A Shaker relic

Framed piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Framed Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

This framed piece of fabric was given to the Shaker Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr., in 1953 by Sister Marguerite Frost of the Church Family, Canterbury, NH. Williams’s son, Warden, recalled that his father was at Canterbury negotiating for the purchase of a number of objects for the Museum. By this time some of the Shakers had become invested in and committed to helping him establish a museum that they hoped would tell their story. Some had become particularly fond of Williams himself. At the end of the session, Sister Marguerite handed him a paper bag and told him not to open it until he got in his car. “Dad forgot to pick up the bag when he left the room and the Sisters had to come to his car and hand him the bag,” said Warden. When Williams had driven down the road a bit, he stopped the car and opened the bag to discover it contained a piece of fabric from the dress worn by Mother Ann Lee on her voyage from England to America in 1774. Warden remembered that this moment brought his usually stoic father to tears. The fabric is flanked by two pieces of paper with an inscription identifying the fragment on one and its provenance on the other: “Given to Sr. M. E. Hastings when at Mt. Leb., N.Y. in 1846. By her presented to Sister L. A. Shepard 1885.” Marcia E. Hastings (1811-1891) was a Canterbury Church Family Eldress and received this gift during a visit Mount Lebanon. In 1885 she passed it on to Sister Lucy Ann Shepard (1836-1926), best known for her work as a Canterbury Trustee responsible for the cloak business. The fabric was framed by the Shakers and was probably displayed in the community rather than being secreted away. Similar remembrances exist in several collections. The Shakers kept and protected them over the years, treasuring the connection they provided with early pillars of their church.

Piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

The fabric has been identified as hand woven of hand-spun linen tread, but has not been definitively dated to the period of the Shakers’ ocean voyage. While there is no reason to think the piece is not legitimate, its authenticity is of little importance. What is important is that the Shakers believed it was real and treated it as if Mother Ann Lee had indeed worn it aboard Mariah sometime between May 10, 1774, when the small group of Shakers left Liverpool, and August 6, 1774, when they disembarked in New York City.

Years later, a poem title, “Last Remains of Mother’s Wardrobe, … Carefully preserved by Jennet Angus,” Watervliet, N. Y., was written about this or one of the other remembrances of Mother Ann. The manuscript poem is preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society Library:

Unborn generations

Who come to Mother’s fold,

May feel some satisfaction

This relic to behold;

To know that Mother saw it,

And held it in her hand;

To know it cross’d the Ocean

With her, from Britain’s Land;

Will please her faithful children,

And bring her spirit near,

The Mother of all Zion,

Who lived and suffered here.”


Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon exhibition, 2017.

This object is on display at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon this summer in the exhibition Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage. Supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and celebrating the centennial of women winning the right to vote in New York State, the exhibition opens with objects associated with Mother Ann Lee and a discussion of her role in founding the Shaker Church. From the beginning women were afforded a more significant role in every aspect of shaping the sect’s beliefs and practices than in most other churches or in society in general. The Shakers’ belief that God is both male and female and the example of a charismatic female founder and leader afforded Shaker women an advantage over groups believing in a paternalistic God-head.

The exhibition is accessible by guided tour only, Fridays through Mondays at 11:00, 12:00, and 2:00. Learn more by clicking here.




Combing and carding wool: A most persnickety operation

fig 1

Pair of Worsted Combs, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1851, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.28.1 and 1950.32.1.

This article continues our last posting on Brother Richard Bushnell Woodrow of the Center Family Shakers at Mount Lebanon, New York. Here we describe a pair of worsted combs he made for the sisters in his family.

The processing of wool for spinning is usually done in two ways – combing and carding. Combing wool is the earlier of the two methods and is done to removes short fibers while aligning the long fibers. The result of combing wool is similar to combing one’s hair when the goal is to have each hair parallel to the other. Combed wool, when spun, produces a yarn with fibers that lay close to each other. The yarn is therefore smoother, stronger, and harder and produces a fabric that is cooler to wear. This fabric is ideal for men’s or women’s pants and jackets. Carding wool, in contrast, does not remove the short fibers but rather, tangles them – sort of like teasing hair – to produce a softer fluffy yarn that traps some air between the fibers. This woolen yarn retains strength from the longer fibers being twisted together, but is also soft and warm. It is perfect for woven winter coats and knit sweaters, socks, and gloves.

fig 2

Pair of Worsted Combs (detail of date), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1851, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.28.1 and 1950.32.1.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has several pairs of Shaker worsted combs in its collection. The pair presented here is typical of worsted combs made for hundreds of years. This pair, and another nearly identical pair, appears to have been made by Brother Richard B. Woodrow in 1851. A Shaker journalist recorded this entry in the Center Family Journal on May 14, 1851: “Richard [Woodrow] engaged about making some new combs for the sisters to comb with this season &c.” Each of the pair of combs has the date “1851” stamped in the brass formed around the head of the combs. These combs can be described as “two pitch” combs – two pitch describing the number of rows of tines (historically called “broitches”) mounted in the head of the comb – with eleven inch tines. Combs vary from two to eight pitch with broitches as long as twelve inches. The number of rows of tines selected by a worsted comber depended on the type of wool that was being combed. These combs were acquired directly from the Church Family Shakers by Museum founder, John S. Williams, Sr., prior to 1950. At that point the remaining members of the Church Family were in residence in Ann Lee Cottage at the Center Family where Brother Richard had lived.

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Postcard (20th century re-enactment of hand wool combing in late 18th century Calder valley, at Bankfield Museum, Halifax), Bankfield Museum, Halifax, England, Document ID: 100095 Library ID: 34559582.

Wool combing has a fascinating history and language. Both men and women were employed as combers. First the tines were heated on a stove; the heat made it easier for the tines to move through oily wool without tearing or breaking the fibers. The comb was mounted on a “pad” by inserting the pad’s small iron pins in the comb’s two “pad points” – one on the side of the handle and one in its end. With its tines pointing up, its handle away from the comber, the comber “lashed” on the proper amount of wool. As much of the wool as possible was put on the side of the comb opposite the handle. Once the wool was lashed on, the comb was turned on the pad with its tines horizontal to the floor. The comber then used the second heated comb to “jig” or “fetch off” the wool on the mounted comb to the free comb by using a controlled circular chopping motion – the free comb’s tines pulling though the wool  perpendicular to the tines on the mounted comb. Once jigged, the combs were switched and the process repeated until the wool was sufficiently combed – each time removing the remaining short fibers (the “noils”) and saving them to be carded. The combs were re-heated as needed, even with the wool on. Once combed sufficiently, the wool was moved to the mid-point of the tines and the comber began “drawing off the sliver.” This process pulled the fibers off the tines in a prescribed way until all but the shortest fibers were left on the tines. The sliver, which should be four feet long, was laid out on a bench for evaluation and the removal of any “neps,” or foreign matter. A number of slivers were combined and rolled into a ball called a “top” and passed on to the spinners. This is the very short version of a most persnickety operation.  [Source: Enid Anderson’s The Spinner’s Encyclopedia (1987).]

The knit rugs of Elvira Hulett

rug 1

Rug, Church Family, Hancock, MA, c. 1890. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.8574.1. Matthew Kroening, photographer.

A small group of rugs, similar in their style of manufacture and aesthetic features, are associated with Elvira Hulett, a Shaker Sister who lived her life at Hancock, Massachusetts.

Elvira Curtis Hulett was born on August 6, 1805 – thirty one years to the day from when the Shakers first set foot in New York City. She was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, an abutting town to Northampton. She was apparently the second born in a family of three boys and two girls. Her parents were Anthony Hulett and Charlotte Curtis Hulett. Something happened in the Hulett family following the birth of their fifth child – Theodore Graves Hulett on June 13, 1811 – for in 1812 all the family but Elvira’s father came to live with the Shakers at Hancock.

Sister Elvira lived a long and useful life among the Hancock Shakers. She resided with Hancock’s West Family for nearly a half century, moving into the Church Family where she worked as a weaver, baker, tailoress, and eventually the Eldress of the family. Her mother, Charlotte, died in the faith as did her brother Chester, who served as a trustee at the West Family. The other three children, Charlotta (called Hortency in her Shaker life), Walter, and Theodore all apparently left in their youth.

Of the five rugs that are associated with Sister Elvira, only one is signed by the maker – that one, now in a private collection, bears a cross-stitched label that reads, “Made in 1892 by Sister Elvira in her 88th year.” The only Elvira this could be among the Shakers was Elvira Hulett. One of the five known rugs was sold at the Ralph O. Esmerian sale at Sotheby’s in late January, 2014. The remaining three rugs are in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. They were all acquired at Hancock from Sister Mary Frances Dahm in 1957. They are all round, ranging in diameter from 44 1/4 inches to 56 3/4 inches. They are all knit with a spiraling center several rotations wide surrounded by concentric circles of knit strips. The rugs are bound in a traditional three-strand braid to protect the outer edge of the knitting. All three are backed with heavy denim that helps them to lay flat.

rug 4

Rug, Hooked, Knit and Braided, Hancock, MA, c. 1890. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1957.8576.1

A fourth rug in the Museum’s collection, pictured above, needs to be further studied as possibly associated with Sister Elvira. This rug, a traditional hooked rug (the hooking probably not the work of Sister Elvira) has a knit border applied to it with a typical braided boarder protecting its outer edge. It, like the three round knitted rugs, was acquired from Sister Mary Dahm at Hancock in 1957. The style of the knitting, the braided border, and the patterns used are so much like the other work of Sister Elvira that it seems that this rug should be added to this Sister’s portfolio. All of the rugs associated with Sister Elvira appear to have been made in the late 1880s and early 1890s, a period when the Shakers had relaxed the prohibition of unnecessary ornament in their household furnishings.

In the late summer of 1882, Elvira traveled from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ira Race, who were not Shakers (although it may have been her sister Hortency and her husband), to Niagara County, New York, to visit Elvira’s natural brother, Theodore Hulett. It was Sister Elvira’s first trip outside Massachusetts. She visited Niagara Falls.

Her brother Theodore was an interesting character. His biographies in various histories of Niagara County tell that at twelve years of age he left home and apprenticed himself to a carriage maker in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His days as a Shaker youth are not mentioned. As an apprentice he is said to have studied law in his free time and by 1834 made his way to Niagara Falls. There he began several careers – one as a construction manager and the other in the legal field. He was superintendent of construction for the first suspension bridge to cross the Niagara River connecting the United States and Canada. To get the first cable across the river Hulett suggested that a contest be held to see who could fly a kite across to the other side. Once the winning string was tied to a tree, heavier and heavier strings, ropes, and cables could be pulled across the gorge eventually leading to the establishment of a cable capable of holding an iron basket that he and the bridge’s engineer, Charles Elett, Jr. of Philadelphia, had devised to transport workers from one side to the other. He was so confident in the safety of the basket that he sent his own daughter Elvira (clearly named for his older sister) across on its maiden voyage – “never imagining for a moment the possibility that it could tumble down into the gorge taking little Elvira to a most violent death.” Fortunately, she arrived safely on the other side becoming the first woman to be carried across the Niagara gorge in a basket. Elvira Hulett Gates lived in Warsaw, New York, dying there at age 85 in 1927.

These two members of the Hulett family from apparently difficult and challenging beginnings, both had success in finding their way to positions of leadership in their different communities and in expressing their creative prowess in ways that we can still appreciate and even marvel at today.