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Shaker Museum

Apr 4, 2018

An emery mold possibly made from a woodworking plane

Shaker sisters made a number of accessories for sewing – needle cases, beeswax cakes, pin cushions, and emeries were the most common, both as items used by the Shakers  and eventually as items that they sold in their stores. To accomplish quality sewing it was important to have thread that didn’t knot-up as it passed through fabric and sharp, […]

Shaker sisters made a number of accessories for sewing – needle cases, beeswax cakes, pin cushions, and emeries were the most common, both as items used by the Shakers  and eventually as items that they sold in their stores. To accomplish quality sewing it was important to have thread that didn’t knot-up as it passed through fabric and sharp, smooth needles that would not abrade or damage the fabric. Before cotton thread was mercerized – a strengthening process that was developed in the 1840s and perfected in the 1890s – sewers passed their thread through beeswax cakes to make it smooth and less likely to catch on the fabric that was being sewn. Likewise, needles needed to be kept sharp and free of rust. Small bags of ground emery rock (aluminum oxide with a variety of impurities) were used sharpen needles and remove any rust that may have formed on them. Emeries were often made in the shape of a strawberry and occasionally decorated to emphasize that shape. Tailors and others involved in sewing would poke their needle into the bag, usually made of tightly woven wool or satin, until the needle was ready to use.

Emery Mold, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2482.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

The emery mold in the Museum’s collection was used to hold the cloth bag while it was filled with emery powder and sewn closed. After the strawberry-shaped emery bag was assembled, it was topped with a cover over the closure to keep any powder from leaking out. The closure was often shaped like the hull of a strawberry. This mold was made to accommodate fabrication of several sizes of emeries. On one end of the block there is a hollowed-out strawberry-shaped recess about 1 1/8 inches wide and 7/8 of an inch deep that was used to form a large emery. On the opposite end a center strawberry-shaped recess is surrounded by eight similar recesses that vary in diameter from three-quarters of an inch to one inch in diameter. A hole drilled in the side of the block was apparently used for mounting the mold on a peg so it could be rotated to make either end point up.

Emery Mold (detail of “Z. W.” stamp), Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1950.2482.1. John Mulligan, photographer.

An intriguing feature of this mold is the presence of the initials “Z. W.” stamped next to the single 1 1/8” diameter hole. The position of the stamped initials is odd–it would have been more logical to have positioned the stamp further away from the edge of the hole. This seemingly illogical placement has caused some conjecture that the block had been stamped prior to having been made into an emery mold. The stamped initials are similar to the stamps used by woodworkers to mark their tools, a mark that often appears in the end grain of tools such as woodworking planes. It is possible that the block from which this mold was made came from a block of maple cut from the end of a large woodworking plane – something like a long jointer plane. Assuming this is a logical explanation for the stamp appearing on the mold and for its awkward placement, the next question is who was “Z.W.”?

The only Shaker with those initials who has been identified as living at Mount Lebanon is a brother named Zadock Wright.

Although Wright is usually associated with the Shaker community at Canterbury, N. H., where he moved in 1892 and died at the age of 83 in 1819, he originally joined the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon.  At Canterbury he is known to have been a deacon and as such his initials appear on some very early – sometime between 1793 and 1807 – Shaker spinning wheels. Whether he was also a maker of spinning wheels or a woodworker at all is not known. At this time the initials of the family deacon were stamped on some Shaker products to identify them as Shaker rather than stamping them with the word, “Shaker.” The “Z. W.” stamp that was used on spinning wheels was not made with the same stamp as that on the emery mold. Deacon Zadock was old enough when he joined the Shakers at Mount Lebanon to have acquired his own tools and brought them with him when he joined. If he had a plane that he used at Mount Lebanon, it is possible it was left behind when he moved to Canterbury – especially if he was not planning to do woodworking at Canterbury. If damaged, cracked, warped, or missing a part, it may have been viewed as merely scrap to be reused for some other purpose – like the emery mold.

We know something of Deacon Zadock’s early history with the Shakers from information published in Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee… (Hancock, MA: 1816):

“Zadock Wright, of Canterbury, was, at the commencement of the American Revolution, a royalist, and conscientiously refused to take up arms against the king, to whom he had sworn allegiance. He accordingly fled to Canada, to avoid the danger to which his political principles exposed him; but was, afterwards, taken by the Americans, while attempting to move his family to Canada, and sent, a prisoner, to Albany.

After being retained as a prisoner at large, for several years, his situation became very critical and alarming. His estate was confiscated, and himself thrown into prison at Albany. This happened at the time of Mother’s [Ann Lee’simprisonment, in the same place. He was, at that time, under great exercises of mind concerning the work of God, which had then taken place at New-Lebanon, among the people of his acquaintance. This, together with his present situation, and temporal difficulties, brought him into great tribulation; and he felt very anxious to see Mother through the grates of the prison; which she perceived, and obtained admittance for him into her apartment of the prison. On being questioned, he informed Mother and the Elders of his embarrassments. Mother looked on him and said, ‘You will be delivered.’— Again she said, ‘God will deliver you.’—Again, the third time she said, ‘God will deliver you.’ Though this appeared, at that time, impossible to Zadock; yet the declaration from Mother made a forcible impression on his feelings. 

He had been, from principle, much opposed to the American Revolution; but Mother taught him to view the subject in a different light from what he had done; and convinced him, that it was the providential work of God, to open the way for the Gospel. He then clearly saw, that it would be impossible for England to prevail – that the hand of God was in it; and America must be separated from the British government, and become a land of liberty, for the gospel’s sake.

Soon after this, he parted with Mother; and after struggling through many difficulties, for more and after struggling through many difficulties, for more than a year, without seeing or hearing any more of Mother and the Elders, he was, at length, through the interposition of Divine Providence, released from his embarrassments, according to Mother’s words. Having returned to his family, in the state of Vermont, in peace, he was, shortly afterwards, visited by Israel Chauncey and Ebenezer Cooley, and embraced the testimony of the gospel, in which he has continued faithful to this day.”

Objects in the Museum’s collection need considerable evaluation to truly understand all of the nuances of their history. Although the examination of this piece leads to a number of conjectural conclusions, we hope that bringing together all the known and possible pieces of information about this piece and making a best informed guess, our knowledge of objects in the collection will continue to grow.




A black and white photo of a person smiling.

Shane Rothe

Curatorial Associate

Shane Rothe (they/them) joined Shaker Museum in July 2023, working with independent curator Maggie Taft on an exhibition for the new museum space in Chatham. Shane is an artist as well as a curator and continues to create in the mediums of painting, sculpture, writing, and performance. Shane holds a BFA from CalArts and an MA in art history and curatorial studies from the University of Chicago.