A sewing desk from a butternut springs

Sewing Desk, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895

Sewing Desk, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952.4837.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

When doing an historic evaluation of something made by the Shakers, three questions are standard: Where was it made? When was it made? Who made it? The sewing desk discussed here provides answers to two of these questions. On the bottom of lowest right-hand drawer is written: “These two sewing desks were made from Mother Hannah’s Butternut trees grown South of Ministries Shop. Were cared for her when saplings. Desks made by Elder Henry C. Blinn.” Knowing this desk and its missing mate were made by Elder Henry, we also know they were made in the Church Family at Canterbury, New Hampshire, where, at 14 years old, he became a resident, remaining there until his death in 1905. Narrowing down the date the desk was made, however, is more challenging.

Sewing Desk (detail of inscription), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895

Sewing Desk (detail of inscription), Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca. 1870-1895, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952.4837.1. Staff photograph.

Sewing desks of this form – a case of drawers with a pull-out work surface and a gallery of small drawers for tools and odds and ends – became popular among the Shakers around 1860. They were made in a similar form in nearly every eastern Shaker community for the next three decades. Stylistically this piece seems to have been influenced by the increasing decorative elements of the Victorian Era – the use of a variety of decorative woods, applied walnut moldings, and white porcelain drawer pulls. Museum records and authors who have included the piece in their publications, however, have generally dated the piece around 1870, seemingly earlier than the style would dictate. One clue to the date that Elder Henry made the desk may lie in the inscription. If it can be determined when Mother Hannah’s butternut trees were cut down, that would supply a “no earlier than” date. 

Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848,

“Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848,” Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1848, Collection of Canterbury Shaker Village.  From, Shaker Life, Art, and Architecture bu Scott T. Swank (1999), p. 95.

Mother Hannah Goodrich, born in 1752, was one of the original members of the Shaker Community in Hancock when it was gathered in 1790.  She was sent with Father Job Bishop to lead the newly formed community at Canterbury, New Hampshire in 1792. She remained there until her death in 1820. At some time, according to the inscription, she took some interest in cultivating butternut trees. The oily nuts from the butternut tree are edible. The trees can be tapped for syrup in the same manner as maple trees. The nut can be pressed for oil and parts of the tree are used medicinally. Most likely, Mother Hannah encouraged the cultivation of the trees to use the shells of their nuts for dying cloth. Butternut dyed cloth was very common in early Shaker clothing. Whatever the reason for growing them, the inscription establishes their historical significance among the Shakers. Elder Henry drew a map of his village titled, “Plan of Canterbury by Henry Blinn 1848.” On this map he includes the buildings, roads, walks, fields, orchards, and a few significant trees in the village. He depicts a row of trees along the main road by the family’s Office and the fir trees planted around the newly established outdoor feast ground – Pleasant Grove. Two trees, south and slightly east of the Ministry’s Workshop, appear to have some special significance as they were also included in the map. Could these have been Mother Hannah’s butternut trees?  They are south of the Ministry’s Workshop. Butternut trees are slow growing trees and rarely live to be more than seventy-five years old. Had Mother Hannah’s trees been saplings when she first came to Canterbury, they would probably have been harvested in the late 1860s, making lumber from the trees available to Elder Henry in the early 1870s, whereas had she planted and cared for them in the last few years of her life they probably would have been harvested in the late 1880s, pushing the date when their lumber was available to Elder Henry to around 1890. 

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Two photographs in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection may help to unlock the mystery of when the trees were harvested – should the dates of the photographs be determined. Both photographs were by the Kimball studio in Concord, New Hampshire. Since photographers from that studio worked over a broad time period, that information is not particularly helpful in narrowing down the date. The first photograph shows the Canterbury Meetinghouse and the Ministry’s Workshop (then also its residence) with some Shakers, including Elder Henry himself, standing and sitting in the yard. Just behind the Ministry’s Workshop, the upper canopy of a tree can be seen. Again, could this be one or both of Mother Hannah’s butternut trees? A second photograph taken from the south looking across what Elder Henry called the “Meeting House Field,” one can see on the far right part of a tree that has a canopy similar to that of a butternut. Elder Henry located the two trees shown on his 1848 map on the south side of what appears to be either a fence or a lane bordering the northern side of the Meeting House Field. The tree shown in the second photograph also appears to be on the south side of a fence along that side of the field.  

fig 6

Elder Henry Clay Blinn, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, ca 1880. W. W. C. Kimball, Concord, NH, photographer.

Elder Henry Clay Blinn was a very busy Shaker. In addition to serving in the Canterbury leadership he was a printer, the editor of the Manifesto, a dentist, a beekeeper, an author, a tinker, a teacher, and a tailor. It is not clear whether he did much cabinetmaking in his early years. In an addendum to his “Autobiographical Notes,” published in In Memoriam. Elder Henry C. Blinn, 1824-1905, the author mentions, “That he might have all the care needful in his decline, apartments at the Infirmary were kept at his disposal; though he was never better pleased than when able to spend the day at his carpenter’s bench, engaged in light cabinet work, a favorite occupation.” It may have been during these less busy days that he had time to do some “light cabinet work.” 

Of course, even knowing the date that the trees were harvested does not date the making of the desks – the lumber may have been dried and stored for years or decades before it was used. Even knowing that none of this information provides a conclusive answer to the question of when Elder Henry would have had access to the lumber from Mother Hannah’s butternut trees, it has been an interesting investigation in using documentary evidence to try and answer the haunting question of “When was it made?” Of course, any information on dating the photographs, or the date that Mother Hannah’s trees were cut down, will be appreciated. 



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. 






There is no Shaker cabinetmakers’ pattern book – no collection of drawings for cabinetmakers to follow when it was determined that the community needed a new cupboard, table, case of drawers, candlestand, counter, chair, and so on. When a new piece was needed, for example a case of drawers for extra linens to go in the deaconesses’ storeroom – woodworkers were mostly likely asked for a cabinet with four full drawers and six half drawers with a cupboard above. After the first cabinetmakers had worked out the details of an acceptable Shaker design for furniture, those who followed had examples to copy for style – size varied by available space and need. If sketches or lists of pieces that needed to be cut for a new piece were made, they were likely made on scrap wood or paper and popped in the kindling bin when the piece was completed. 

Of course, when the same piece – an oval box rim, a candlestand leg, a chair rocker – was to be made repeatedly, it made sense to make patterns that could be used to trace and therefore duplicate the shape of that piece. Some examples of patterns survive in Shaker collections. In the same way, when the same operation had to be repeated over and over – cutting a chair rocker on a shaping machine – it made sense to make jigs that made these repeated actions more efficient. Some examples of jigs also survive in Shaker collections. 

fig 2A remarkable example – a set of patterns and jigs for making revolving chairs – survives intact, or nearly so, in the collection of Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. Around 1860, revolving chairs are thought to have been made for sale at Mount Lebanon in the same factory at the Second or South Family where other Shaker chairs were made. The revolving chair (now commonly called a “revolver”) was made to be used at a desk or table where the person seated, instead of sliding a standard chair across the floor and either scratching the floor or wearing out a carpet or floor cloth, could simply pivot in his or her chair to reach an adjacent surface. Revolvers were never made in a great quantity and only a few dozen examples survive. There are a number of unique Shaker chairs and stools that have revolving seats. These appear to have been made for use in the community rather than for sale and most often were made with a four-legged Windsor-style base that had been fitted with a metal or wooden device to allow the seat to rotate. The revolvers made using the jigs and patterns in the Museum’s collection have a distinctive design. They consist of a turned, bottle-shaped pedestal mounted on low-arched feet; a solid metal rod, or occasionally a threaded rod that allows the height of the seat to be adjusted up and down; and a back support generally made of eight wooden upright spindles held together at the top by a semi-circular crest-rail.

There are three pieces that help the chair-maker fashion the seat for the revolver. The round seat appears to have been turned on a lathe and one of the pieces is the same length as the diameter of seat. It has one straight edge and one edge that is slightly curved. The piece is marked in pencil, “Sweep of seat of swivel chair” and in another place, “1 1/8 on outside edge.” The sweep of the seat is the shape of the concave top of the seat and the “1 1/8” is the thickness of the seat at the outside edge. Checking this on the revolver in the Museum’s collection, they match perfectly. The second piece used to make the curved spindle back for the seat is a straight thin board. On this piece is written, “8 spindles | boring dimensions” and under that, three points marked with a pair of dividers. Between the center point and the mark to its left is written, “Top rail” and between the center mark and the mark on the right, “Seat.” The first of these measurements is 2 1/2 inches – the distance between the spindles on the crest-rail; and the second is 2 inches – the distance between the spindles where they are fastened to the seat. The third piece is a slanting board with a short dowel protruding from its top. It was made to be attached to a drill press. When properly positioned, a matching hole in the center of the bottom of the seat fit over the dowel and the seat was ready to be rotated as eight holes were bored at the correct angle and the correct distance from the edge of the seat for the vertical spindles. 

In addition to these pieces used to shape and assemble the seat, a pattern for the arch of the legs of the revolver is drawn on the top of the slanting board. This drawing gives the height of the legs at 3 1/8 inches and the thickness of the legs at 1 1/4 inches. The arches were constructed with a compass set at a radius of 6 inches. This drawing was converted to a butternut pattern (2018.2.2) to be used to trace the arch of the revolver legs. Boards with the leg arch drawn on them were then sawn by hand or with a bandsaw. A crisscrossing half-lap joint was then cut. The legs were then worked to their desired shape and then joined to the bottom of the turned pedestal.  

Pattern for the “Sweep of the Seat” for Revolving Chairs, Second/South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860

Pattern for the “Sweep of the Seat” for Revolving Chairs, Second/South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1960.11694.1-.3; 2018.2.2. Staff photograph. The wood turner would use this pattern to check the concavity of the seat as it was being turned on the lathe. Staff photograph.

One interesting discovery made while examining this set of patterns and jigs was an inscription written on the slanting board. It reads, “Round seat for adjustable Warren stool.” In 1849, Thomas E. Warren of Troy, New York, patented a chair with a rotating seat. The seat was mounted on eight C-shaped springs that connected the base to the bottom of the seat, allowing the person sitting in the chair to move and turn in any direction. According to a catalog entry for a Warren chair in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (2009.27), his “centripetal spring chair” could be considered a forerunner of the Chadwick/Stumph Aeron chair developed a century and a half later. Whether the Shakers were inspired to make their revolvers by seeing revolving chairs made at Warren’s American Chair Company or whether any chair or stool that rotated was generically called a Warren chair at that time is a mystery yet to be solved. 




It’s all in the details: Identifying the community of origin for Shaker furniture

At the Spring Shaker Forum held at Enfield (NH) Shaker Village this April, Robert P. Emlen presented an illustrated lecture on a design detail associated with Shaker woodworkers from that community: a small ring made by wood-turners at the transition point between a square piece of wood and where it becomes round (figure 1 below). There are any number of ways to handle this transition, from the abrupt change shown in figure 2, to merely creating a rounded shoulder on the corners of the square as in figure 3, or in some cases Shaker turners even took a more decorative approach as demonstrated in figure 4, a table made late in the nineteenth century by Elder Henry C. Blinn at Canterbury. The decision about how to make this transition was likely left up to the turner, but once a method for making the transition was used it was likely to become a trademark of that turner and a model to be copied by apprentices. While it is not possible to associate this detail with a particular woodworker, it is possible to use it to begin to identify in which Shaker community a piece was made. 

Emlen pointed out that the detail shows up on documented Enfield table legs, bed legs, work desks, and even on newel posts in the Great Stone Dwelling. The three-drawer side table in the Shaker Museum |  Mount Lebanon collection provides a good example of this design detail. It was acquired by the Museum in 1954 directly from the Shakers at Canterbury and identified at the time as the work of a Canterbury cabinetmaker. We now assume the table was, in fact, made at Enfield and brought to Canterbury when the Enfield community closed in 1918. By 1954 its journey to Canterbury was probably long forgotten. While this is a perfectly logical explanation for the discrepancy between the design detail and its assumed origin, it does offer an opportunity to take a look at the complexity of identifying the origin of a piece of Shaker furniture. If a piece lacks a pencil, pen, or crayon inscription stating that it was made by a particular Shaker, at a particular Shaker community, on a particular date, there are several possibilities that might explain an apparent disparity between where a piece of furniture appears to have been made and where it was found. 

Side Table, Enfield, NH, Ca. 1850

Side Table, Enfield, NH, Ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1954.6954.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

Some cabinetmakers are known to have moved either temporarily or permanently from one community to another. They likely worked at their new home in the style they had originally learned. This is probably the case with Brother Samuel Turner, who began his Shaker life at Mount Lebanon, moved to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and later returned to Mount Lebanon, where he died. Furniture he made after his return to Mount Lebanon shows some influence from his three decades of life in Kentucky. Members of the Shaker ministry who worked as cabinetmakers moved among the communities in their bishopric and often maintained workshops at each village. Elder Giles Avery at Mount Lebanon is thought to have made work desks while at his workshop – most likely Elder Freegift Wells’s workshop – and probably made work desks at Lebanon as well. This movement of the ministry from place to place might explain some of the confusion in identifying differences between furniture made at Hancock, Massachusetts, and some that is thought to have been made at Enfield, Connecticut. A third possibility is that cabinetmakers made furniture that was intended to be sent to another community. This might happen following a fire or other devastating event that put a community in need of more furnishings than it could easily supply. 

This little discrepancy between where the three-drawer side table was acquired and where it was probably made how difficult it can be to positively identify where a piece of furniture was made, let alone who might have made it.  


Ellsworth Kelly’s lozenge-shaped oval box

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

When the hammer fell on lot number 130 on Sunday, August 5, 1990, at the Willis Henry Auction held on the grounds of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, the successful bidder set a world record for the highest price paid at auction for anything made by the Shakers. What made the audience come alive as much as the price on that hot humid afternoon was that the winner of the lot was talk show host and actress, Oprah Winfrey. The piece, a small pine three-drawer counter in red paint was the cover lot on the auction catalog. Oprah Winfrey was not the only well-known personality who made significant purchases that day. Several dozen lots earlier, a reddish-orange bentwood box was purchased by the artist Ellsworth Kelly and his future husband Jack Shear. While Oprah’s three-drawer counter was unique for a few years for its price, the bentwood box was thought to be a unique example of Shaker workmanship for its unusual shape. Most of the lidded boxes the Shakers made by bending thin strips of steamed wood were oval in shape. Although the ovals vary from box to box from nearly round to extremely elongated, this box is not oval at all. Rather, it is more of a rectangle with rounded ends – what Ellsworth Kelly later called “lozenge-shaped” – but in every other respect it was made like thousands of other Shaker oval boxes. 

Six years ago, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear decided to give their collection of two-dozen Shaker pieces to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. That gift was received by the Museum in 2016 and this spring, from March 24th through May 13th, pieces from the collection, accompanied by a selection of prints by Kelly, will be exhibited at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, New York. In preparation for the exhibition the Museum staff is conducting additional research on the Shaker pieces that will be exhibited. The unique box is included in the exhibition and has been the target of the staff’s research for the past few days. 

The auction catalog identifies the box as having been made at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It is not clear if this attribution came from the consigner of the box, or if it was, at the time, the auction house’s best guess at its origin. In either case, more investigation was in order. The bottom of the box bears what appears to be a three-line inscription, which, were any of it still legible, might answer all questions about who made the box and where and when. Until that technology can be accessed, the information remains elusive. 

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

As is the case with the construction of most Shaker boxes, the bent sides of the box and its lid are made of maple and its top and bottom, the heading as the Shakers called it, are made of pine. The three over-lapping fingers on the box and the single finger on the lid are fastened together with copper tacks. The heading is secured to the bent rims with iron headless tacks. The box is painted inside and out with a reddish-orange paint – no wood is left exposed. There are a few design features, other than its unusual shape, that are notable. The ends of the overlapping fingers point to the left. This characteristic is most often found on boxes that were made at the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine. Shaker oval box makers often smoothed off the heads of the tacks used on the fingers to keep anything from catching under the head and pulling the tack out. On this box, the heads of some of the tacks show marks – small parallel grooves – left by a file. These marks on tack heads are most often found on boxes made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. In a similar manner, the use of iron rather than copper headless tacks to secure the heading in the box rims is often associated with early boxes made at Canterbury. 

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim)

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim), Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1954.6743.1a,b. Staff photograph.

Given these construction and design characteristics, a good case can be made for this box originating in the shops of the box-makers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. However, an oval box in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village led to a reconsideration of this conclusion. That oval box has a label glued to its bottom that reads, “This box was made by Ebenezar Freeman of Alfred in his 82d year of age, and by him presented to me Aug 26th 1861. Mary P. Vance.” Ebenezer Freeman turned sixty-one on July 12, 1861, beginning his 82d year. The box is the work of an accomplished box-maker and it is likely that he made a number of boxes in his lifetime. This box has a distinctive feature that is usually found on Canterbury boxes – the rims of the box and the lid had their edges rounded before they were bent and tacked. This creates a double hump on the edge of the rims where the two ends overlap, shown in the picture to the left. Boxes made at Mount Lebanon, for example, had the rims sanded to a single round edge after the rims were bent and the overlap tacked. This observation raises the question as to whether the Alfred oval box-makers were either taught by the box-makers at Canterbury or if someone who knew how to make boxes was transferred from Canterbury to Alfred. Either of these options would explain why the tacks securing the fingers appear to have been smoothed with a file – they learned that from Canterbury. It may also suggest that the fingers on Alfred boxes point left instead of right to intentionally set them apart from those made at Canterbury. 

As the decision was being made to attribute the  Kelly / Shear lozenge-shaped box to the Alfred community rather than either Sabbathday Lake or Canterbury, the existence of a second box of this unusual shape came to light. This box, nearly identical in size and very similar in its color and the shape of its fingers, is in the collection of the Shaker Museum at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This box is attributed to the Alfred Shakers and as far as anyone knows has been in the community at Sabbathday Lake ever since or even before the Alfred community closed and its members relocated to Sabbathday Lake in 1931. The box in the collection at Sabbathday Lake is pictured on page 17 of The Human & Eternal: Shaker Art in Its Many Forms published in 2009 by and available from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum. 

For now, and for the for exhibition at the Jeff Bailey Gallery, the attribution of this box will remain with the workshops of the Alfred, Maine Shakers. All are welcome to come and see it face to face this spring. 




Altered states: piecing together an object’s history

The Shakers’ communal furniture pieces were often larger than those used in single family homes, so when those pieces found new uses outside Shaker villages they were sometimes altered and reduced in size: benches made to seat eight to ten Shakers might be shortened to serve in a family entryway as a place to sit and put on shoes; communal trestle-style dining tables that once fed 12 to 16 Shaker brothers or sisters have been shortened to seat the storied nuclear family; and tall 10-drawer cases have been cut in half to become four- or five-drawer bureaus. Often these alterations were done by outsiders who bought surplus furniture from the Shakers. Sometimes, however, these alterations were done by the Shakers themselves. For example, on January 18, 1884, a South Family scribe (Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, mss. no. 21485) recorded in the family journal that Samuel Shumway, a non-Shaker resident of the town of New Lebanon who was often hired to do carpentry and cabinetmaking for the Shakers, “cut a door thro the porch into the Deaconesses room [and] cut a large case of drawers into [i.e., in two] – half goes in the North garret, the other half remains in the porch.” 

While it is not known if the object that is the subject of this article resulted from the intentional alteration of a piece of furniture or something more tragic, it was clearly once part of something larger. When cataloged into the collection it was identified as a “drawer.”  Upon recent examination the remnant has been identified not as drawer, but as a four-sided gallery that likely sat atop a small case of drawers to make a piece called a washstand. Before the advent of indoor plumbing and sinks for personal wash-ups, washstands were common in Shaker and non-Shaker dwellings. The pieces took many different forms, but often had a back-splash or a gallery to contain any leaks, spills, or splashes from an ever-present water bowl and pitcher. 

The gallery has several distinctive features. The sides are made of a tight-grained curly maple. The right and left sides and the front side all flare out slightly. The four sides are dovetailed together. The underside of the gallery bottom has long grooves along its right and left side that were made to receive the plank side boards of the case piece upon which it sat and in the center of the front of the underside, between these grooves, is a small rectangular mortise that likely once secured the tenon of a divider that separated two drawers in the washstand. There are also small rectangular holes just inside the gallery walls that were made by nails that secured the gallery to its base. These details, taken as a whole, suggest a strong connection between this gallery and the galleries of several washstands that have been attributed to Brother Abner Allen (1776-1855), a known Shaker cabinetmaker from Enfield, Connecticut. One washstand with a similar gallery (see below) is in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village. While the dimensions of the gallery on this washstand – 3 ½” high by 27 7/8” wide by 19 ¼” deep — do not match those of the gallery in the Shaker Museum’s collection – 3 1/4” high by 23 ¾” wide by 17 5/8” deep – all of the other characteristics of the complete washstand gallery compare favorably with the displaced gallery.  

Washstand, Enfield, CT, ca. 1850

Washstand, Enfield, CT, ca. 1850, Hancock Shaker Village: 1989.2. Timothy Rieman, photographer.

Brother Abner was known to favor figured wood – especially curly maple. He seemed to have an affinity for dovetailed joints that are not joined at right angles. The protruding edges of the bottoms of the galleries on both examples terminate in the same thumb-nail shape. The most noticeable difference between the two examples is that the gallery in the Shaker Museum’s collection is painted red while the complete washstand is not. It is, of course, conceivable that the complete washstand, at some point, had its paint removed to expose the beauty of the curly maple. If this is the case, it is an interesting piece of information to think that Shakers made furniture from wood known for its decorative appearance and then obfuscated most of that feature with paint.  

Since this piece was acquired in 1961 at Mount Lebanon and was most likely made at Enfield, Connecticut, it is likely that the washstand from which this gallery was separated was brought to Mount Lebanon, maybe with Elder Walter Shepherd and Brother Daniel Orcutt when Enfield closed and they moved to the North Family at Mount Lebanon. 

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon is currently migrating its collection records to a web-based public database thanks to a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation. In the process, much of the collection is being re-examined, allowing us to make sense of and flesh out the stories of pieces in the collection.




“…he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers….”

In a participatory class about making soap the leader started her presentation explaining the steps that would be involved in the day’s activities. Following her welcome, she started, “First, we’ll need to slaughter, butcher, and render the fat from an old hog.” Before the students could flee the room, she announced that we would be skipping that step in light of time constraints. Her point, however, was not lost on the class. Many of the classes involving early crafts and trades have been cleansed of the unpleasant preparations our forefathers and mothers undertook without question. Such is the case with most trades associated with wood. Most woodworking projects now begin with boards of a standard thickness, width, and length and we ignore the process that historically would have been used to get them to that state — felling and limbing a tree, hauling the tree trunk, cutting it to length, splitting or sawing it into boards, drying the boards, regulating them to a particular thickness, making their faces and edges parallel, and smoothing their surfaces. All of this, done by hand, is brutal work. Until the advent of practical machines, the preparation of usable boards from rough-sawn lumber could take as much time as making the boards into something.

The Shakers were interested in reducing the amount of unnecessary labor needed to build up the physical part of their “heaven on earth,” and the thickness planer made smoothing boards easier.

fig 1 1952.6054.1_ 1

Thickness Planer (right side), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

There had been a number of attempts to ease the chore of planing. Most of the early attempts were designed to move a traditional hand plane, driven by a reciprocating shaft, back and forth over a piece of wood . The great improvement came with the use of a rotary motion to plane boards. The history of these planing machines in America features two dominate men, each with a specific approach to flattening, regulating the thickness of, and smoothing boards. William Woodworth from Hudson, New York patented a successful planing machine in 1828. His machine had two long sharp blades mounted in a rotating horizontal bar set at an adjustable height above a flat table. Mounted in the table were slowly rotating cylinders that pushed and pulled the board under the rotating planer blades. This design was the precursor of the modern planing machine. The biggest draw-back of the Woodworth machine was that, while it smoothed and regulated the thickness of a board, it did not always make it truly flat. If the board was twisted and warped before planing, it would probably still be twisted and warped after planing.

The second player in this story was Thomas E. Daniels of Worcester, Massachusetts. His was the first successful machine patented in America to truly flatten a board. His planer, patented in 1834, had a movable carriage to which a rough-sawn board could be secured so it could not move or flex. The carriage advanced under a rotating vertical shaft to which was fastened a bar parallel to the carriage. This bar had a cutting blade mounted at each end. When rotating – the power was often supplied by a waterwheel – the cutters sliced across the board removing any unevenness and leaving a truly flat surface. To make a board that was of a consistent desired thickness, the height of the cutters above the board would be set at that height; the board would be turned over, secured to the carriage, and again passed under the cutters.

Each machine had its advantages – the Daniels planer produced a board that was not twisted or warped and the Woodworth produced a smoother surface. Often a workshop would have one of each of the machines – flattening their boards on the Daniels planer and finishing them on the Woodworth machine.

Woodworth held a patent on his machine, but it was frequently contested and he was in constant litigation. He sold the rights to most of the individually patented improvements to the machine to a syndicate of three investors who manufactured them. They sold the planers, and also charged the owners on a per-linear-foot-planed basis for using them. Woodworth died in 1839 but passed on his part of the patent to his children. As the Woodworth children and the syndicate had a monopoly on this type of machine, it was a very lucrative business and as such they protected their patent until 1856, when it could no longer be extended. Litigation concerning the patent occasionally involved the Shakers. In 1851, Mount Lebanon brothers Jonathan Wood and Henry Bennet were called to court in Albany “concerning the lawsuit, pending between Gibson & Allen about the Planing Machine …There is much contention in the law about Woodworth’s patent – Gibson [one of the men who bought the patent] has lately had the right renewed 6 years – He holds the right & forbids others (us with the rest) using it without paying for it. We consider it unjust & so do others: & some, rather than submit to pay, stand against in the law.” [Quoted in Planers, Matchers and Molders in Americaby Chandler W. Jones, 1985.] The Shakers were called to testify because they were known to use machines similar to Woodworth’s at the time he “invented” the planer. In fact, in 1833 when William Woodworth’s lawyers returned from court to tell him that the judge demanded that he write up new specifications for his patent that would claim rights to only those parts of the machine he had invented, “he smiled and said the whole of them were fools, for they occupied the time of the court for three days on what he could have told them in five minutes; that he was not the inventor of it; he first saw it among the Shaking Quakers in the western part of the State of New York.” Joseph Turner who had been a machinist who helped build Woodworth’s first planers reported this comment adding that he “was astonished to hear him say that, after selling the patent.” [“A Domestic Journal of Daily Occurrences Kept by…Isaac N. Youngs, [1847-1855], Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY,  Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Shaker Collection, mss. no., V:B-70.] The Woodworth patent cases had a long-term effect on patent law and were, in part, responsible for adjustments in 1861 to change the life of patents from 14 to 17 years – 17 years without extensions.

fig 3 1952.6054.1_ 4

Thickness Planer (detail of cutting head and feed rollers), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1860, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1952:6054.1, John Mulligan, photographer.

The planing machine in the Museum’s collection is clearly a Woodworth-style planer. It has not yet been determined if the planer was made by the Shakers or if they purchased it. All of the metal parts on the planer were cast. If the Shakers had gone to the expense of making several dozen casting patterns, having them cast, and machining them to fit together properly, they would have made several of these machine. No other examples survive. There is no manufacturer’s name on the planer, however if it was commercially made the name may have been left off to guard against the maker being sued by the syndicate. The blades on the planer are marked “A. Wheeler, Brattleboro, Vt.” Wheeler is a known manufacturer of edge tools – axes, adzes, drawknives, and, apparently, planer blades.  At the same time Wheeler was in business there was a manufacturer of planing machines in Brattleboro, Calvin J. Weld, from whom the Shakers purchased a planer in the 1850s for their Tyringham, Massachusetts community. It is possible that this machine was obtained from the same source. Whatever its source, the Museum’s planer is a remarkable machine still in operating condition – sharp blades and all.




Drawer pulls: What’s original?

Pieces of furniture made by the Shakers do not necessarily remain in the form in which they were made. Some merely show wear and tear, some have been refinished, and some have had decorative and structural changes made to them. These changes may have been done by the Shakers themselves or may have been done after the piece left its Shaker home. For example, on pieces made during the second half of the nineteenth century the Shakers occasionally used white porcelain or brown stoneware drawer pulls instead of the more traditional wooden or brass ones.

A desk made by Elder Amos Stewart in 1873 appears in a photograph made by William F. Winter, Jr., in 1930 with white porcelain drawer pulls. By 1986, when the desk was offered for sale at auction, the pulls on the lower drawers had been replaced with wooden pulls.

Case of Drawers, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1820

Case of Drawers, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Ca. 1820, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.596.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

The piece being considered in this blog post, a case of drawers with cupboards above the drawers, was similarly modified. In this instance, most likely common wooden drawer pulls were replaced by commercially-made decorative wooden drawer pulls.  This work was undoubtedly done by or for Shakers. The reason for this modification is part of a significant event in the history of the Mount Lebanon Shakers.  On February 6, 1875, the Church Family at Mount Lebanon experienced a devastating fire. It started in the family’s Wood House / Sisters’ Workshop due to the careless disposal of hot ashes and soon spread to the Dwelling, the Ministry’s Workshop, the Ice House, a Barn, the Gas House, and a Storehouse. All of these were total losses but the greatest loss was the Dwelling House with its furniture and personal possessions. Nearly 100 Shakers were displaced and the Shakers rebuilt as quickly as possible. The resulting building, completed in 1877, was built of brick with a slate roof to make it as impervious to fire as possible.

At this period in Shaker history it would have been difficult for the Shakers to replace with their own labor the quantity of furniture that had been lost. As a consequence, beds, tables, and cases of drawers were commissioned from outside cabinetmakers. These essential pieces of furniture were supplemented with older Shaker pieces no longer needed in other places. The case of drawers discussed here may have seen in service in a building not damaged by fire or possibly it was donated to the Church Family by one of the other families at Mount Lebanon. By this date, several of the families had lost significant numbers of members and it is certain that there was surplus furniture.

fig 4

Pedestal Table, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1877, Published in Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship, The Mount Lebanon Collection, (Alexandria VA: Art Services International, 1995), p. 95, Mark Daniels, photographer.

The new dwelling house, while not built in the most elaborate style of the period, was certainly a more modern structure than the one it replaced. In keeping with the style of the building some of the older furniture was “upgraded” to better fit with the new furniture that was used. Carpenters were hired to build a number of round and oval pedestal tables for the Brethren’s rooms. Some of these tables had drawers and the pulls that were used on these drawers were more decorative than was typical of Shaker pieces. Apparently, in an effort to help the older case of drawers fit with the new furnishings, the same decorative pulls were installed on the cupboard doors and drawers of the 1820s piece.

A present day consequence of this decision by the Shakers is that this particular piece has not often been selected by curators seeking classic pieces of Shaker furniture for exhibitions. Betrayed only by its pulls, every other element in the design and construction of this piece speaks clearly to the most classic period of Shaker furniture-making. The case of drawers was acquired prior to 1947 by the Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr. This piece had last been used by Sister Emma J. Neale at Mount Lebanon.


The earliest oval boxes: A conundrum

The simple oval-shaped bentwood box ranks high on the list of iconic objects associated with the Shakers. These boxes are pleasing to the eye and the hand. They are often colorful, painted in reds, oranges, greens, blues, browns, and yellows. They were typically made in more than a dozen different sizes ranging from around two inches long to well over a foot, and many of them were made to nest one inside the other. In addition to their varied physical attributes, these boxes served a variety of uses: in the kitchen and pantry they held salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, herbs, and spices; in the sisters’ workrooms they held sewing notions; and in the brothers’ workrooms they held tacks, nails, screws, dry paint pigments, and on and on. Many of the oval boxes used by the Shakers are inscribed with the names of those users as well as names of the makers, dates, and descriptions of how they were used. All of these attributes make these boxes particularly interesting to collectors and particularly useful to the Shaker Museum in telling Shaker stories.

Craftsmen in any Shaker community may have made boxes for use in their community, but not every Shaker community had an industry that produced boxes for sale to the outside world. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon, Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake, Alfred, and Union Village did, at various times, produce boxes in quantities great enough to make notable sales to the outside world. Around 1850, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs at Mount Lebanon collected information on some of the industries at Mount Lebanon – including the oval box industry. He noted that at Mount Lebanon, boxes were first made for sale at the Church Family around 1799, making this one of the earliest Shaker businesses. This continued until after the Civil War when the business was moved to the Second Family. There it was carried out with varying success into the 1930s. Between 1822 and 1865 over 77,000 boxes were made at the Church Family. Much fewer were made at Mount Lebanon after 1865. Other communities with box industries did so in a manner close to what had been established at Mount Lebanon, but none of them matched the quantity of boxes made. Brother Delmer Wilson at Sabbathday Lake continued making boxes into the 1950s and some boxes were made by Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in this century.

While oval boxes may seem complex their manufacture is pretty straightforward. Shakers called the bent parts of the box the rims. The flat boards fit into the rims were called the heading. The narrow arch-shaped overlapping ends of the rims were called swallowtails (often just called “fingers”). Box rims were bent to shape using steam and a shaping form. They were tacked through the swallowtails to keep them bent in an oval shape. To do this copper tacks were driven through the swallowtails to secure the rims. When dry, the heading was cut to fit into the rims and secured with points – small copper, iron, or wooden wedges driven through the rim into the edge of the heading. No glue was used to secure the parts together. Most of the thousands of boxes the Shaker made followed this formula. Though the shape of the swallowtails and the pattern the craftsman chose for nailing them to the rims may differ, the choice of copper, wood, or iron points may be determined by available materials, and the skill with which the boxes were finished may vary widely, the construction of these boxes is predictable.

There are a small number of oval boxes that have been attributed to the Shakers by their general appearance that diverge in several ways from the standard boxes described above. They are sometimes called “tucked-finger” boxes for a reason that will soon be apparent. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has five examples of these boxes in its collection; they have several distinctive characteristics that easily identify them:

  • First, the shape of the oval of the box is a very rounded compared to the more elongated elliptical shape of most Shaker boxes.

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.5a,b (left); 2016.5.6 (right). Staff photograph.

  • Second, the narrow ends of the swallowtails, rather than just being tacked down, are inserted through small slots in the rim and then tacked to the rim – therefore, “tucked-finger.”
  • Third, the tacks at the end of the swallowtails are the only copper tacks used in the boxes. All of the rest of the fasteners used to secure the swallowtails are wooden pegs.

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fourth, the fastening of the rims to the heading is done with wooden points. This is done in an unusual pattern. Usually, points are spaced fairly evenly around the box rim, but on these boxes five to eight points (depending on the size of the box) are used to secure the heading just to the left of the center of the rims. These are in addition to the points that are spaced evenly around the rest of the rim.

    fig 5

    Detail of Points Fastening Box Rim to Heading, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fifth, the pine heading material used in these boxes is generally of very tight-grained old-growth pine.

    fig 1

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • And sixth, a number of these boxes are decorated or have remnants of decoration. Boxes can be painted a single color, painted to have a fancy grain pattern, painted with floral or other designs, or painted with a scene.

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

Several of these divergences in construction and materials from the common boxes made by the Shakers suggest that these boxes were made quite early – the use of tight-grained pine and the frugal use of copper tacks may indicate the boxes were made at a time when old-growth pine was still standing on Shaker land and when the making of copper tacks was a laborious and expensive process. The extra effort of inserting the ends of the swallowtails into the box rims suggests that the makers did not fully understand that this was unnecessary to make the boxes structurally sound. All of this, plus the general scarcity of these boxes, points to the possibility that these boxes were the earliest products of the Shakers’ oval box makers – the prototypes of what would become the iconic Shaker oval box.

A problem with these observations emerges with the realization that none of these boxes, to date, has a solid provenance connecting it directly to the Shakers. This, then, is the challenge: to try to establish a clear connection between extant examples of these boxes and the Shakers. Four of the five boxes in the Museum’s collection were collected in New York State in the general vicinity of Watervliet and Mount Lebanon but not directly from the Shakers.

As always, we appreciate observations and comments that might help with a better understanding of the origin of these boxes.