How condensed milk got its start with the Shakers

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Postcard. Elder Alonzo Giles Hollister Standing Next to the Shakers’ Vacuum Pan, Laboratory, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1910, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2008.21701.1.

In the September 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Carolyn Hughes Crowley presented an article in the “The Object at Hand” column titled, “The Man Who Invented Elsie, the Borden Cow.” The article was sparked by an “oddly shaped copper kettle officially designated as a ‘vacuum pan’” that, at the time, sat in a corner of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The vacuum pan was acquired from the Borden Company. The Borden Company, however, acquired the pan from the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon in 1931 through Sister Emma J. Neale, because it had an association with the company’s founder Gail Borden. 

The story of Gail Borden, briefly told, is one of a man obsessed with developing products that would improve people’s lives. Born in Norwich, New York in 1801, Borden settled in Texas in 1829 where he worked as a land surveyor, newspaper publisher, and passionate inventor. When his 32 year old wife and four year old son died of yellow fever, Borden, observing that the fever subsided during the winter, suggested building refrigerators to keep people in an environment that was too cold for the fever to take hold. In the 1840s he dehydrated beef, mixed it with flour, and formed it into biscuits that provided considerable sustenance packed into an easily portable form that did not spoil on long voyages. He hoped to market them to the Army but soldiers found them less palatable than similar product made by competitors. In 1851, aboard a ship from England, where he had exhibited his meat biscuits at the London Crystal Palace Exposition, Borden witnessed children dying from a lack of milk from shipboard cows. His work with meat biscuits convinced him that any food, milk included, could be condensed and preserved. Others had tried to condense milk by boiling it but it inevitably burned and turned sour over an open fire. Borden, after returning to New York, learned of the Mount Lebanon Shakers’ use of a vacuum pan to condense medicinal fluids. The vacuum allowed the Shakers to boil off liquid at low temperatures, thereby concentrating the fluids without affecting their medicinal potency. In 1853 Borden went to stay with the Shakers at the Center Family and made an arrangement to use their vacuum pan to experiment with condensing milk. His experiments succeeded and in 1856 Borden was granted a patent for his process. Shortly after his patent was granted he opened his first successful milk condensing factory in Wassaic, New York and the Borden Company, including Elsie the Cow, became part of the annals of the consumer world. 

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John Benson to Brother Edward Fowler, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Assignment of Perpetual Right to Use the Vacuum Pan Known As “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan,” July 25, 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.9564.1.

How the Shakers came upon the idea of using a vacuum pan for reducing medicines is not known, but it is known that in 1850 they obtained the right to the perpetual use of “Benson & Day’s Patented Improved Vacuum Pan.” These rights were assigned to Brother Edward Fowler, trustee of the Church and Center Families at Mount Lebanon. John Benson and James Day of Brooklyn, New York, patented their vacuum pan in 1848 as an improvement for boiling away the liquid from cane molasses to make sugar. 

The story as told makes a clear case for the Borden Company’s interest in the Shakers’ vacuum pan and its subsequent acquisition by the Smithsonian. There is, however, a small twist in this story that has not been told. Buried in a diary kept in the Mount Lebanon Church Family by  Deaconess Anna Dodgson is the following information from February 19, 1880: “The Vacuum Pan failed some weeks since at Laboratory, having stood the test of 30 years usage, A New One arrives to day.” The Shaker vacuum pan acquired by the Borden Company and preserved at the Smithsonian is not the same one that Gail Borden used!

There are two 19th century illustrations of the Shaker vacuum pan. In 1856, three years following Borden’s work with the Shakers, Benson John Lossing, illustrator and author, visited Mount Lebanon and wrote and illustrated an article on the Shakers that was published in the July, 1857 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In this article, Lossing included a drawing of the Shakers’ vacuum pan along with other equipment used in their medicinal manufacturing. The second illustration was done by an unidentified illustrator in 1884 for an almanac titled, Shaker Almanac 1885: The Joys and Sorrows of a Poor Old Man, promoting medicines made by the Shakers for entrepreneur Andrew Judson White. These two illustrations, one of the original 1850 vacuum pan and the other of the 1880 replacement, show enough similarity that it appears that the replacement pan was also purchased from John Benson. 

 

 

 

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“[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 Shakers bring fire hydrants to the countryside

Ludlow Fire Hydrant, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

Ludlow Fire Hydrant, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph. This hydrant was position to protect the First and Second Dwellings, the Shakers’ Workshop, and the Wash House. It was the hydrant that supplied power to the Wash House.

A recent blog mentioning the devastating fire of 1875 at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon brought to mind some objects of interest still located at Mount Lebanon’s North Family. In the wake of the fire’s devastation, the North Family made a decision to install four fire hydrants to protect their buildings. In the summer of 1875 they laid five-thousand feet of wooden pipe from a stream running through the East Family downhill to a new reservoir they had dug east and steeply uphill from their dwelling house. The reservoir, two-hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, almost exactly the size of the footprint of their Stone Barn, and sixty feet above the dwelling, was capable of proving sufficient water for fire-fighting. When completed at the end of the summer, the family journal commented that the “Hydrants throw water above all the buildings.”

Ludlow Hydrants from Ludlow Valve Company Catalogue

Ludlow Hydrants from Ludlow Valve Company Catalogue, 1878. Souce: http://www.firehydrant.org/pictures/lv01.html

The hydrants, three of which are still in place, were manufactured by the Ludlow Valve Company in Troy, New York. Ludlow Valve was founded by Henry G. Ludlow in Waterford, New York, in 1866 and began making hydrants soon after. Ludlow, an engineer with a degree from Union College, originally a native of Nassau, New York, ran his company into the 1890s. It was the largest producer of fire hydrants in the country. Although the company officially went out of business in 1969, parts for some Ludlow hydrants are still being manufactured.

There is no record of the North Family ever using the hydrants to fight a fire but in the late 1870s the Shakers extended the piping from the hydrant to their new Wash House to power a ten-horsepower water motor manufactured by the Backus Water Motor Company in Newark, New Jersey. The water motor was initially used to power the wash mill and centrifugal extractor for the laundry, but eventually operated the family’s small grist mill, a mechanical wood splitter, and several other smaller machines. In time, the Shakers added lines to the hydrant pipes to provide power to the Sisters’ Workshop for their sewing machines and in 1891 to the Second Dwelling to operate the equipment for the dairy located in its cellar.

Map of North Family Hydrant Locations and Assumed Piping

Map of North Family Hydrant Locations and Assumed Piping, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, as drawn by A. K. Mosley for the Historic American Buildings Survey, 1939.

The use of pressurized hydrants for fire-fighting goes back to the second decade of the nineteenth century but as obviously useful as they were in urban areas, the use of hydrants in rural settings such as the Shaker Village would have been quite unexpected by visitors to Mount Lebanon. The Church and South Families at Mount Lebanon also added hydrants to their arsenal of fire-fighting equipment at about the same time.

First and Second House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY

First and Second House, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1880, James Irving, photographer, Troy, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.4088.1 This view from the early 1880s shows the hydrant that was meant to protect the Second Dwelling, the Brethren’s Workshop, Forge, and Deacons Workshop. It is the one hydrant that has been removed.

 

 

 

The wonderful world of joinery

Those engaged in the art and mystery of joining pieces of wood together to make a chair, a table, a case of drawers, a cupboard, or any other useful piece of furniture, architectural feature, or household accessory, have a wide choice of “joints” suited to making such things strong and beautiful. Shaker woodworkers, like their counterparts in the outside world, demonstrated their mastery of mortise and tenon, rabbet, half-lap, dovetail, dado, miter, spline, finger, and tongue and groove joints. For a few specific purposes Shaker woodworkers used a particular method of joining pieces of wood that, while not unknown in the outside world, was not common. That method involved turning the common round mortise and tenon joint – that is inserting a round peg in a round hole – into a stronger joint by cutting threads inside the mortise and on the outside of the tenon and screwing them together like iron nuts and bolts. This joint, because it did not require glue, had the advantage of being relatively easy to take apart.

There are three common examples of Shakers using this joinery technique to great advantage – the pulls (or knobs) on drawers and cabinet doors, the omnipresent pegs (or pins) mounted in boards circling the interior of nearly every Shaker room, and window screws.

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Threaded Drawer Pull from Shaker Blanket Chest, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10625.1

Pulls. Drawer pulls with glued unthreaded mortises and tenons tend to loosen over the years as wooden drawer fronts expand and contract year to year from summer to winter. The heavier the drawer the more the stress put on the pull every time the drawer is opened. The threaded mortise and tenon is a mechanical joint that relies on the interlocking of the threads rather than glue. Alternatives to threading the pull – used more in non-Shaker pieces – were to either leave the tenon long, protruding into the drawer, and put a pin through it so it could not pull out, or cutting a slot in the tenon and driving a wedge into the slot, flaring the end of the tenon so it was too big to pull out of the hole.

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Illustration of Shaker Threaded Pegs in Peg Board, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, drawn by staff

Pegs and Peg Board. Could anything be more annoying to the Shaker than grabbing his or her wrap from the hallway peg board and half-way across the door yard finding the peg on which it hung still tangled in the collar? Threaded pegs, like pulls, did not accidentally come loose from the board. Peg board was made in two parts – one piece of rough wood nailed to the studs that supported the plastered walls and a finished piece of wood that covered the rough board and the joint between that board and the plaster. The rough board had threaded holes to receive the pegs while the finished board had a slightly larger hole through which the peg could pass on its way to the threaded board beneath. In cases where this technique was used, the pegs actually held the finished peg board on the wall. Removing the pegs and peg finished peg board allowed rooms to be painted without having to worry about getting paint or whitewash on the peg boards.

Window Screws. In a number of Shaker buildings the windows were designed such that there was a thin board that overlapped the movable window sash. This board, much like the finished piece of peg board, could be tightened against the sash by turning a thumbscrew that passed through it but tightened into a board beneath. This feature made it possible to hold the sash open without using a stick or counterweights.

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Tap and Die, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12900.1a,b

Making  wooden threads was done with two tools: a tap for cutting the threads inside the mortise and a die or “screwbox” for cutting the threads on the tenon. These tools would not have been common in every toolbox but specialized woodworkers may have invested in or made these specialized tools. For example, making spinning wheels, which Shakers in a number of communities did, required threaded tensioning screws for keeping the cord that connected the large drive wheel with the spindle where the fiber was twisted tight. Toolmakers made hand screws for clamping pieces of wood together that required long threaded wooden rods and threaded mortises and some woodworkers specialized in making large, one and one-half to three inch diameter wooden screws and nuts for large vises on cabinetmakers’ workbenches.

In the collection of Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon is a purpose-made tool for threading the tenons on pegs for peg boards that also has a changeable cutter for doing the same for drawer pulls. The tool is thought to have been made at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, a clever mechanic and woodworker. Faced with the task of making tens-of-thousands of threaded pegs, it seems a worthy project for a clever brother.

There is one example in the Museum’s collection where one unidentified cabinetmaker used the “treaded mortise and tenon joint” in a less common way. Two tripod stands – candlestands – were made with their tops joined to their pedestal bases with wooden screws. Round cleats, screwed to the bottom of the stands’ tops have threaded mortises that screw on threaded tenons protruding from the tops of the stands’ pedestals. The Shaker cabinetmaker was probably thinking of the mechanical strength of the joint and not taking the stand apart for shipping – but it is a design worthy of consideration by Ikea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popcorn ball press

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Fig 1: Popcorn Ball Press and Accessories, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, Ca. 1885, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6589.1 (press) and 1953.6590.1-.3 (cylinders)

Shaping popcorn into balls when it is covered in hot sugar syrup or molasses is hard on the hands, especially in quantity. This popcorn ball press relieved that discomfort and made consistently sized balls.

Using the press was pretty simple – the metal cylinders were filled with sticky popcorn and then placed on the base of the press. The arm was pushed down until the two recesses met, trapping a perfectly round ball between them. The finished popcorn balls were then either served or wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper to be eaten or sold later. Though there’s no documentation of the Shakers selling popcorn balls, the three accompanying metal cylinders suggest a vigorous production.

The Museum’s 1953 accession records for the popcorn ball press provide two significant pieces of information: That the press was made by Canterbury Brother Alexander Cochran (sometimes Cochrane), and that it was used for making “molasses popcorn balls.” Brother Alexander Y. Cochran was born May 14, 1848. Much of Brother Alexander’s life story eludes us, but we know he was the natural brother of Eldress Dorothea T. Cochran at Canterbury. Eldress Dorothea was born in 1844 in Duntalker, Scotland. While the 1860 census gives Alexander’s birthplace as Massachusetts, it is likely his parents came to this country between 1844 and 1848. Brother Alexander was second elder in the Canterbury Church Family and worked closely with Ministry Elder Henry Blinn on managing correspondence and financial matters pertaining to the publication of the Manifesto up until May, 1890, when he decided to leave the Shakers. Little more is known about his post-Shaker life, except that an Alexander Y. Cochrane of Waverly, Massachusetts, was granted patent 584,922 on July 22, 1897 for an improvement in a “yielding wire seat frame” and that he was, in 1920, married to Louise F. Cochrane. Among Eldress Dorothy’s vital statistics it is recorded that she had a brother living in Waverly, Massachusetts, so it’s likely this is the same Alexander Cochran. We don’t know whether the popcorn ball press was a harbinger of Brother Alexander’s inventive nature, but his departure from the Shakers in 1890 does provide a date before which the press was made and used.

There are two scenarios for the Canterbury Shakers popcorn ball adventures  – one, that they made traditional blackstrap molasses popcorn balls and the second, that molasses, in this case, refers to maple molasses. Any readers with special knowledge of the history of popcorn balls in New England are encouraged to weigh in.

Maple Molasses: About two miles from the Shaker Village at Canterbury, the Shakers had an 800-tree sugar bush that they tapped for over a half a century. The trees produced over 50 barrels of sap per day during sugaring season and the sugar house workers could turn that into 50 gallons of syrup or 350 pounds of maple sugar. The Canterbury sisters made a variety of maple candies to sell from the sugar and it is reasonable to think that maple molasses popcorn balls may have been among their offerings for sale. A simple recipe for maple molasses popcorn balls can be found at here.

Blackstrap Molasses: In the 1880s the cane sugar and molasses jockeyed for position as the more expensive sweetener. Cane sugar had historically been the more expensive of the two, but as improvements in processing sugar cane were made it eventually became quite inexpensive and a premium emerged for those who preferred the taste of blackstrap molasses. If you have not tasted molasses popcorn, think Cracker Jacks, America’s first “The More You Eat the More You Want” junk food. Its flavor is an acquired taste (and today’s corn syrup Cracker Jacks do not do the original justice), but apparently once a devotee, it was greatly preferred by some in some foods – popcorn balls being one of them. There are a number of recipes available for making molasses popcorn balls. One five-star recipe for “bare-bones popcorn balls” that uses just popped corn, molasses, and refined sugar can be found here. The final step in this recipe is to “eat whatever sticks to your fingers.”  Bon appetit!

 

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Molasses Popcorn Balls from Tori Avey: Tori’s Kitchen website.

 

“[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.

A four ton trip hammer

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Forge, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 2016, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Staff photograph.

In the winter of 1846 the First and Second Order of the Church Family determined to build a new blacksmith shop, one of stone with waterpower that would operate a lathe, drilling works, a grindstone, bellows for the forge, and a trip hammer. The shop was to be built 34 feet by 44 feet and located in the corner of the Deming Lot at the northeast corner of the land bordered by the main road that ran through the village (now called Darrow Road) and the road that runs downhill to the Shaker gristmill (now called Ann Lee Lane on the east end and Cherry Lane on the west end). The shop still stands and is now a private residence. The 1845 Shakers’ census notes that there were three blacksmiths in what is now called the Center Family – Brothers Arba Noyes, James Vail, and George Long.

Construction was largely done by members of the Second Order with considerable help from hired Irish laborers who did much of the digging for the pit for the waterwheel and laid up most of the stonework. By mid-summer the wheel pit, the drain to carry away water from the wheel, and the masonry work were completed. In the early fall, the hired labor returned to build the dam to create the pond to supply water to power the shop. The dam is still standing and pond is on the east side of the road.

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Interior of the Church Family Forge with the Trip Hammer in its Original Location, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1940, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. John S. Williams, Sr., photographer.

The decision to include a trip hammer in their new blacksmith’s shop was bold, but one that greatly increased the Shakers’ ability to fabricate and manufacture items out of iron. Trip hammers of many designs have been used for a couple of thousand years. The basic principle is that some kind of power is applied, in some manner, to raise a hammer larger than can be lifted by a man so that when it is dropped it will come down with more force than a man can exert alone. Trip hammers, in addition to forging iron, have been used for hulling and grinding grain, pounding rags for papermaking, and crushing iron ore to make it easier to extract the metal from the rock. In blacksmithing, trip hammers are often used to draw out flat sheets of metal from an iron bar and to shape a piece of square iron rod, for instance flattening the end of an iron bar to make a shovel and or making round ends on a square bar to make an axel for a wagon.

The Shakers documented their new trip hammer in their journals. In January 1846, Center Family Elder Amos Stewart experimented with a model for a windmill, hoping that he could use wind power “to tilt a triphammer.” This attempt, although it would have saved building a dam for the shop, apparently failed. The next month, Brother Hiram Rude, the family mechanic, went to Lee, Massachusetts to see a “gang of Triphammers.” The Shakers frequently went to visit businesses and factories to stay abreast of new technologies. Apparently in the next few weeks a design for the hammer was drawn up and casting patterns made for the metal parts. Elder Amos and Brother Peter went to Albany to see about castings for the gearing for the hammer. It was nine months later – after the new shop was finished and its forge fired up – that Elder Amos and Brother Braman Wicks, a carpenter from the Church Family, began working again on the gearing to drive the hammer. In July, a tree was cut for the frame to hold the hammer. Apparently by winter that year the Shakers were rethinking the design of the trip hammer. Elder Amos and Brother Hiram went to Cohose, New York, to look at another trip hammer and two days after that trip they had settled “upon the form for a Hammer & spoke for castings in Troy.” This final design was completed and the trip hammer seemed to be in use shortly after that.

While trip hammers were associated primarily with iron work, the Shakers appeared to have another idea for using it quite early on – maybe even before they began planning to built it: pounding black ash logs to break down the bond between the tree’s natural growth rings. When the growth rings are separated, they are easily peeled off in long strips and become the treasured materials from which baskets are woven. Most basket makers would do this work by pounding a log with a sledge hammer. For the Shakers, the ability to more efficiently produce basket weaving material meant that they could greatly increase their production of all kinds of baskets. In November of 1847, Elder Daniel Boler of the Church Family worked “at the blacksmith shop preparing trip hammer for pounding out basket stuff.” The Shakers were so dependent on having basket materials prepared by machine that in  1863, when apparently their own trip hammer was not available, they took ash logs to Bromley King’s forging shop in Waterford, New York, to get them pounded.

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Trip Hammer on xhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca.1985, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Paul Rocheleau, photographer.

This trip hammer is among the largest and heaviest non-architectural objects made by the Shakers. It is over fifteen feet long, six and a half feet high, just over four feet wide, and is thought to weigh around four tons. The machine has two hammers – a large one at one end and a small one at the other end. It was powered by a waterwheel connected by a belt to the wooden drive pulley. Once the hammer got up to speed and the massive cast iron flywheel was rotating to preserve its inertia, one or both hammers could be engaged.

Watch a trip hammer demonstration from Thomas Ironworks, Seville, Ohio 

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Interior of the Blacksmith’s Shop Exhibition at the Shaker Museum, Old Chatham, NY, ca. 1955, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. C. E. Simmons, photographer.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s acquisition of the trip hammer has some tales and legends associated with it. In the 1940s John S. Williams, Sr., the museum’s founder, heard that the Shakers were breaking up the equipment in the blacksmith’s shop in preparation for selling the building. He appealed to have the work stopped until he could move the hammer and the forge and bellows to the museum. It was war-time in America and the scarcity of trucks made it difficult to find someone who could move such a heavy piece of equipment. Fortunately, Williams’s good friend Albert Callan, the owner of the Chatham Courier newspaper, had a new printing press being delivered around this time and once the delivery of the press was complete the truck headed to Mount Lebanon to move the trip hammer. Once loaded, they then had to find a route back to the Museum that did not involve crossing a bridge that could not bear the weight of the truck and hammer. Somehow it all worked out and the trip hammer has been at the Shaker Museum ever since.

The Shaker Improved Washing Machine

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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.