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

Jul 18, 2018

Shakers reject “foolish consistency”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841. Shakers numbered things. They numbered rooms for the ease of keeping their domestic life in order, and they numbered products to keep a consistency in manufacture and marketing. In Emersonian fashion, however, their numbering of products did not reflect an overall philosophy of consistency – […]

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841.

Shakers numbered things. They numbered rooms for the ease of keeping their domestic life in order, and they numbered products to keep a consistency in manufacture and marketing. In Emersonian fashion, however, their numbering of products did not reflect an overall philosophy of consistency – even within the same community. For example, chairs made at Mount Lebanon were numbered from the smallest size, number 0, to the largest size, number 7, while oval boxes made in the same community at the same time were numbered from the largest size, number 1, to the smallest size, number 11. In a further example of not demanding some “foolish consistency” in numbering products, in the mid-1870s, apparently not finding the largest two or the smallest two sizes of oval boxes profitable, they dropped them from their offering and merely renumbered the remaining seven boxes number 1 for the largest remaining box, to number 7 for the smallest. This may have caused some confusion for customers trying to order number 1 or 2 boxes after the change. 

fig 1

Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer.

This change in the Shakers’ offering of oval boxes apparently came about right around the time when they were launching an initiative to increase the sale of chairs – and oval boxes – through mail order sales from a series of catalogs. The South Family had built a new chair factory in 1872 and greatly increased production and sales. The earliest catalog, dated 1875, includes chairs numbered 1 through 7 with small illustrations by an unidentified artist. On the final two pages, however, there are illustrations of a line of chairs – small to large – created by “Ferguson, Albany.” Hiram Ferguson was a noted photographer and wood engraver in Albany, New York. Although these two pages of illustrations present themselves almost as an afterthought, very soon after another catalog was issued with four pages of Ferguson illustrations, and soon after that, another catalog with six pages of Ferguson illustrations. This last catalog also includes a page showing a stack of seven oval boxes, numbers 1 through 7, offered for sale. While the creator of this illustration is not identified, a separate four-page bi-fold that survives in a very small number shows, along with two pages of “The Shakers’ Upholstered Chairs,” an illustration of “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes.” This illustration of eleven oval boxes, numbered 1 through 11 is identified as having been created by Ferguson.  

fig 2

An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1.

There has been some conjecture as to whether this bi-fold was intended to be issued as a separate flyer to accompany the chair catalogs, or if it was a four-page spread that was at one time intended to be bound with a chair catalog but, for some reason, was not. It seems doubtful that it was intended merely as a separate publication. While there is a page titled, “Directions for Ordering Chairs,” there is no address included, and none of the other chair catalogs are missing this page. It seems more likely that the Shakers engaged Ferguson to create an illustration of their oval boxes and intended to include the stack of eleven boxes in their chair catalog, but decided not to do so. The stack of seven boxes that was included in the catalog was printed with the same printing block that printed the stack of eleven boxes, but the bottom and top two boxes were cut away from the block. This also removed Ferguson’s signature.

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.

There are a few possible reasons for this change. In the mid-1870s, Elder Daniel Crosman (1810-1885) at the Church Family was the primary oval box maker for the community. After the devastating fire in 1875, other than making 50 round spit-boxes (spittoons) for the new dwelling that was being built to replace the one that burned, he appears to have had less time than usual to work at boxes. Elder Daniel made at least 11 sizes of boxes at one time; in fact, he made a box he identified as a zero that was apparently larger than a number one. The largest and smallest boxes may have been the least profitable ones to make and, therefore, the Shakers decided to no longer offer them for sale. This would have necessitated eliminating them from the catalog. Whatever the reason, the stack of 11 boxes is not known to have been included in a catalog. 

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph.

The creation of the images used in the chair catalog could have all been done by Ferguson – a photographer and wood engraver who could also duplicate wood engravings in type metal. The Shakers may have taken oval boxes and chairs to his studio and had him photograph them. From the photograph he would have his wood engravers make an engraved illustration simulating the photograph. The wood engraving was then used to create a mold from which duplicate blocks could be made from type metal. These blocks were then sent to the printer and set on the page with necessary text. For the oval box illustration, this process, minus the wood engraving, is preserved in various collections and is presented here – from photograph, to printing block, to printed page. Of course, if the wood engraving of the stack of oval boxes does survive, that would be an important addition to this discussion. 

Mother Lucy Wright was remembered as saying, albeit in the context of wanting quality rather than quantity in new Shakers, “Numbers are not the thing for us to glory in.” The ease with which the Shakers changed their number 3 oval box to make it a number 1 oval box certainly speaks to their desire to not be distracted by hobgoblins.  

 

Fig 1: Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer. 

 

Fig 2: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 

 

Fig 3: “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.  

 

Fig 4. “Hiram Ferguson, Designer, Photographer and Engraver in Wood, Bank Building, 448 Broadway, Albany, NY,” ca. 1881, retrieved from: http://www.hoxsie.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-search.cgi?search=albany&IncludeBlogs=11&limit=10&page=12 

 

Fig 5: Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph. 

 

Fig 6: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (cover) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 

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