As the Shaker Museum collection staff continues producing digital records for an online catalog of its collection – a two and a half year project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation – they work methodically through groups of related artifacts. At present that group is a collection of hundreds of wooden foundry patterns acquired from Church Family workshops at Mount Lebanon. While the Shakers did not […]
As the Shaker Museum collection staff continues producing digital records for an online catalog of its collection – a two and a half year project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation – they work methodically through groups of related artifacts. At present that group is a collection of hundreds of wooden foundry patterns acquired from Church Family workshops at Mount Lebanon. While the Shakers did not operate a foundry – the place where molten iron is cast into various forms – Shaker brothers did make wooden patterns for machinery, stoves, tools, and other objects needed in their communities. Many of these patterns can be given descriptive names – a gear, a bracket, a shaft, a clutch, a fly-wheel, a wheel hub, a stove door, a machine part, etc. — it is unusual to be able to associate a pattern with a known cast iron object in the collection. Recently, however, one pattern was identified as being part of a well-known artifact in the museum’s collection. The object is a 49-inch long, three-inch wide pattern for the stakes used to support cast iron grave markers at the Church Family cemetery at Mount Lebanon.
In 1886, North Family Elder Frederick W. Evans began his funeral sermon for Brother John Greaves with the question, “What shall we do with our bodies when we have done with our bodies?” Evans, like all Shakers, had “no belief in the future re-animation of the body, but of dust it was made, and to dust it is to return.” (1) Without any expectation that the body had any further use, the Shakers were nevertheless concerned that in its final disposal the body not be thoughtlessly treated. Elder Giles Avery, writing in an 1872 ministerial letter concerning graveyards and monuments, made the point that, “to inter the human corpse in the same manner as the dead body of a brute, that is, without any kind of monument to designate the place of its interment, or, even with a naked stone, without any lettering on it to record the name of the deceased buried beneath it, has a demoralizing tendency upon the living.” (2) The Shakers did bury their brothers and sisters in well-ordered simple graveyards. The marking of the location of the bodies varied over time. Historically, by Mosaic Law, bodies were deemed unclean and to be avoided and markers were placed on graves as a warning to passersby rather than as memorial monuments. The Shakers followed the common tradition and marked graves with stones, eventually adding the initials of the departed, and still later their names and their dates of death and/or ages. This evolution led to a number of Shaker graveyards that would be easily recognizable today. Over time, however, the cost of maintaining graveyards as the number of living Shakers to care for them decreased caused the Shakers to look for an alternative to allay this burden. Following consultation with other leaders, Elder Giles wrote the circular letter that provided guidelines for graveyards and monuments. He wrote, “[I]t is most in accordance with Christian propriety, … (whatever antecedents may have been to the contrary notwithstanding), to erect one small, modest, plain, stone or cast iron monument, which, if stone, may be sawed or hewn, but not polished, not exceeding 22 inches in height, above ground, and eighteen inches in width, at the head of each grave, having all graves in the yards now occupied, uniformly thus furnished. Upon this may be plainly lettered the name and age of the deceased, together with the date of demise.”
Acting on these guidelines, on January 25, 1873, Elder Amos Stewart from the Second Family at Mount Lebanon came to visit the Ministry and presented a cast iron grave monument that he developed as a sample. It was designed to have letters, cast in type metal, slid into a slot to spell the name of the departed. The Ministry judged it too frail to be serviceable. Although rejected, it set a direction toward using cast iron markers rather than those of stone. In mid-May the Ministry spoke with Elder Amos Stewart and Elder Thomas Damon from Hancock about a new design for cast iron monuments for graves. The new design had names cast into the iron rather than detached as in Elder Amos’s original design. This design relied on letters, cast in iron, obtained at eight cents apiece, that were glued to the wooden pattern to spell out the name of the departed. The same pattern was used with different letters attached to create unique markers. During these discussions, Elder Henry C. Blinn of the New Hampshire Ministry visited Mount Lebanon as he began a tour of the western Shaker communities. Elder Giles took him “to the mill to see a pattern for casting – which is intended to be placed at the head of the graves.” Elder Henry kept a travel diary and in his diary made a sketch of the pattern for markers that he saw. (4)
On August 11, 1873, Brother George Wickersham “gets a sample cast iron monument for graves – the pattern of which he has made, by Ministrie’s request; it is about 17 in wide, and, perhaps 10 deep, in highest place, a stake 4 ft long 3 in wide designed for top of monument to stand up above ground 22 inches. It is agreed, in this society, to fit out all the graves after this pattern. It weighs about 10 lbs. & stake 12 lbs, whole cost about $1.75 cts pr monument.” On October 14th that year the Ministry recorded that, “The whole complement of Cast iron Grave monuments arrived from Albany to day, nearly 200 of them, cost about $1.50 each, at the furnace.” (3) It has not been established how the two hundred markers were distributed among the different Mount Lebanon families. It is known, by names on the markers in the Museum’s collection – seven bearing the names of Church Family Members and one from the Second Family – that they were used by those two Mount Lebanon Families. An inventory of all extant markers may determine where else they may have been used. The well-known cast iron “lollipop” markers used at Harvard follow the Ministry’s guidelines but are from a different casting pattern. The markers from Mount Lebanon, according to Elder Giles, were cast at Page’s in Albany. This foundry, started in Federal Stores (now Old Chatham, NY) in 1832 by Isaiah Page, moved to Chatham in 1835 and then Albany in 1850. Following examination of the sample marker from Brother George, the Ministry sent samples to New Hampshire and Kentucky and likely to all of the other Shaker Ministries. The only Shaker community known to have followed the example at Mount Lebanon was Harvard, Massachusetts.
The casting pattern for the stake provides an empirical example of an important feature of the work of the Shaker woodworkers who made foundry patterns. When molten iron is poured into a mold and hardens and cools it shrinks – at about one-eighth of an inch per foot. A comparison between the wooden pattern and the finished stake demonstrates this feature of casting objects in iron. Brother George’s forty-nine and one-eighth inch long pattern produced a forty-eight and five-eighths inch iron stake. A special ruler – a shrink rule – is used by patternmakers to make sure that the finished object is of the correct dimensions.
At the end of the day, the cast iron markers presented the same problem as stone monuments – they deteriorated, were damaged by falling limbs and by vandals. Eventually, as the Mount Lebanon community began to close, the Shakers were again faced by the problem of how to maintain their graveyard monuments. Their solution this time was to erect a single large monument bearing the inscription, “Shakers,” possibly the most fitting way to remember the deceased members of a communal sect.
Cast Iron Grave Markers in the Shake Museum | Mount Lebanon Collection
(Information on additional cast iron markers from Mount Lebanon will be a most welcome addition to this list.)