The fleshing beam: Not for weak stomachs

Agricultural pursuits were by far the most important economic engines supporting Shaker families and communities. Shaker farms produced food for the Shakers as well as excess products that were sold. In addition to farming, most Shaker families ran businesses that were designed to provide cash income for the families – cash to purchase the things that the Shakers did not or could not produce for themselves. Many of the products of these businesses – baskets, oval boxes, chairs, coopered-ware, cloaks, yarn swifts, palm-leaf bonnets, etc. – have become popular with antique collectors and essential elements in museum collections. While amazing numbers of these products survive today, there were important industries – sometimes gritty industries – that provided substantial income for some Shaker families but left little physical evidence of their importance. One of the grittiest of these industries was the tanning of hides. The Shakers in several communities operated large and profitable tanneries. The Church Family at Mount Lebanon may have had one of the most important and most successful of all of these operations. The Tan House still stands within earshot of the Meetinghouse but has been repurposed as a meeting hall and performance space for the Darrow School, the current occupants of the property.  The 32 tanning vats in the cellar have been filled in and cemented over and little other evidence of the building’s original purpose is evident. 

Fleshing Beam

Fleshing Beam, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.13021.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

In 1961 the Darrow School held an auction of Shaker materials to raise funds for the planned conversation of the 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library the following year. The object discussed here, a fleshing beam from the Tan House at the Church Family, was purchased by the Shaker Museum at that auction. 

The Beam House.

The Beam House. Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 2. Nürnberg 1550–1791. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317b.2°, from http://www.nuernberger-hausbuecher.de/75-Amb-2-317b-77-r/data, accessed October 10, 2017

In brief the tanning process alters the structure of an animal skin to slow its decomposition and make it more durable – sometimes adding color at the same time. The process always begins with an animal – animal skins (hides) were generally obtained from a slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse hides were quickly removed from the slaughtered animal and cured in salt or in the winter frozen to keep them from decomposing. Once they arrived at the tannery they were first taken to the beam house. Here the hides were soaked in lime water to soften hair and any remaining tissue. Following a soaking, the wet hides were placed on the fleshing beam where they were scraped with special knives on both sides to remove all hair and tissue. Once cleaned, the process of tanning – converting the skin to leather – could begin.  There are about as many ways to tan a hide as there are different kinds of animal skins.  There are both chemical and vegetable methods of tanning. The Shakers generally used tannins, organic compounds from which the trade of tanning takes its name, obtained from tree barks. The explanation of this chemical process is better left to chemists. 

The fleshing beam, however, is a relatively simple tool that has changed little since its inception. It is a plank held up with two legs. Tanners prefer that their beams be held at about a forty-five degree angle and that they be sturdy. This beam is made of curly maple with a black locust inlay – the locust being very moisture resistant. It is supported on chestnut legs and has layers of cloth, paper, and straw to pad the upper end. The person using the beam stood at its high end, draped the wet hide over the beam, held it in place by pressing against the padded end of the beam, and scraped the skin with a knife in a downward motion. 

Edward Deming Andrews wrote in The Community Industries of the Shakers (1932) that, “One of the most prosperous industries at the community of New Lebanon was the tanning of leather and such affiliated occupations as saddle, harness and shoe-making.” A small tan yard and tan house were set up there around 1787. The business was greatly improved when the current Tan House was built in 1834 and outfitted with efficient water-powered equipment. The related trades of saddle-making, harness-making, shoe making, braided horse and ox whips, and pads for a thriving business in hand cards for carding wool, provided these items for the family for sale at market.

While the Museum holds a number of tools related to the trades that made things from  leather, there are relatively few tools in the collection that bear directly on the tanning industry. The fleshing beam is an unlikely survivor. 

 

 

 

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Splitting wood in the 19th century

Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter

Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1883, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950-1118.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Maintaining a sufficient supply of seasoned wood for heating and cooking occupied a considerable amount of time and space for the Shakers at the North Family at Mount Lebanon. The brothers and hired men would begin getting in logs from the mountain wood lots in February and March. By 1830 the Shakers used a circular saw located outside their Brick Shop, powered by its waterwheel, for cutting the logs and what they called “small wood” (branches) to proper firewood length. The logs were then split by hand and carted to one of several wood houses to season under cover. The work of splitting more than one hundred cords of firewood every year was made much easier in the early 1880s when the North Family purchased a Hildreth Patent Double Wood Splitter. An advertising brochure published sometime after 1886 carried two testimonials from the Shakers, one from the Canterbury Shakers dated around 1878 and the other from Elder Frederick W. Evans during the winter of 1883. Both highly praised the machines. Elder Frederick visited Canterbury in June, 1878, and likely saw their Hildreth splitter in operation at that time. In the winter of 1883, he wrote  in his testimonial, “I bought it for a Canaan Family. They had a lot of some fifty cords of wood sawed up. It was an exceptionally hard lot to split, – mostly Elm. It was their opinion that the machine would fail to do the job. They set it up and put it to work. The foreman stood and watched the operation for a little while, then turned on his heel and said, ‘That will do! It splits any thing put under it.’”

On March 21, 1883 the brothers from the North Family went down to the Upper Canaan Family to watch the machine in operation. As the original intention was that the machine would be shared between the Upper Canaan Family and the North Family, on March 29, 1883 the machine was brought from the Upper Family and put near the firewood saw at the Brick Shop and powered by the waterwheel. It “worked splendidly.” Two days later, however, the splitter broke and had to be taken to Pittsfield, MA, for repairs. The next year the splitter was set up inside the north end of the North Family Wood House and powered by the ten-horsepower Backus water motor the North Family used to operate the machinery in the laundry in the other end of the building. In the floor of the Wood House, where the machine once stood, the Shaker cut two square recesses either to keep the machine from moving across the floor or to level it – or both. The precise location of the machine is preserved by these recesses. 

Advertising Brochure, Hildreth’s Patent Wood Splitter

Advertising Brochure, Hildreth’s Patent Wood Splitter Manufactured by Hildreth Bros. Harvard, Mass, ca. 1886, Hancock Shaker Village: 4244.

The Hildreth Brothers of Harvard, Massachusetts, manufactured these machines. They were made in several different sizes ranging from the smallest – the one the Shakers purchased, capable of splitting wood up to 17 inches long — to one that would split wood 50 inches long. The Shakers paid $240 for their machine. The patent for the splitter (U. S. Patent No. 205550 issued July 2, 1878) was held by its inventor Edwin A. Hildreth, and witnessed by Stanley B. Hildreth and M. G. Hildreth – likely the “Brothers.”  The promotional brochure for the machine suggests that “Parties testing these splitters on rock maple wood from one to two feet in diameter, and so hard that it was with great difficulty that a hand axe could be made to enter it at all … work[ed] so easily and rapidly that, as they expressed it, ‘the boys had hung up their hand axes and would swing them no longer.’” Operating between 125 to 175 strokes per minute the double splitter could split ten to 18 cords of firewood per day or up to eight to ten cords of kindling. 

[An aside: In 2010 the elementary school in Harvard, MA, was renamed the Hildreth Elementary School to honor the gift of six acres of land and half the construction cost of a school built in 1904. The Hildreth family – Edwin A., Stanley B., and Sister Emily E. – were the donors.] 

Although the Museum’s Hildreth wood splitter has not been used to make firewood since the 1930s, there are still some of these machines in operation – mostly being demonstrated by old-time machinery enthusiasts. To watch one of these splitters in operation follow this link and remember that while the machine in operation here is working at a speed of about 60 strokes per minute, the machine was intended to operate two to three times that fast. 

 

A tool for everything

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Though a tool’s primary attribute is its function, sometimes the maker or user of a tool will take the time, usually in an expression of pride, to decorate it with paint or carving. The object presented here was left undecorated by its maker but has a memorable sculptural quality that is closely related to how it was used. The tool is a gauge made to mark out the position of mortises used in joining pieces of wooden window sash. Window sash – the movable part of a window – is composed of a frame with a top and bottom rail and two side pieces called stiles. Thinner horizontal and vertical pieces called muntins or mullions crisscross the frame to support the glazing when it is composed of more than a single piece of glass. The muntins are attached to the frame with mortise and tenon joints – the joint where a square or rectangular peg (tenon) is inserted into a square or rectangular hole (mortise). The rails and stiles of the frame are connected in the same manner but with larger mortises and tenons. When faced with making hundreds if not thousands of these joints (Shaker buildings have a lot of window) it must have been thought prudent to make a special tool for the job.

This sash gauge can make two different sets of marks on a piece of wood. One end of the gauge, fitted with two thin sharp blades set three-eighths of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that joined the rails and stiles; the other end of the gauge, with two blades set one-eighth of an inch apart, marked the mortises and tenons that join the muntins to the frame. Marking joinery with a sharp knife blade is generally more accurate than using a pencil. This gauge is ergonomic, having specific places carefully carved to accommodate the thumb and forefinger when using either end.

Sash Marking Gauge

Sash Marking Gauge (detail of D. R. stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1170.1.

Brother David Rowley, who was a cabinetmaker at the North Family for twenty years, made the gauge. He moved to the Church Family the summer of 1830 where he continued making furniture and window sashes until his death in 1855. His initials, “D. R.,” are stamped on the tool as they are on several woodworking planes, a saw, another adjustable marking gauge, and a set of saw horses in the Museum’s collection. Brother David was born in Sharon, Connecticut in 1779, and chose a career as a cabinetmaker in part due to his small stature (David stood 4’ 10 3/8” inches high) and his feeling that farming, his preferred occupation, would be “too heavy for [his] physical endurance.” He moved from Connecticut to New Lebanon, New York, where his uncle lived, married, and established his cabinetmaking business. He soon learned about the Shakers and being a person with an unsettled spiritual life, became more and more interested in them, until he “saw that they were both by precept & example, the true followers of Christ.” Within a few years he joined the Shakers.

Shakers, their mode of Worship

“Shakers, their mode of Worship.” (Hand-Colored Lithograph), D. W. Kellogg, Hartford, Connecticut,Ca. 1835, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10574.1

The artist of a well known illustration of the Shakers worshiping in the Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon, NY, may have captured an image of Brother David. His stature apparently caught the attention of the artist who included a diminutive Shaker brother in his illustration. As a member of the North Family at Mount Lebanon, Brother David would have participated in the public meeting, the only meeting that the artist would have been allowed to attend.

While there are no known pieces of Shaker furniture that can be attributed absolutely to Brother David, he most assuredly was responsible for much of the early furniture that can be traced to the North Family. His tools help preserve his legacy.

 

It’s not what you think it is

Bull Blinder

Bull Blinder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1850-1890, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1952.4625.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

Sometimes objects in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection are just plain fun, as with the object at hand – a leather contraption that seems as if it would be more at home in an Icelandic legend or on a Viking battlefield than in a Shaker community. (It’s especially fun to solicit guesses from visitors as to the purpose of this object) The device, however, is a perfect fit for a Shaker farm. It was called a bull blinder and was placed over the head of a bull to prevent him from seeing anything. Bulls are well-known for their unpredictable and sometime aggressive temperament. Moving these one-ton, often dangerously-horned animals from place to place always has to be done with caution, and when potential mates or competing bulls are in view, the challenge increases. When Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon acquired the bull blinder from the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, Eldress Emma B. King told the Museum staff that  it was used, “to prevent the bull from trundling the cow.” Trundling or not, Carl Friesch, a Midwestern collector of antique farm equipment, explained, “When a bull’s head is down, that’s when he does damage.” A commonly used commercially-made bull blinder, patented in the 1920s by Henry Masbruch for the Russell Manufacturing Company, Platteville, Wisconsin, had small slits at the bottom of the eye cups allowing the bull to see to graze but kept his head upright when moving around – a position generally minimizing any mischief. The Shakers’ blinder does not have slits and relied solely on not allowing the bull to see anything as he was moved from barn to pasture or pasture to pasture. At the North Family, Mount Lebanon, bulls were kept in the east end of the Great Stone Barn. Bulls had a separate doorway leading past as few cows as possible and directly into what was called the “bull pasture” – a pasture enclosed with a substantial stone wall. 

 

Bull in Commercial Blinder

Bull in Commercial Blinder, Rural Ohio, 2016, photograph by Gloria Jarrett, from her blog, Amish Faith, Family, and Furrow,  http://www.amishfaithfamilyfurrow.com/2016/04/beware-bull.html

 

If I had a crandall hammer….

Crandall Hammer

Crandall Hammer, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1825, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanonr: 1950.1483.1

Sometimes the brutish hard work it took to construct the built environment we have come to admire in Shaker villages can be conveyed in a single object. Such an object is the crandall hammer in Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon’s collection. A crandall is a tool used by stone cutters to give stone a particular look and finish. That finish, a relatively even stippling, was usually achieved with one of two tools, a bush hammer or a crandall. A bush hammer looks something like a meat tenderizer with a face several inches square, cut with a grid of sharp points. The crandall is similar but the hammer head is made from a gathering of individual pointed chisels that are wedged together to make the face of the hammer. The crandall in the museum’s collection is unusual in that the pointed chisels are gathered into a round-shaped head rather than the more usual elongated ax-like head made from stacking the chisels in a line. The museum’s crandall originated at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon and shows all the characteristics of being made by a blacksmith. It’s about twenty-two inches long. It’s face is three-and-one-half inches in diameter and the chisels are about seven inches long. One advantage of a crandall over the bush hammer is that the chisels can be removed, sharpened, and replaced whereas re-cutting the face of a bush hammer is difficult.

Foundation Stones, Second Meetinghouse

Foundation Stones showing stippling, Second Meetinghouse, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY.

There are a number of examples of the Shakers’ use of dressed stone at Mount Lebanon. The most obvious and probably most ambitious one is the marble foundation of the Second Meetinghouse. In 1822 when the Shakers were planning and beginning to prepare materials for the construction of the new meetinghouse, they recorded in a journal, “we were favored with a man qualified to cut and prepare stone, & the foundation was laid of cut stone.” To accomplish this “white stone” (marble) was obtained in Berkshire County and hauled over the mountain by ox team. Once at Mount Lebanon, the stone was sawn into properly sized blocks at the Shakers’ water-powered stone saw. To finish the exterior surface of the stone, it face was worked with a crandall or a bush hammer to give it an even textured appearance. The stippling on each block of marble was framed with a one-inch margin chiseled around its perimeter.

The Second Meetinghouse’s marble foundation rises three feet above the ground and its facing stones cover nearly one-thousand square feet. All of that was hand hammered to achieve the desired finish. An expert on stone cutting could offer an opinion on whether this is crandall or bush hammer work.

 

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.

fig 1

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.

fig 2

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.

fig 5

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To mark or not to mark, that is the question

Last week’s post discussed the Shakers and their rules about signing an individual’s work. When the issue of Shakers signing their work is raised, it is often accompanied by a quotation from the “Millennial Laws or Gospel Statutes and Ordinances Adapted to the day of Christ’s Second Appearing,” as they were revised in October, 1845. Section twelve, “Concerning Marking Tools and Conveniences,” article four, states, “No one should write or print his name on any article of manufacture, that others may hereafter know the work of his hands.” This rule has usually been interpreted to mean that Shakers were not allowed to sign anything they made. Let’s consider, however, what that rule means if we interpret, “articles of manufacture” to mean items made for sale to the outside world rather than objects made to be used in the community. It is known that many products made for sale were marked with the initials of the office deacons responsible for conducting business with the outside world and later the names “Shakers” or “United Society” with a community of origin were used to mark Shaker work.

fig-1

Die Stamp, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1683.1

The object pictured here, a die stamp, cut to mark the initials “D. M.,” was used at Mount Lebanon to mark various Shaker products sold to the outside world. Spinning wheels, reels, tubs, pails, hand cards, and dippers with these initials identified them as the work of the Shakers. This stamp contains the initials of Deacon David Meacham, Sr. (1744-1826), the office deacon at the time the stamp was first used. Other communities followed this example using their deacon’s initials on some products they sold. The initials “F. W.,” (Deacon Francis Winkley) marked spinning wheels, cooperware, and seed packages sold by the Canterbury, NH, Shakers; ‘’D. G.,” (Deacon Daniel Goodrich) appears on bent-wood measures and hand cards made at Hancock, MA, and “J. H.” (Deacon John Holmes) is found stamped into spinning wheels made at Sabbathday Lake, ME. By mid-century the name “Shaker” appeared more commonly on Shaker products. After the Civil War, the full names of deacons began to appear on Shaker products. Deacon Levi Shaw’s name appeared on rug whips made at Mount Lebanon’s North Family and Deacon Dewitt Clinton Brainard’s name appeared on a variety of products produced at Mount Lebanon.

It is not known if this is this “D. M.” stamp was the only die used to mark products at Mount Lebanon or if there were several of these in use. Robert F. W. Meader, a past director of the Shaker Museum, once said he had seen a reference in a Shaker journal to the serif on the “M” on the die having been accidentally broken off. Some stamps found on Shaker objects have the serif – some do not. The die appears to have been hand forged and lacking any mark indicating who made the die, it is not know if it was made by the Shakers or by a die cutter in the world.

fig-4

“D. M.” Printed with Die Stamp on Face of Clock Reel, ca. 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1953.6440.1. The person who used the die stamp to mark the face of this clock reel used it with ink or paint as one would printer’s type rather than as a stamp to incise a the mark.

As for things made by Shakers intended to remain in their own homes and workshops, it should be understood that while anonymity was required for products made for the world, Shakers were not anonymous within their own families and communities. It was certainly not necessary to know who made what for the family, but people did – it was no secret. If someone wanted to know who made the case of drawers in their retiring room it’s likely someone would remember, and probably approximately when it was made. A tremendous amount of information about the built environment must have been retained in the minds of the 50 to 100 members of each Shaker family. In the midst of this kind of shared knowledge the act of putting one’s name on something they made made little difference – most family members would know who made it anyway. Why some cabinetmakers such as Brother Orren N. Haskins signed a number of things he made and others such as Brother David Rowley did not, had less to do with “Gospel Statutes and Ordinances” than it did with individual psyches. In nearly every case when a piece of furniture is found signed by its maker – the signature is on the bottom or back of a drawer or on the back of the piece rather than where it is easily seen.

The Millennial Laws cited above also includes in section twelve an article stating, “It is not allowable for the brethren to stamp, write or mark their own names, upon any thing which they make for the sisters,” or vice versa. While the logic of forbidding behavior that might be intended to curry special favors or affection from a member of the opposite sex seems perfectly reasonable in a celibate community, it is possible read into this rule permission to put one’s name on things made for the family in general or things made for personal use. A third article in the same section says, “The initials of a person’s name are sufficient mark to put upon any tool, or garment, for the purpose of distinction.” In this statute the Shakers are discouraging unnecessary work and the opportunity for unnecessary embellishment in how one marks things. Clothing, linens, woodworking planes, and garden tools are examples of things that may need to be identified as to the person who used it. The collection at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon strongly reflects an adherence to this statute in the markings found on tools and textiles.

Whether the above is perfectly accurate or not in its argument concerning marks of manufacture and ownership, it is at least our desire to encourage a broadening of the discussion of those rules and sayings that are so often quoted to show that Shaker always or always did not do something.

 

 

Jas. X. Smith

fig-3

Jas. X. Smith’s Stamp in Wood, ca. 1950, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.

Die stamps were standard tools used by cabinetmakers to mark their tools, especially when they worked in a workshop where their tools might become mixed up with those of other workers. This set of stamps was used by James X. Smith to make his mark “Jas. X. Smith” and “New-Lebanon” on his cabinetmaking planes and other tools. While it is common to find initials stamped into the ends of woodworkers’ hand planes and occasionally a full last name, it is less common to find the owner’s whole name and place of residence marked. Brother James X. Smith was a member of the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Born in 1806 in Norwich, New York, his father, also James had unsuccessfully tried to become a Shaker at New Lebanon in the 18th century. Failing this, he dedicated himself to the work of farming and met with considerable success. He married and had eight children, including James X. Smith. Although comfortably rewarded by his labor, he never found spiritual peace. In a complex series of steps having to do with his earlier experience with the Shakers and with his duty to his wife and family, James Sr. and most of his family united with the Shakers at New Lebanon in 1816. By 1843 Brother James X. Smith was serving as the assistant elder at the Second Family. In 1858 he was moved to the Center Family where he worked in the herb business. Two years later he was appointed the Elder at the East Family, but due to poor health was sent to the Church Family where he led a productive life until he died in the faith in 1888.

fig-1

Die Stamps made by Benjamin C. True, Albany, NY for Brother James X. Smith, New Lebanon, NY, 1830s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.1403, 1950.1404

The stamps Brother James used were made by and purchased from die-cutter Benjamin C. True of Albany, NY, and marked “B. C. True, Albany.” True was active in the 1830s with a shop on Beaver Street. The process of making dies was challenging—carving very small letters into iron that is hard enough to be driven repeatedly into hard wood without damaging the die. The process involves forging the general shape of the die at the blacksmith’s forge, then annealing or softening the iron by heating it to the temperature at which it is no longer attracted to a magnet – somewhere around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – and then letting it cool very slowly. Done properly, the iron will be soft enough to be worked with small chisels, files, drills, and engravers’ tools. The die-maker works with letters in reverse so they will make a right-reading mark. Once the die is cut, it is hardened by bringing it evenly back to around 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and quenching, that is, quickly cooling the iron. Done properly the die will withstand repeated use.

Earlier this week Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon sponsored a tour of the current Shaker exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met,” on view through June 25,2017. The exhibition, curated by Alyce Englund, Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts, features Shaker pieces once owned by pioneer collectors and scholars of Shaker history, Edward and Faith Andrews, along with other Shaker items from the Met’s collection; examples of American furniture contemporary with Shaker pieces; and modern pieces inspired by the Shakers, including a 1958 screening of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring ballet. The Museum’s Director of Collections and Research, Jerry Grant, was invited to join Englund in discussion of the objects in the exhibition.

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Work Stand, Made by Brother James X. Smith, Second Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1843, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

One of the extraordinary pieces in the exhibition is a six-drawer work table from Mount Lebanon made in 1843 by Brother James X. Smith while he lived at the Second Family. Brother James used the set of dies to stamp “Jas. X. Smith New-Lebanon N. Y.” across the dovetails of one of the piece’s drawers. The work table is unusual in that it is of panel-and-frame construction at a time when Shakers would usually have made such a piece with wide pine boards to make the sides. The front legs and the boards between the drawers are framed with beading. Brother James edged with top with a strip of wood to keep things from rolling off and marked the front strip to be a 32 inch measuring stick. In anticipation of discussing this piece, Grant brought photographs of Brother James’ stamps for Englund. The Met was unaware of the existence of these stamps and the knowledge of them enhances the story of this particular piece of Shaker furniture.

 

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.

 

A box in search of its rastrum

Edward Langford came to live at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon at age 11, but eloped in 1892 with Inez Platt, a 20-year old sister who lived at the Second Family.

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Case for Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1829, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1960.11613.1

Almost 70 years later, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received from relatives of the Langfords a small box, which at the time of the gift held a single ivory toothpick. The bottom of the box is made of a single piece of wood, hollowed out to create the cavity that held the toothpick. The cavity is only one-quarter inch wide at one end but widens abruptly, one and one-half inches from the other end to just over one-half inch. It took a number of years and the appearance of other such boxes to understand that it was not made to hold a toothpick but rather was the case for a Shaker rastrum. Rastrums are pens with multiple points used to scribe lined staffs for music manuscripts. The Shakers wrote down thousands of their unique songs, hymns, and anthems using a music system in which the letters “a” through “g,” instead of the now-common round notes, were written on a standard four or five line staff. This box once held one of these pens. The bottom of the cavity is lined with a brilliant yellow paper and at the wide end of the paper it is possible to see five small evenly-spaced dots where the five tips of the pen came to rest when place in its case.

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Music Staff Pen and Case, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1820s, Private Collection.

Several of these pens have letterpress printed instructions pasted either on the outside of the case or inside the cavity, as shown here in an example from a private collection. “This pen may be used either side up: – but if it will not make good lines without bearing on too hard, it needs some repair.” This instruction is followed by the initials “I. N. Y.” Brother Isaac Newton Youngs (1793-1865) lived at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon from 1807 until his death. Brother Isaac is described by a Shaker brother and friend in a eulogy, “His mechanical genius was remarkable. In him was combined, The Carpenter, Cabinetmaker, Clock and Watch-maker; which obligation he filled to the last. He many years did the Tailoring, and when needed, could turn Machinest, Mason, or anything that could promote the general good. Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to Brother Isaac…” Much of Brother Isaac’s success in making those conveniences (and much of what, at times, made him challenging for others) was his commitment to perfection and precision.

Brother Isaac was also, for many years, the family scribe – keeping the daily family journal, spiritual records, and correspondence. He had a passionate interest in music and made special efforts to standardize Shaker singing. Shakers did not use musical instruments to keep them on pitch during Brother Isaac’s lifetime. To keep the Shakers “in union” so they would all sing the same music in the same way, he likely developed two instruments – one, a toneometer, used to set the pitch, and a modeometer, used to set the speed. In 1843 he printed a small book of music instruction to help others understand these concepts and to teach the Shaker system of letter-notation.

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Music Staff Pen, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1835, Private Collection. Purchased at Willis Henry Auction 2013, Lot 77.

The five-pointed music pen – a tool he would have found most useful in recording hundreds, if not thousands, of Shaker songs – seems a natural outgrowth of his precise mechanical nature, his obligation to record keeping, and his interest in music. Brother Isaac was also skilled in making the pens from coin silver sold by Shakers at Mount Lebanon and Watervliet. Another example from a private collection is shown above.

While the pen itself remains missing, its case provides more about its history. On the outside of the case is written, “Sarah Bates Nov. 29th 1829.” Sister Sarah Bates was also a resident at the Church Family. She and Brother Isaac were nearly the same age. She was born November 29, 1792; Isaac was born July 4, 1793. Both first lived at the Shakers’ Watervliet community, Isaac beginning his life at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon in 1807 and Sister Sarah coming there in 1811. Sister Sarah Bates was a school teacher, likely a scribe for the family, and is known to have written several songs. It seem perfectly reasonable that Brother Isaac made a music pen and its case for Sister Sarah and the fact that it is dated on her thirty-seventh birthday suggests it was a very useful gift. It’s not known how Edward Langford or his descendants came into possession of the box.

More than a half-dozen of Brother Isaac’s music pens survive in private and public collections. There is always some hope that someday a Shaker rastrum, if not THE Shaker rostrum that once filled this case, might complete this story for Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon.