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.

“[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.

Revisiting the 1905 Peace Convention through postcards

On August 31, 1905, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon hosted an international peace convention in their Meetinghouse. For many years the Shakers had been involved in various peace movements in New England, especially the annual gathering supported by the Universal Peace Union at Salt Point, New York.

The 1905 meeting focused on three major points: First – Arbitration over Armed Conflict; Second – Reduction in Armaments to Reduce the Financial Burden on the Working Classes; and Third – Securing Waterways of Commerce as Neutral Zones. Among the speakers were religious leaders, legal minds, members of the Fourth Estate, and, representing the Shakers, Eldress Anna White of the North Family. The convention coincidentally occurred just at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, which gave those in attendance ample opportunity to praise President Theodore Roosevelt for his work to end that war. A telegram of appreciation was sent to the president from the delegates.

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“Interior, Convention Hall, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” postcard, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1905-6. 1981.19420.1

The Shakers’ convention is well documented by newspaper articles, broadsides, and a few postcards. The best known image of the convention is of the afternoon session in the sanctuary of the Meetinghouse. It is titled, Interior, Convention Hall, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y. Another image shows carriages assembled in front of the Meetinghouse with people milling around either waiting to enter or having just exited the building. It is titled During Peace Convention, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.

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“During Peace Convention, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.” postcard, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1905-6. 1981.19404.1

The Museum recently acquired a third postcard produced at the time of the peace convention. This card lacks a caption but clearly shows the interior of the Meetinghouse during the convention.

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[Interior, Convention Hall, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.] postcard, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1905-6. 2016.24191.1

Why was this third image not captioned? Examining the back side of the two captioned postcards it appears were probably printed at the same time. The backs of the three cards are not divided in half as are modern postcards. Until 1907 the U. S. Postal Service allowed only the recipient’s address to be written on the back of a card; messages were scrawled on the front, in white space left by the photographer or over the image. After 1907, postcard backs were divided – the address written on the right side of the back with the left side available for a message. The backs of all three postcards have stamp blocks in their upper right-hand corners indicating the amount of postage required and where to place the stamp. The two captioned postcards have a stamp block with a depiction of a sailing ship while the third postcard has a stamp block showing a hand with an “X” on it. Blank postcards would probably have been purchased in bulk by photographers, so it is likely the uncaptioned postcard was produced at a different time than the two more commonly seen captioned cards.

The Shakers themselves vetted the images that were going to be printed as postcards, and it’s possible that since the captioned image shows only a few empty seats in the sanctuary and the uncaptioned card shows many more, the Shakers opted for the image that made the convention appear better attended. The photographer may have hated to waste a perfectly good image, and later decided there was some money to be made by printing the uncaptioned image.

Although the photographer is not identified for certain, it is possible these images were created by James E. West, an itinerant photographer living in Hoosick Falls, New York. West took photographs at both the North and Church Families at Mount Lebanon in the early 1900s and would likely have known about the opportunity to photograph the convention or even have been asked to do so.

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[Interior, Convention Hall, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.] postcard, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1905-6. 2016.24191.1

The photographer would have had time throughout the day to take more images, and there are two other photographs that were turned into postcards that were possibly created on the same day. The first of these shows a crowd arriving or departing the Meetinghouse. This time both horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles are included in the photograph. The cars seem to be carefully parked so as to not be too close to the horses – after all, it was a period when the two modes of transport were learning to coexist. The second of these postcards appears to be the glamour shot. It shows the back side of the Meetinghouse and the drive sheds used for the Lebanon Ministry’s vehicles and those of visiting ministry members, reflected in the Tannery Mill Pond. Whether these last two photographs were created during the Peace Convention is not known, but they certainly date to a time very close to that event and were taken in the same area the convention was being held. Because of these five images, viewers today have a fine sense of the place and time of the Peace Convention.

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[Meetinghouse Drive Sheds and Tannery Pond, Mt. Lebanon, N. Y.] postcard, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1905-6. 2013.23578.1