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In a number of Shaker families a brother could be found whose occupation was identified as “mechanic.” These brothers had often been members of their community since childhood or their teen years. They had exposure to a number of trades as helpers or even apprentices and further had the experience of working cooperatively in community rather than competitively. One example is Thomas Corbett at the Church Family, Canterbury, New Hampshire, who came to the Shakers at Enfield, New Hampshire, with his parents by the time he was ten years old. He moved to Canterbury in 1794 where he apparently was well educated in the mechanical arts – being  known to have made an electrostatic machine for medical treatment, a hand pumper to protect the family from fire, and several tall clocks to keep the family on schedule – before he turned his talent to the medical treatment of the family and manufacturing botanical medicines for sale. In a similar manner, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs came with his father to live with the Watervliet, New York Shakers, where he was often under the care of his clockmaker-uncle Benjamin Youngs. Although Brother Isaac was trained as a tailor when he moved to New Lebanon, New York, in his early teens, he was allowed to pursue more mechanical activities including making clocks for that community. He described his skills in his 1837 autobiography in verse: 

I’ve always found enough to do,

Some pleasant times, some grievous too 

Of various kind of work I’ve had 

Enough to make me sour and sad, 

Of tayl’ring, Join’ring, farming too, 

Almost too much to do, 

Blacksmithing, Tinkering, Mason work, 

When could I find time to shirk? 

 

Clock-work, Jenny work, keeping school 

Enough to puzzle any fool! 

An endless list of chores & notions,  

To keep me in perpetual motion. 

O who on earth could have invented 

Such a picture here presented? 

How well applied the saying comes, 

“Jack of all trades, good at none!” 

Brother Isaac’s value as a mechanic is obvious in 1841 when he is requested to make drawings of the planing machine used by the Church Family oval box makers at Mount Lebanon so one could be made at Union Village, Ohio, and the elders there could begin making boxes at that community. The drawings were sent to another skilled mechanic, Brother Micajah Burnett, from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Seventeen-year-old Brother Micajah had joined the Shakers at Pleasant Hill in 1808 with the rest of his family. Best remembered as an architect and village planner at Pleasant Hill, his mechanical skills were put to good use when he was sent to Union Village. Union Village journals noted the December 2, 1841, arrival of “Micajah Burnett from Pleasant Hill on mechanical business….to assist in a planing Machine for Oval boxes & ½ bushels.” And, on March 8,  1842, that “The planing & slitting machines and another, to cut out oval box heading, are all about finished.  It is thought to be a first rate lot of machinery.” 

The sum total of the contributions of these brothers in providing the tools and machinery that gave rise to the success of Shaker agriculture and industry is immeasurable. Brother Elisha Blakeman said of Brother Isaac in a eulogy written by  in 1866 – “Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to Brother Isaac,” – could easily be applied to any of these mechanics. 

Quill Winder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, circa 1830-1840. Shaker Museum: 1961.12965.1. Michael Fredericks, Photographer.

The object at hand – a quill winder from the Church Family at Canterbury, New Hampshire – is such a tool, and although the maker has not yet been identified, it has all the hallmarks of the work of a brother as described above. The winder required the work of someone skilled in woodwork, knowledgeable about the speed ratio of pulley wheels, able to make patterns for casting brass or to have brass castings made, and capable of machining the castings and bearing blocks to run true and smooth. Brother Thomas Corbett should be considered as a possible maker. He was at the right place at the right time and through his experience as a clockmaker had knowledge of and access to clock-making tools to machine the brass parts of the winder. 

Paper Quills. Staff photograph.

Quills, now sometimes called bobbins, are hollow wood or paper tubes (originally the spiny part of the flight feathers of birds) that, once wound with thread and inserted in a shuttle, carry the weft thread back and forth through the warp of a loom to weave a piece of fabric. Because there is a limit to the amount of thread that the shuttle can carry, a skilled weaver will need numerous wound quills to keep weaving without interruption. The winding of quills was work likely assigned to young girls. While quills were often wound on a spinning wheel – in fact, the spindle on which the quill is mounted on this winder is one that was originally made for a spinning wheel – this winder may have been conceived in order not to tie up wheels when they were otherwise needed.

Quill Winder with Wound Quill, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, circa 1830-1840. Shaker Museum: 1961.12965.1. Staff photograph.

The large pulley wheels on this winder are 4 ½ inches in diameter. The small pulley wheel is 1 ½ inches in diameter and the pulley on the spindle is ¾ of an inch in diameter. The ratio in the sizes of these pulleys suggests that turning the handle at 140-150 rotations per minute nets about 2800-2900 rotations of the spindle. It appears from examining the winder that when in use it was clamped to a table or counter to keep it from moving. There are small indentations along the top of the rails that hold the bearing blocks, and each of the four legs has a 3/8 inch round recess drilled into the bottom of its foot suggesting that it may have fit over round pins in a surface to secure it. There is no other evidence of a method to fasten it in place. While five of the bearing blocks are brass, the one at the business end of the spindle is made of maple – whether it is original to the piece or a Shaker replacement is as yet unknown. 

Shuttle with Wound Quill, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, circa 1840s. Shaker Museum: 1950.1547.1. Staff photograph.

Scott Swank notes in Shaker Life, Art, and Architecture that between 1797 and 1848 the Canterbury Shakers produced over 42,000 yards of woven fabric. Being able to date the quill winder by the type of screws used in its assembly to a period prior to that 1848 date, it can be assumed that this winder was one of the tools used to aid in that remarkable production by being one of those “little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness” as a tool that helped in processing millions of yards of Shaker-spun thread. 

 

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Quill Winder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, circa 1830-1840. Shaker Museum: 1961.12965.1. Michael Fredericks, Photographer. 

Feb 16, 2022

“Very many of our little conveniences”: An ingenious quill winder

In a number of Shaker families a brother could be found whose occupation was identified as “mechanic.” These brothers had often been members of their community since childhood or their teen years. They had exposure to a number of trades as helpers or even apprentices and further had the experience of working cooperatively in community […]

In a number of Shaker families a brother could be found whose occupation was identified as “mechanic.” These brothers had often been members of their community since childhood or their teen years. They had exposure to a number of trades as helpers or even apprentices and further had the experience of working cooperatively in community rather than competitively. One example is Thomas Corbett at the Church Family, Canterbury, New Hampshire, who came to the Shakers at Enfield, New Hampshire, with his parents by the time he was ten years old. He moved to Canterbury in 1794 where he apparently was well educated in the mechanical arts – being  known to have made an electrostatic machine for medical treatment, a hand pumper to protect the family from fire, and several tall clocks to keep the family on schedule – before he turned his talent to the medical treatment of the family and manufacturing botanical medicines for sale. In a similar manner, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs came with his father to live with the Watervliet, New York Shakers, where he was often under the care of his clockmaker-uncle Benjamin Youngs. Although Brother Isaac was trained as a tailor when he moved to New Lebanon, New York, in his early teens, he was allowed to pursue more mechanical activities including making clocks for that community. He described his skills in his 1837 autobiography in verse: 

I’ve always found enough to do,

Some pleasant times, some grievous too 

Of various kind of work I’ve had 

Enough to make me sour and sad, 

Of tayl’ring, Join’ring, farming too, 

Almost too much to do, 

Blacksmithing, Tinkering, Mason work, 

When could I find time to shirk? 

 

Clock-work, Jenny work, keeping school 

Enough to puzzle any fool! 

An endless list of chores & notions,  

To keep me in perpetual motion. 

O who on earth could have invented 

Such a picture here presented? 

How well applied the saying comes, 

“Jack of all trades, good at none!” 

Brother Isaac’s value as a mechanic is obvious in 1841 when he is requested to make drawings of the planing machine used by the Church Family oval box makers at Mount Lebanon so one could be made at Union Village, Ohio, and the elders there could begin making boxes at that community. The drawings were sent to another skilled mechanic, Brother Micajah Burnett, from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Seventeen-year-old Brother Micajah had joined the Shakers at Pleasant Hill in 1808 with the rest of his family. Best remembered as an architect and village planner at Pleasant Hill, his mechanical skills were put to good use when he was sent to Union Village. Union Village journals noted the December 2, 1841, arrival of “Micajah Burnett from Pleasant Hill on mechanical business….to assist in a planing Machine for Oval boxes & ½ bushels.” And, on March 8,  1842, that “The planing & slitting machines and another, to cut out oval box heading, are all about finished.  It is thought to be a first rate lot of machinery.” 

The sum total of the contributions of these brothers in providing the tools and machinery that gave rise to the success of Shaker agriculture and industry is immeasurable. Brother Elisha Blakeman said of Brother Isaac in a eulogy written by  in 1866 – “Very many of our little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness owe their origin to Brother Isaac,” – could easily be applied to any of these mechanics. 

Quill Winder, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, circa 1830-1840. Shaker Museum: 1961.12965.1. Michael Fredericks, Photographer.

The object at hand – a quill winder from the Church Family at Canterbury, New Hampshire – is such a tool, and although the maker has not yet been identified, it has all the hallmarks of the work of a brother as described above. The winder required the work of someone skilled in woodwork, knowledgeable about the speed ratio of pulley wheels, able to make patterns for casting brass or to have brass castings made, and capable of machining the castings and bearing blocks to run true and smooth. Brother Thomas Corbett should be considered as a possible maker. He was at the right place at the right time and through his experience as a clockmaker had knowledge of and access to clock-making tools to machine the brass parts of the winder. 

Paper Quills. Staff photograph.

Quills, now sometimes called bobbins, are hollow wood or paper tubes (originally the spiny part of the flight feathers of birds) that, once wound with thread and inserted in a shuttle, carry the weft thread back and forth through the warp of a loom to weave a piece of fabric. Because there is a limit to the amount of thread that the shuttle can carry, a skilled weaver will need numerous wound quills to keep weaving without interruption. The winding of quills was work likely assigned to young girls. While quills were often wound on a spinning wheel – in fact, the spindle on which the quill is mounted on this winder is one that was originally made for a spinning wheel – this winder may have been conceived in order not to tie up wheels when they were otherwise needed.

Quill Winder with Wound Quill, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, circa 1830-1840. Shaker Museum: 1961.12965.1. Staff photograph.

The large pulley wheels on this winder are 4 ½ inches in diameter. The small pulley wheel is 1 ½ inches in diameter and the pulley on the spindle is ¾ of an inch in diameter. The ratio in the sizes of these pulleys suggests that turning the handle at 140-150 rotations per minute nets about 2800-2900 rotations of the spindle. It appears from examining the winder that when in use it was clamped to a table or counter to keep it from moving. There are small indentations along the top of the rails that hold the bearing blocks, and each of the four legs has a 3/8 inch round recess drilled into the bottom of its foot suggesting that it may have fit over round pins in a surface to secure it. There is no other evidence of a method to fasten it in place. While five of the bearing blocks are brass, the one at the business end of the spindle is made of maple – whether it is original to the piece or a Shaker replacement is as yet unknown. 

Shuttle with Wound Quill, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, circa 1840s. Shaker Museum: 1950.1547.1. Staff photograph.

Scott Swank notes in Shaker Life, Art, and Architecture that between 1797 and 1848 the Canterbury Shakers produced over 42,000 yards of woven fabric. Being able to date the quill winder by the type of screws used in its assembly to a period prior to that 1848 date, it can be assumed that this winder was one of the tools used to aid in that remarkable production by being one of those “little conveniences which added so much to our domestic happiness” as a tool that helped in processing millions of yards of Shaker-spun thread. 

 

One response to ““Very many of our little conveniences”: An ingenious quill winder”

  1. Steve Miller says:

    I welcome this latest edition of analysis of Shaker material culture. As with its predecessors, it is interesting, well thought-out and it speaks directly to the “Shaker experience in America,” a shout-out to the late, great Stephen Stein.

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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.