“…he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers….”

In a participatory class about making soap the leader started her presentation explaining the steps that would be involved in the day’s activities. Following her welcome, she started, “First, we’ll need to slaughter, butcher, and render the fat from an old hog.” Before the students could flee the room, she announced that we would be skipping that step in light of time constraints. Her point, however, was not lost on the class. Many of the classes involving early crafts and trades have been cleansed of the unpleasant preparations our forefathers and mothers undertook without question. Such is the case with most trades associated with wood. Most woodworking projects now begin with boards of a standard thickness, width, and length and we ignore the process that historically would have been used to get them to that state — felling and limbing a tree, hauling the tree trunk, cutting it to length, splitting or sawing it into boards, drying the boards, regulating them to a particular thickness, making their faces and edges parallel, and smoothing their surfaces. All of this, done by hand, is brutal work. Until the advent of practical machines, the preparation of usable boards from rough-sawn lumber could take as much time as making the boards into something.

The Shakers were interested in reducing the amount of unnecessary labor needed to build up the physical part of their “heaven on earth,” and the thickness planer made smoothing boards easier.

fig 1 1952.6054.1_ 1

Thickness Planer (right side), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

There had been a number of attempts to ease the chore of planing. Most of the early attempts were designed to move a traditional hand plane, driven by a reciprocating shaft, back and forth over a piece of wood . The great improvement came with the use of a rotary motion to plane boards. The history of these planing machines in America features two dominate men, each with a specific approach to flattening, regulating the thickness of, and smoothing boards. William Woodworth from Hudson, New York patented a successful planing machine in 1828. His machine had two long sharp blades mounted in a rotating horizontal bar set at an adjustable height above a flat table. Mounted in the table were slowly rotating cylinders that pushed and pulled the board under the rotating planer blades. This design was the precursor of the modern planing machine. The biggest draw-back of the Woodworth machine was that, while it smoothed and regulated the thickness of a board, it did not always make it truly flat. If the board was twisted and warped before planing, it would probably still be twisted and warped after planing.

The second player in this story was Thomas E. Daniels of Worcester, Massachusetts. His was the first successful machine patented in America to truly flatten a board. His planer, patented in 1834, had a movable carriage to which a rough-sawn board could be secured so it could not move or flex. The carriage advanced under a rotating vertical shaft to which was fastened a bar parallel to the carriage. This bar had a cutting blade mounted at each end. When rotating – the power was often supplied by a waterwheel – the cutters sliced across the board removing any unevenness and leaving a truly flat surface. To make a board that was of a consistent desired thickness, the height of the cutters above the board would be set at that height; the board would be turned over, secured to the carriage, and again passed under the cutters.

Each machine had its advantages – the Daniels planer produced a board that was not twisted or warped and the Woodworth produced a smoother surface. Often a workshop would have one of each of the machines – flattening their boards on the Daniels planer and finishing them on the Woodworth machine.

Woodworth held a patent on his machine, but it was frequently contested and he was in constant litigation. He sold the rights to most of the individually patented improvements to the machine to a syndicate of three investors who manufactured them. They sold the planers, and also charged the owners on a per-linear-foot-planed basis for using them. Woodworth died in 1839 but passed on his part of the patent to his children. As the Woodworth children and the syndicate had a monopoly on this type of machine, it was a very lucrative business and as such they protected their patent until 1856, when it could no longer be extended. Litigation concerning the patent occasionally involved the Shakers. In 1851, Mount Lebanon brothers Jonathan Wood and Henry Bennet were called to court in Albany “concerning the lawsuit, pending between Gibson & Allen about the Planing Machine …There is much contention in the law about Woodworth’s patent – Gibson [one of the men who bought the patent] has lately had the right renewed 6 years – He holds the right & forbids others (us with the rest) using it without paying for it. We consider it unjust & so do others: & some, rather than submit to pay, stand against in the law.” [Quoted in Planers, Matchers and Molders in Americaby Chandler W. Jones, 1985.] The Shakers were called to testify because they were known to use machines similar to Woodworth’s at the time he “invented” the planer. In fact, in 1833 when William Woodworth’s lawyers returned from court to tell him that the judge demanded that he write up new specifications for his patent that would claim rights to only those parts of the machine he had invented, “he smiled and said the whole of them were fools, for they occupied the time of the court for three days on what he could have told them in five minutes; that he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers in the western part of the State of New York.” Joseph Turner who had been a machinist who helped build Woodworth’s first planers reported this comment adding that he “was astonished to hear him say that, after selling the patent.” [“A Domestic Journal of Daily Occurrences Kept by…Isaac N. Youngs, [1847-1855], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,  Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-70.] The Woodworth patent cases had a long-term effect on patent law and were, in part, responsible for adjustments in 1861 to change the life of patents from 14 to 17 years – 17 years without extensions.

fig 3 1952.6054.1_ 4

Thickness Planer (detail of cutting head and feed rollers), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The planing machine in the Museum’s collection is clearly a Woodworth-style planer. It has not yet been determined if the planer was made by the Shakers or if they purchased it. All of the metal parts on the planer were cast. If the Shakers had gone to the expense of making several dozen casting patterns, having them cast, and machining them to fit together properly, they would have made several of these machine. No other examples survive. There is no manufacturer’s name on the planer, however if it was commercially made the name may have been left off to guard against the maker being sued by the syndicate. The blades on the planer are marked “A. Wheeler, Brattleboro, Vt.” Wheeler is a known manufacturer of edge tools – axes, adzes, drawknives, and, apparently, planer blades.  At the same time Wheeler was in business there was a manufacturer of planing machines in Brattleboro, Calvin J. Weld, from whom the Shakers purchased a planer in the 1850s for their Tyringham, Massachusetts community. It is possible that this machine was obtained from the same source. Whatever its source, the Museum’s planer is a remarkable machine still in operating condition – sharp blades and all.





“[A] new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors”

Side Chair with Pewter Tilter Buttons

Side Chair with Pewter Tilter Buttons, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1855, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.215.1

The Shakers were clever, design savvy, and committed to caring for their property, as demonstrated by their use of the chair “tilter.” In the fall of 1819 Freegift Wells, an elder and woodworker at the Church Family, Watervliet, New York, recorded in his diary that he, “Began to trim off & ball the chairs,” that he had been making for the family. “Balling” the chairs was the term he used to describe inserting a small round wooden ball in the bottom of the back legs of chairs. The balls, flattened on their bottoms, were able to rotate within a socket in the bottom of the chair posts. The balls were held in place with a leather thong or cord passing through the bottom of the ball and then through a hole in the chair post, exiting on the side of the post where it was either tacked or wedged in its hole to keep the ball held tight in its socket. The purpose of the device was to reduce the marring of the softwood (usually pine) floor by the hardwood (usually maple or birch) chair legs when brothers or sisters, as they apparently did, leaned back in their chairs. Raising the front legs off the floor increased the pressure on the back legs and the sharp edge of the back legs often left dents in the floor. The tilters were meant to prevent this damage.

Patent Model of the Shakers’ Patent for the Tilter Button (replica)

Patent Model of the Shakers’ Patent for the Tilter Button (replica). The original of this patent model is described in Expressions of Eloquence: The Jane Katcher Collection,Volume I. [The replica was made and is on loan from Timothy D. Rieman, co-author with Charles R. Muller, of The Shaker Chair.]

While chairs made for community use were often fitted with tilters, it is not clear whether they were sold with that option before a broadside was printed sometime in the 1850s by the Second Family giving the prices of chairs that included an option for “Button joint Tilts” at a cost of twenty-five cents. The offering of tilters on chairs for sale may have been made possible with the patenting of a metal tilter that could be fabricated separately from the chair-making process and installed on the back posts when the chair was finished. This device was patented (U. S. Patent Office Letters Patent No. 8,771) on March 2, 1852 in the name of “Geo. O. Donnell, of New Lebanon, New York.” George O. Donnell, or more likely O’Donnell, was a Shaker brother at the Second Family at Mount Lebanon, New York. According to census records for 1850, had was 27 years old and worked as a chair-maker. The Letters Patent begin: “Be it known that I, George O. Donnell, of Shaker Village, in the town of New Lebanon, in the county of Columbia and State of New York, have invented a new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors, caused by the corners of the back posts of chairs as they take their natural motion of rocking backward and forward …” At the time of the patent, Brother George was also serving as the second elder in the family as well as working in the chair business. He later left the Shakers. There are two issues that are not completely clear about this patent. First, Brother George’s last name is given in the Shaker records as “O’Donnell.” It is likely that this is his correct name and that for some reason – possibly because of negative feelings toward the huge influx of refugees from the great famine in Ireland in the second half of the 1840s – it was thought better (maybe by the patent attorney or agent) to lose the apostrophe and give him the appearance of having a middle name beginning with the letter “O.” This would not have been uncommon at the time. Second, although the Letters Patent identify Brother George as the inventor, it is possible that his name appeared on the document because of his position in the elders’ order and not because he actually created the metal tilter.

The metal tilter buttons were made in a variety of forms – some, such as a pair on a side chair in the Museum’s collection are made only of pewter, some only of brass, and some of a combination. Some are stamped with the date “1852” and one pair is stamped “Pat. 1852.” It appears that there was a lot of experimenting going on as to the best way to manufacture these new tilters, however, in the end, whichever way was thought best, a relatively small number were actually used on chairs. The survival rate is very low and in the 1870s when the Shakers continued to offer tilter buttons on their production side chairs – they returned to the wood style.



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.


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.


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.



The Shaker Improved Washing Machine

fig 1

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.