Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

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’ […]

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. 

 

 

 

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