THE MULTIFACETED GENIUS of SHAKER DESIGN

A patent dated March 2, 1852 begins with the following declaration:

     Be it known that I, George O. Donnell, of Shaker Village, in the town
     of New Lebanon, in the county of Columbia and State of New York,
     have invented a new and improved mode of preventing the wear and
     tear of carpets and the marring of floors, caused by the corners of the 
     back posts of chairs as they take their natural motion of rocking 
     backward and forward…

This patent is reflected in a side chair that was a highlight of our booth at the Delaware Antiques Show and featured in our catalog, “Important Shaker Design.” Attributed to George O’Donnell with tilters stamped “PATENT / 1852,” this chair embodies the multifaceted genius of Shaker design.

Attributed to George O’Donnell, Side Chair with Patented Brass Button-Joint Tilters, New Lebanon, New York, 1852. Flame birch, original brass tilters, and woven taped seat, old or original finish, 37 ¼ x 18 x 13 ⅜ inches. Proper left front post stamped: “9”. Tilters stamped: “PATENT / 1852.
Attributed to George O’Donnell, Side Chair with Patented Brass Button-Joint Tilters, New Lebanon, New York, 1852. Flame birch, original brass tilters, and woven taped seat, old or original finish, 37 ¼ x 18 x 13 ⅜ inches. Proper left front post stamped: “9”. Tilters stamped: “PATENT / 1852.

Shaker craftsmanship is widely appreciated for its refined and purposeful aesthetic. Despite being a niche religious sect, the Shakers did not isolate themselves from the secular world and their dedication to simplicity in all facets of life, including the things they made, should not be confused with rigidity. Rather, they embraced ingenuity and invention, and their philosophy that all things be necessary and useful gave way to new ideas. George O’Donnell’s patent for a new kind of tilter “preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors” is but one example.

Detail of woven taped seat.
Detail of woven taped seat.

Tilters were first introduced in 1819 by Freegift Wells, an elder and woodworker in the Church Family at the Watervliet, New York, Shaker community. Wells recorded in his diary that he, “Began to trim off & ball the chairs,” that he had been making for the family [1]. The term “balling” describes the Shaker practice of inserting a small round wooden ball with a flat base into a socket at the bottom of the back legs of a chair. When the sitter leaned back in the chair, as the sisters and brothers apparently did often, the ball would rotate and alleviate pressure on the back legs, thus preventing the hardwood chairs from denting the softwood floors [2]. It was not until O’Donnell’s metal version that tilters were fabricated separately allowing them to be added to preexisting chairs.

model of wooden tilter

O’Donnell was a brother in the New Lebanon, New York, Shaker community. The 1850 census lists him as a 27-year-old chairmaker and by the time of the patent, he served as second elder in the Second Family [3]. Although the patent lists his name as “George O. Donnell,” Shaker records tell us that his correct name was “O’Donnell.” It’s possible O’Donnell dropped the ‘O’ for the purpose of securing a government patent during a time of widespread anti-Irish discrimination. He eventually left the Shakers, however, and nothing further is known about him.

Left: Patent design, Edward Deming Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection, Winterthur Library. Right: Original brass tilters corresponding to the patent on our side chair.
Left: Patent design, Edward Deming Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection, Winterthur Library. Right: Original brass tilters corresponding to the patent on our side chair.

According to the specifications, this device consists of a separate piece combining a ferrule, ball, and foot. Applied to the back posts, it allows “the chairs (to) take their natural motion of rocking backward and forward while the metallic feet rest unmoved; flat, square on the floor or carpet” [4].The U.S. Patent Office was established through the Patent Act of 1790, which required that a working model of each proposal/invention be submitted in miniature. By 1823, a total of 1,819 models were on record. In 1836, a fire destroyed all records and nearly all of the models. A second fire in 1877 destroyed another 76,000 models. By 1880, Congress decided that building models for all inventions was impractical and in 1908 the remaining models were sold. About 150,000 models were stored in an abandoned livery stable until 2,500 of the most important went to the Smithsonian Institution and the remaining were sold at auction to philanthropist Sir Henry S. Wellcome (1853-1936) in 1925 [5].

Left: George O’Donnell (born circa 1823), Patent Model Side Chair for Button-Joint Tilters, New Lebanon, New York, 1852. Bird’s eye maple, original resin-based finish, brass tilters secured by brass screws, handwoven wool tape seat, 15 ¼ x 11 ¼ x 8 ½ inches. Inscribed in ink on paper label on front top slat: “George O’Donnell.” Right: Original brass tilter on patent model side chair.
Left: George O’Donnell (born circa 1823), Patent Model Side Chair for Button-Joint Tilters, New Lebanon, New York, 1852. Bird’s eye maple, original resin-based finish, brass tilters secured by brass screws, handwoven wool tape seat, 15 ¼ x 11 ¼ x 8 ½ inches. Inscribed in ink on paper label on front top slat: “George O’Donnell.” Right: Original brass tilter on patent model side chair.

Among the many thousand lots sold to Wellcome was O’Donnell’s model. Wellcome had intended to create a patent model museum but the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression ended his plans. The models were bought and sold until they arrived in the hands of auctioneer O. Rundle Gilbert (1906-1989) who sold the lots individually. O’Donnell’s model chair with tilters was discovered at a Gilbert auction by antiques dealer Frank Cutadean (1945-1996), who recognized the significance and brought it to the attention of the larger community of Shaker enthusiasts. We had the distinct pleasure of first acquiring O’Donnell’s model in the 1980s and lending it to the 1987 landmark exhibition “Shaker Design” at the Whitney Museum of American Art before selling it to philanthropist and art collector Josephine Ford (1923-2005). We reacquired it from Ford’s estate in 2006 and it is now in a private collection [6].

Top: Back of patent model side chair. Bottom: Detail of the back bottom slat on patent model side chair, reading “GEORGE, O DONNELL.
Top: Back of patent model side chair. Bottom: Detail of the back bottom slat on patent model side chair, reading “GEORGE, O DONNELL.

In the end, a relatively small number of O’Donnell’s invention were actually used on chairs and examples exactly corresponding to the patent are very rare.

This side chair, featured in our catalog “Important Shaker Design,” belongs to an elite group of high-seated side chairs of identical form and common authorship fashioned from exotic native hardwoods—flame birch or birdseye maple—that have tilters exactly corresponding to O’Donnell’s patent, made entirely of brass, and secured by brass screws [7]. Evidence that these chairs with metal tilters were used by members of the ministry at New Lebanon is suggested by a birds-eye-maple side chair with prototype pewter tilters that has an original Shaker label inscribed “Ministry’s,” also sold by us and in the same private collection as O’Donnell’s patent model chair.

Side chair with Patented Brass Button-Joint Tilters, from our catalog “Important Shaker Design from a Private Collection.”
Side chair with Patented Brass Button-Joint Tilters, from our catalog “Important Shaker Design from a Private Collection.”

We are delighted to have had the opportunity to offer this rare piece of furniture—alongside so many other special examples of Shaker design—that best expresses the group’s principles of honest beauty and utility, and which evidences their deliberate interactions with the external world.

VIEW CATALOG

 

[1] Shaker Museum, ““[A] new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors,” May 24, 2017. https://shakerml.wordpress.com/tag/odonnell-george/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] George O’Donnell, patent specifications, 1852.

[5] Wellcome was an American pharmacist who co-founded London-based Burroughs Wellcome & Co. which through mergers ultimately became GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest drug companies. Wellcome amassed a huge collection of medical artifacts, many of which can be seen at the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine in London. Upon his death, Wellcome established the Wellcome Trust, which remains the largest charitable foundations for general medical research in the United Kingdom.

[6] It is published in Jane Katcher, David A. Schorsch and Ruth Wolfe, eds., Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana, Volume II (Seattle and New Haven: Marquand Books and Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 28–29, 370, cat. no. 9.

[7] Other examples are illustrated in Timothy D. Rieman, Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship – The Mount Lebanon Collection (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1995), pp. 104–5, cat. no. 27, and Mario S. DePillis and Christian Goodwillie, Gather up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 209.

[8] It is published in Jane Katcher, David A. Schorsch and Ruth Wolfe, eds., Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana, Volume II (Seattle and New Haven: Marquand Books and Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 28–29, 370, cat. no. 10.