A beaureau is a beaureau is a beaureau

This work desk from the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is one of three known examples of this distinctive furniture form. Although the three extant versions vary somewhat in size and construction details, they are all so similar that it’s safe to assume they were either made by the same craftsman or by two cabinetmakers, the second of whom took his design inspiration from the first.

The first of the companion work desks of this style is in the collection of the New York State Museum, was acquired at Watervliet, New York, in 1930, and has been attributed to Elder Freegift Wells of that community. This example has four graduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers in the upper gallery. The case is of panel and frame construction with each side having two panels. The other example, in the collection of the Art Complex, Inc. in Duxbury, Massachusetts, has four slightly graduated drawers in the bottom portion of the case and nine drawers in the gallery. It is also of panel and frame construction, but its sides are made up of three rather than two panels. The example in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon (fig. 1) has three ungraduated drawers in the lower part of the case and nine drawers of equal size in the gallery, unlike the other two examples that have small drawers that vary somewhat in depth. It is of panel and frame construction with sides composed of four panels each rather than two or three panels as in the other examples. All three of these desks roll on casters – the desk at the Art Complex has ball-bearing casters and the other two are fitted with casters with small wheels. The two desks with four drawers below have locks on the second and fourth drawers from the top. The three-drawer desk has a lock on each drawer. None of the drawers in any of the galleries have locks. All of the lower drawers in all of the desks are dovetailed together and all of the gallery drawers are nailed together.  

Elder Giles B. Avery, a member of the Mount Lebanon Ministry, worked from time to time in what had been Elder Freegift Wells’s Watervliet workshop. Elder Giles noted in his diary that in June and July of 1880 he was “still at Watervliet engaged on some ladies beaureaus [sic] for sale,” which suggests that the work desks described in varying detail above were possibly the work of either Elder Freegift or Elder Giles or both of them at different times. Elder Giles completed four of these “work beaureaus” for sale. A new document may shed more light on how Shaker cabinetmakers may have used the early work of one cabinetmaker as the pattern for new pieces of furniture. A document titled “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureau,” is folded and taped in between pages of a book of recipes in the library of the Western Reserve Historical Society (Shaker Collection, manuscript number XI B 7). The handwriting is distinctly that of Elder Giles Avery. The recipes are dated from 1881 to 1883 – an appropriate time for Elder Giles to have had a “Bill of Stuff for Woman’s Work Beaureaus” to paste in his book. 

The description of the parts – the stuff – does not provide conclusive proof that any one of the work desks was made by Elder Giles rather than Elder Freegift. Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” – what cabinetmakers today would probably call a cutting list –  most likely  describes rough dimensions that would change some as the lumber is smoothed and the pieces prepared to be joined together. That said, the most telling detail that can be extracted from the cutting list is that the pieces being made by Elder Giles had four larger drawers with drawer fronts that ranged from 6 1/2, 5 1/2, 4 1/2, and 3 1/8 inches high from bottom to top – graduated in a manner most consistent with the work desk in the collection of the New York State Museum. Although this desk was attributed  to Elder Freegift Wells by the Shaker living at Watervliet at the time it was acquired, it is a reasonable supposition that rather than knowing it was, in fact, made by Elder Freegift, it was merely of the style of work desk that he was known to have made for the community.  

While these three distinctly similar yet different pieces of furniture and the existence of Elder Giles’s “bill of stuff” and entries in his diary about making “ladies work beaureaus”, and a clear statement by the Shakers that Elder Freegift made this type of desk fails to provide full understanding of who made any one or all of these desks, it does provide an interesting study of how one Shaker woodworker may have been guided in his work by his predecessors. It can clearly be seen in trades such as chair making, oval box making, and basket making, that although a consistency of style and design is maintained over time and from community to community, differences in the finished products show that whereas intended function may have altered them, so to may have the whims of the maker. 

Of course, it will be helpful for other examples of the Elders Freegift and Giles to come to light – and there is always hope that one or the other might have left his name or mark behind to help us better understand how these pieces are related. 






“[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.