successful photographer and a successful businessman. Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826 and moved to Montreal in 1856. Already established as a photographer, he set up a studio in the town’s business center shortly after his arrival. He experienced considerable success, including receiving a good medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. (As an aside, his work with the Centennial Exposition included producing photographic identification cards for those working at the Exposition, and in doing so became the father of the modern “photo-ID.”) Following on his success in Philadelphia, he decided to open a studio in Albany, New York, in 1877. It was this studio that was visited by the three Shakers from the North Family.

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Photograph of Eldress Antoinette Doolittle, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11977.2

The two eldresses seem to have made the trip at the same time. Their cartes-de-visite are nearly identical with the exception of the portrait itself. In both cases the oval image is embossed – rising above the background card. Both images have a number written in pencil at the upper right-hand corner of the back of the card – on Doolittle’s card the number is “5003” and on White’s, “5004,” suggesting they are the sequential negative numbers from which the prints were made.

Notman’s Albany studio was in operation between 1877 and the mid-1890s. Although primarily owned by William Notman, the studio employed local Albany photographers to do the artistic work. When Notman died in 1891 his son took over the business and the studio began to falter. While it is possible to date these photographs with a decade – the studio began operating in 1877 and Doolittle died in 1886 – there is no indication in North Family records that the two eldresses set off to Albany together to have their portraits made. On the back of Eldress Ann White’s card someone has written the date “Ca. 1880” which seems to be a reasonable guess.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw, North Family Mount Lebanon, NY, Notman Photographic Company, Albany, NY, Ca. 1880, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.12238.1

The carte-de-visite of Brother Levi Shaw is not an embossed image but resembles the other photographs in every other aspect. The penciled inscription of the negative number reads “3082” on his photograph, suggesting that it was done earlier than those of the two eldresses.

We are interested in knowing about other photographs of Shakers created at Notman’s Albany studio and, of course, any mention of Shakers traveling somewhere with the intention of having their pictures taken. If you have any information to share, please do so in the comments below.

 

“The Giants’ Mile-Stone”

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Photograph of the Giants’ Mile Stone, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1905, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2016.24194.1

Located along an old road that once ran down the side of the mountain at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, is an unusually large stone standing higher than any around it. Although it is now difficult to find a way there, it was a feature that was well known to Shakers and non-Shakers in the 19th century. The recently acquired photograph shown here, made by an as yet unidentified photographer, was titled by him or her, the “Giants’ Mile-Stone (Shaker Road).” The early American traveler was accustomed to seeing pieces of stone along the major roads carved with letters and numerals to indicate the number of miles to or from a particular location. While the old Shaker Road would not have had such markers, it did have one extraordinary marker. The Shakers, while we have never seen it referenced in their records, must have shared some sense that this stone was unusual and that it was reminiscent of the common mile markers. When they constructed a stone wall along the south side of the road and easily could have saved considerable labor by incorporating the giant stone into their wall, they chose instead to make a niche leaving the stone standing between the wall and the roadbed for all to see. While the roadbed has nearly totally eroded the stone and wall clearly remain.

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Map of Shaker Road and Location of Wall and Giants’ Mile-Stone, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon

Beyond the story presented by the photographer and the location of the Shakers’ wall, the stone may have another story. All throughout New England there are examples of special standing stones and other stone structures that many believe are remnants left by those who were here before European explorers and settlers. Standing stones, balanced rocks, perched and rocking boulders, stacked stones, stone chambers, and other apparently non-geologic features dot the landscape for those who know what to look for. Whether stood on its end by glacial actions or by man-powered labor, the Giants’ Mile-Stone is thought to have had some special place in the lives of pre-European inhabitants in the area. Near the end of the last decade Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was involved with local historians and interested hikers in exploring the area around the stone and its relationship to the road and to other nearby Shaker features.

For those interested in knowing more about early stone features in the New England landscape we suggest looking at Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization by James W. Mavor, Jr. and Byron E. Dix published in 1989.

Note that the stone is located on private property and arrangements must be made in advance to see it.

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.

From a spirit communication, an iconic logo emerges: How a Shaker gift drawing inspired CBS

For those of us who have come to know and admire the Shakers, the moment when Anthony McGill’s clarinet opened the first discernible strains of Simple Gifts at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, there was a moment of pleasant recognition. As he was joined by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montero to fill out John Williams’s arrangement of the Shaker song, it was probably all that the audience could do not to sing along: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free…”

“Simple Gifts,” written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Bracket at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, is among the most recognizable contributions the Shakers made to American popular culture. The song has been heard as a memorable theme in Aaron Copeland’s score for Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring, and with a slightly modified tune and new lyrics by Sydney Carter for his song, Lord of the Dance. Carter’s adaptation was then used as a driving force in Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance Irish step dancing extravaganza. Simple Gifts has been performed and recorded by Judy Collins, Jewel, and Weezer. It was even sung by the Ingalls family in their little house on the prairie and by a 10-year-old Jodie Foster in an episode of the TV show, Kung-Fu.

In 1959, when CBS Television began using Aaron Copland’s adaptation of Simple Gifts as the introductory theme music for its documentary news series CBS Reports, they were probably unaware of the network’s prior history with the Shakers. In the decade before, the number of homes with televisions skyrocketed. As television was on the brink of becoming more popular than radio, broadcast networks were under increased pressure to supply new shows and to brand themselves visually as they had done in radio with voice and music. The story of branding CBS Television was the Shakers’ first “appearance” on this new media.

William Golden began working at CBS in 1937 in the promotion department. Within three years, based on his earlier work in the art department at House & Garden magazine and a good relationship with Frank Stanton, then head of CBS’s research, he was promoted to the company’s creative director. In 1950, in response to the need for more effective graphic images for television, Golden was asked to develop a new logo. The story of how Golden developed the now universally known CBS “eye” logo is a little muddled with extraneous recollections from some of his co-workers about the stimulus Golden received from “hex signs” on Pennsylvania German barns. However, the path to his idea for the logo leads back to a Shaker gift drawing.

Shaker gift drawings are works on paper made from the early 1840s to the late 1850s that graphically record spiritual visions, or to the Shakers, spiritual “gifts.” These inspired drawings were created by a number of untrained artists and have become an important part of American folk art. Fewer than two hundred of these drawings survive. A number of them were included in the 1935 exhibition, “Shaker Handicrafts,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art and, ten years later, were presented in an article in The Magazine Antiques titled, “Shaker Inspirational Drawings.” By 1950, artists and designers in New York City were well aware of these unique Shaker drawings.

Around the same time William Golden began his quest to develop a new CBS logo, Alexey Brodovitch, famous as the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, took on a new project – the publication of a magazine dedicated totally to graphic design. The magazine, Portfolio, was published without advertising, supported only by the subscriptions of those with a love for graphic design. Although Portfolio lasted only three issues, it achieved a reputation as the most significant publication on design during the twentieth century. The first issue of the magazine included an article titled, “The Gift to be Simple,” (incidentally, part of the first line of the Shaker song, Simple Gifts) that featured a drawing, untitled and undated, attributed by style and choice of symbols to Sister Sarah Bates of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection). It is a detail of the “all-seeing eye” selected by Brodovitch from the upper center of the drawing that caught Golden’s attention. Luckily for Golden, Brodovitch chose to reproduce the eye from a black and white negative and printed it as a high-contrast image, accentuating the difference between the iris and the pupil. Golden, seeing the potential in the image, handed off the concept for the eye logo to Kurt Weihs, who was able to refine the drawing for its intended use. Weihs was the one who appears most clearly to remember the connection between the CBS Eye and the Shaker drawing in Portfolio magazine. The missing link in the story is how Alexey Brodovitch came to do an article about Shaker gift drawings in the premiere issue of Portfolio.

Sister R. Mildred Barker, from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine in making a point about the real significance of the Shakers in the world, said she did not “want to be remembered as a chair.” Shaker genius, however, expressed itself in many forms – design, invention, social justice, theology, and even the simple chair. The story of the development of the CBS Eye is one example of how the Shakers unintentionally inspired creative impulses in the outside world. In this case, Shakers experienced a spiritual vision. The vision was recorded by a scribe who created a tangible symbol of the all-seeing eye of God held aloft by the wings of an angel. The creative director for CBS used that inspiration to create an image in which the television network makes a case that it is an “eye” that will always be “looking at the world.”

“[T]he first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.”

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon recently received a small collection of photographs made in and around the town of New Lebanon, New York by an as yet unidentified photographer. Among the photographs is a print of Brother Levi Shaw (1819-1908) standing behind a McCormick binder at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. This photograph was published on page 115 in The Shaker Image by Elmer Ray Pearson and Julia Neal (1974). The caption for the photograph includes a notation written on the original photograph, from which the published copy was taken, that reads: “Br. Levi Shaw of North Family, Mount Lebanon, N. Y. Arranging to buy the first Harvesting machine ever used in the township, and we have heard, the first one in Columbia Co. N. Y.” In the second annotated edition of The Shaker Image, prepared by Dr. Magda Gabor-Hotchkiss, she identifies the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, as the owner of the original image bearing that inscription. The Historical Society does not supply either a date or photographer for their copy of the image.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24192.1

The McCormick binder was part of a long line of grain harvesting machines developed by Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884). His original mechanical reaper was a horse-drawn machine that cut grain and gathered an appropriate amount together to be hand-tied into a sheaf with a piece of twine or straw. A number of sheaves, usually twelve, were leaned against each other with grain at the top to form a tent-like structure called a stook or shock. When fully dry, the sheaves were taken to the thresher to have the grain removed from the straw and the chaff from the kernels. McCormick’s reaper was first marketed in 1831 and was a huge improvement over the use of sickles, scythes, and cradles for harvesting grains. In 1884 the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company offered its first machine that added a binding operation to the cutting and gathering done by the reaper. The machine, a reaper-binder, or usually just called a binder, had been invented in 1872 by Charles Baxter Withington.  Many improvements were made by various mechanics before McCormick’s machine was available in 1884. McCormick’s binder used twine and a knotting mechanism to tie the grain into sheaves. The sheaves were dropped on the ground to be gathered into stooks.

An attempt to date this photograph has netted inconclusive but enlightening results. The McCormick company’s first offering of a binder in 1884 and Brother Levi’s death in 1908 provides a wide bracket for dating this photograph.  Records of daily events at the North Family tell us that in 1891 the Shakers purchased a binder on August 1st – “Buy Reaper & Binder $145.” This is the first mention of purchasing a binder in the records to which we have access. If we assume that the comment from the copy of the photograph from the Western Reserve Historical Society is correct, then it is possible that the photograph dates from 1891. However, the binder purchased in 1891 may have been made by another company and the inscription is wrong. Few of the photographs in the collection from which this photograph came are dated. Of the ones that are dated, the earliest is 1894. An inquiry to the “askmccormick” reference desk at the Wisconsin Historical Society resulted in the information that the font style used on the McCormick name plate on this binder was used between 1898 and 1903. We will have to be satisfied with a circa 1900 date for the photograph until documentation of the date the North Family purchased specifically a McCormick binder is discovered.

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Photograph of Brother Levi Shaw and a McCormick Grain Binder at the Shaker Swamp Meadow, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.24193.1

In addition to the rather well known image of the Brother Levi and the McCormick binder at the North Family, a second, and possibly previously unknown photograph is included in the collection that shows Brother Levi and the binder working in the North Family’s swamp meadow. This piece of land runs along the east side of New York Route 22 just north of the Shaker’s stone grist mill. The field has now reverted to swamp but after the Shakers had under-drained the land they grew hay, grains, potatoes, onions, and even planted an orchard on the land. This photograph shows the binder in cutting and binding mode whereas the first photograph shows it in transport mode.

While the creator of this photograph has not been identified it seems likely that it was a local man named Will S. Potter or possibly someone in his family. Potter made a number of photographs of the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Most of them were reproduced as postcards in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Many of these postcards had titles, locations, and sometimes Potter’s name written on the negative so that when printed it created a white hand-written description on the postcard. Some of the images in the collection from which the binder photographs came had titles written in a similar manner. These written titles are consistent in style to Will Potter’s postcards but the handwriting is different, causing us to think that possibly someone such as Potter’s wife or photographic assistant may have done the titles for the postcards – if indeed Potter is the photographer. More about that another day.

“We have a set of new dishes on our table…they are pretty and costly we know.”

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Round Serving Bowl, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1961.13237.1

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon was recently given a shallow 4 and 7/8’s-inch-diameter bowl made by the Union Porcelain Works (UPW). The bowl is decorated with a green border, small flowers, and the words, “Shakers  Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” These three additions to the Museum’s collection of twenty-eight other pieces of Mount Lebanon porcelain give cause to revisit this subject.

An 1887 entry in a sister’s diary from Mount Lebanon’s Church Family mentions some new dishes bought for the family. She wrote, “We have a set of new dishes on our table [this] morning, marked Shakers, Mt Lebanon, they are pretty and costly we know.” In the early 1950s Shaker Museum Curator Phelps Clawson catalogued the first two piece of this china acquired for the collection. He repeated information believed to have been supplied by a Shaker at Mount Lebanon indicating these dishes had been used initially by the Shakers for daily meals, with later versions sold to visitors as souvenirs. There was speculation in the antiques world that these pieces were made solely as souvenirs since it seemed unlikely that pride-averse Shakers would have found dishes marked with their name suitable. Clawson’s notes, however, are supported by photographic evidence in the Museum’s collection showing pieces of this china on the table in the family’s dining room.

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Church Family Dining Room, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca 1900, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1960.12527.1

Further examination of Shaker records expanded the sister’s initial comment about the new dishes. Church Family trustee, Brother Benjamin Gates and family deaconesses Sisters Cornelia French and Mary Hazard went to New York City on October 12, 1886 “on business concerning dishes for table use; to be made by Order.” Exercising their duty to see to the domestic concerns of the family, they placed their order for new china with the Union Porcelain Works, once located in the Highpoint (now Greenpoint) section of Brooklyn, New York. The manufacturer of the dishes is clearly identified by the UPW trademark on the bottom of each dish. The trademark on the Mount Lebanon dishes include the numerals “12” and “86” or “1” and “87” indicating that they were made in either December 1886 or January 1887 – a period that fits perfectly between the date the Shakers went to New York and the date the dishes appeared on the family’s table. Only two pieces in the Museum’s collection, two shallow saucers, bear the 1887 date, suggesting that most of the order was completed in 1886, although the Museum’s collection contains most, but not all of the types of dishes made for the Shakers.

UPW began producing hard paste porcelain in the mid-1860s and was the first company in the United State to achieve long-lasting success producing china. Porcelain is made of kaolin, a white clay, and feldspar, a mineral that when heated to a high temperature forms a glassy cement that permanently binds the clay and makes it translucent. In the 19th century only a small number of manufacturers in the United States produced porcelain that compared favorably with European imports.

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Cup and Caucer, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8257.1 (cup), 1950.3985.1 (saucer)

At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Charles de Busy, a French member of the International Jury, described the porcelain of Greenpoint (UPW) as “second to none in quality of paste and hardness of glaze.” While some of the pieces were described as “heavy,” de Busy said that “thinner pieces, such as tea and coffee cups, … would figure honorably among the production of Europe.” The pieces in the Museum’s collection bear this out – the serving bowls being heavy and opaque while the cups and their saucers are lighter with a translucence associated with quality porcelain.

To date, no documentation of the cost of the new dishes has been discovered, but an entry in another Shaker sister’s diary suggests that it was not cheap. She wrote, “We have a surprise of great value, on our breakfast table; a set of new dishes. Porcelain ware marked for us Shaker &c. … We hope it may be long ere we need another set.” In the mid-1880s the Church Family at Mount Lebanon had nearly seventy members. Considering that there were probably dinner plates, luncheon plates, bread plates, soup bowls, dessert bowls, and cups and saucers for each member of the family as well as three sizes of oval serving bowls, large round serving bowls, syrup and water pitchers, and relish plates included in the set, the sheer number of pieces could have been well over five-hundred.

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Relish Dish and Small Pitcher, Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, NY, 1886, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, NY: 1957.8254.1 (relish dish), 1957.8253.1 (small pitcher)

It was originally hypothesized that the variety of decoration grouped themselves into three distinct patterns. Since then it has become clear that the decoration is much less organized. The green border and the words “Shakers Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” appear to have been done by printed decal-like transfers while the floral and botanic decoration was hand-painted. The transfer decoration was a common offering of Union Porcelain Works as they made large quantities of what they called “thick” and “half-thick” dishes for hotels – usually decorated with a colored band and the name or logo of the hotel. Why the Shakers opted not to stop with this common offering is a mystery. The management of UPW did offer workspace for amateur painters who wanted to be trained in porcelain decorating to come for supervised practice. It may have been that the wide variety in the painted decoration on the Shakers’ dished was a result of having this group of would-be-painters do that work for little extra cost.

We are pleased to hold such a fine representation of dishes used by the Mount Lebanon Shakers and hope that over the years some of the missing forms and some better examples of forms we have will be added to the collection.