“[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.


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.


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.


Doris Ulmann’s portrait of Brother William Anderson

A number of photographers are well known to Shaker scholars for their portraits of Shaker brothers and sisters and views of Shaker villages. Very few of these photographers, however, are well known among those who study the history of photography.

One exception is Doris Ulmann. In the late 1920s Ulmann, an amateur photographer from New York City, sought out the Shakers of New Lebanon in her quest to record American “types” – people in their everyday costume doing their everyday jobs. Ulmann had been well educated at the Ethical Culture School and Columbia University; was well married to physician and amateur photographer Charles Jaeger; was well off, with a house on Park Avenue, two cooks, a dressmaker, nurses, and a chauffeur; and was well trained as a photographer, studying with Clarence H. White at Columbia and and then as one of his first students when he opened his own school of photography. Ulmann raged against the modern tools of photography – light meters, roll film, and miniature cameras. Instead she worked exclusively with large glass plate view cameras with lens caps rather than shutters – occasionally using pin-hole plates, declaring she was her own light meter. This would have be all well and good had it not been for the fact that these are the tools of the studio photographer and Ulmann increasingly sought her subjects outside the studio.

Ulmann was small of frame and suffered from a digestive disorder that eventually took her life at the age of 52. Although her first sitters were doctors, writers, and members of the intellectual and creative aristocracy, in 1925 Clarence White died, Ulmann divorced, and she took to the road with her camera to make portraits of people in their natural surroundings. She is best known for her work photographing the Appalachians of western North Carolina, the Gullah Islanders, Dunkards, Mennonites, and in 1926 and 1927, some Shakers at the Second and South Families at Mount Lebanon. How she came to seek out the Shakers is unclear; while in Columbia County in the late 1920s, however, she also did several portraits of Edna St. Vincent Millay at her home in Austerlitz, New York. It is a chicken-or-egg kind of question as to whether the Shakers brought her to Millay or vice versa.

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Photograph, Doris Ulmann [Elder William Anderson], South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1926. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6446.1.

In the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, a photograph of Brother William Anderson, done in his 86th year, was made by Doris Ulmann. She photographed Anderson several times, apparently in two separate years: 1926 and 1927.

The Museum’s copy of her 1926 photograph of Anderson was apparently a gift from her to him. It is signed on the backing mat by Ulmann and on the window mat, in Anderson’s hand, is written, “William Anderson, 86 Years Young.”  Ulmann routinely gave her sitters copies of their portraits. The photograph of Anderson in the Museum’s collection was given to the Museum by Thomas E. Kelly of Lenox, Massachusetts. Kelly received the photograph directly from William Anderson. In the photograph Anderson is wearing a straw hat and holding a large book. In another version of the photograph Anderson appears in profile with his hat off and his hands on the open book. Still a third version of the photograph in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, shows Anderson facing the camera with his hands apart on the open book with his hat hanging in the background.

William Anderson was born in New York City on February 20, 1841. William’s father, Samuel, left his wife and children to go Canada. William and his younger sister, Martha Jane Anderson, came to the North Family at Mount Lebanon in 1855. Martha remained with the North Family her entire life while William moved to the East Family in 1866 and when that family closed in 1872, he moved to the Church Family, where he had charge of the seed business for twelve years. In 1884 he became a member of the South Family, where he remained until his death in 1930. Brother William managed the Shakers’ chair manufacturing and made a specialty on the Shaker farm of growing potatoes to sell in the local markets. Williams served as the Family Elder. He was known for his strong bass voice at Shaker meetings even though as a child he has suffered an accident that left his hearing imperfect and, in fact, in his later years nearly was totally deaf. As described in a newspaper obituary, “With his long white hair reaching in curls almost to his shoulders, his whiskers, his Shaker hat and long coat, in style in the ‘70s, he was a veritable patriarch of old.” That is certainly the image of Elder William that Ulmann was able to capture for us.