Today in Pleasant Hill History – November 22

Jacob A. Glover, PhD, Director of Public Programs and Education

We’re unveiling a new series this afternoon that we are calling “Today in Pleasant Hill History” to share more of the Shaker stories we uncover all the time. We hope you enjoy, and let us know in the comments what types of things you all would like to hear about! Without further ado, we’re headed back to November 22, 1872, with a story that you may find eerily familiar:

“The most direful scourage, the Epizootic that has wrought such havoc among the horses in the Eastern Cities, & now spreading Westward, as now its appearance in among our Office horses, through the stage horses, & there is no telling the destruction it may work.”

Known as the “The Great Epizootic of 1872,” this was the worst outbreak of equine influenza in recorded history. In Buffalo, NY, one of the eastern cities referenced by the Shakers, The New York Times noted that there were “not enough well horses to carry merchandise through the streets.” By the following spring, the epizootic had apparently passed, and the Shakers did not mention it any further.

Photo Finish

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

It’s the penultimate month of our NEH grant project! Time sure flies, doesn’t it? Since July, I’ve completed editing over 13,800 object, archival, photographic, and library records. That’s right – the editing phase is now DONE! Whohoo!

So what’s next? From now until the end of the year, I’ll be reviewing the user interface of our online collections portal, and also (more excitingly) photographing objects in our exhibits and collections storage. As you might guess, adding photos of everything in our collection is a much larger project than can be completed on our current timeline—instead, I’ll be tackling my to-do list strategically.

To better understand how I’ll go about this, let’s think about why visually documenting artifacts is important. Some reasons are fairly obvious—there’s a reason “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliché, after all! But, assuming an object has already been photographed once, does it really need to have its picture taken again? Yes! Why? Well, let’s compare them to family photos. You wouldn’t say one photo of your kid is all you need, right? While inanimate objects aren’t going to grow up, go through puberty, and leave home, they can still (and often do) change over time, and these changes are important to document. The technology we use to document them can change and improve over time, too! (Just think of the difference in image quality between an early 2000s point-and-shoot camera and a current DSLR camera!)

Let’s study some examples. How might an object change over time? For us, a major factor is an object’s condition, whether good or bad. Sometimes objects are repaired, conserved, or restored, and it’s important to document both the “before” and the “after” of these processes. Also, unfortunately, sometimes objects are damaged – which can happen gradually (if kept in improper conditions) or suddenly (if improperly handled). Such is the case for the item below – a hand-thrown stoneware pitcher. I’ll let the notes on file do the explaining.

“Item was broken in 2014 by guest who claimed to be an expert potter, and therefore exempt from restrictions against touching. They quickly left and never gave a name. It now exists in multiple pieces.”

A stoneware pitcher (object ID SP79.82), before (left) and after (right) being broken.

Yikes! Good thing we had a photograph of the item before it was broken, right?

Here’s another example – this time, an item that we currently have only one photograph of on file. This pretty-in-pink silk neckerchief is lovely, but its current image doesn’t do it justice. The lighting is poor, which both affects the apparent hue and the visible detail. In addition, the neckerchief is crumpled, and you can’t see the entire object at once.

A rose-colored silk neckerchief (object ID 61.4.96), most likely made by Pleasant Hill Shakers.

Here’s one more example. This gorgeous blanket chest is currently on loan at the Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (go tell it we said hello!). Compare the older, black-and-white image on the left to the most current photo on the right. While black-and-white images are helpful for noticing subtle, contrasting details that can get lost in a color image (like woodgrain or dovetail joints), the color image better represents the chest’s finish, and can also help with identifying the type of wood used.

A blanket chest of cherry and poplar (object ID 61.4.206). Left photo by SVPH staff c. 1960’s; right photo by Mack Cox, courtesy of the Speed Museum of Art.

As I’m photographing objects in the next six weeks, I will be taking color images in as high quality as possible, and taking multiple shots of each item to show different angles and details. I’ll also be focusing first on items that are currently on exhibit, to make sure we have good records of our most vulnerable artifacts. If you see a photographer in one of our exhibits working from a strange angle, it’s probably me – come say hi!

Prying with a Purpose

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. ” 
Zora Neale Hurston

When you think of a library, what comes to mind? Most people immediately think of their local public library, or perhaps their school or university library: a place where books and other materials can be browsed and checked out, and that has a large window of time in which the general public can come and go at will.

Reference material on rolling stack shelving – part of our research library holdings.

The above types are known as lending libraries or circulating libraries – that is, material can circulate (i.e., be borrowed from the library and leave the premises for a set amount of time). But did you know that there are multiple types of libraries? Pleasant Hill has our own library as part of our collections, and this library is a non-circulating, research library. What does this mean?

As you might have guessed, non-circulating means that our materials can be referenced within our collections storage building, but don’t leave the premises. Many public libraries have reference sections or reading rooms that contain non-circulating material. Research libraries serve a very particular purpose; that is, to aid in the research of a topic or range of topics. Therefore, while your local public library may have books on every topic and in every genre under the sun, ours focuses on material that will aid in research related specifically to Pleasant Hill. However, that doesn’t mean that we only have material about Pleasant Hill Shakers!

Past subject guides have been stored in this small card catalog.

Some of our material includes works about:

  • Other  Shaker communities
  • Other utopian and communal societies and groups
  • Kentucky and the surrounding region – its history, geography, ecology, and society
  • The ID and care of different types of artifacts (such as textiles, tools, and furniture)
  • Collections and historic site management and interpretation
  • The process of creating Shaker-style handicrafts

…and more! Not to mention fictional works about (or “inspired by”) the Pleasant Hill Shakers – including, oddly, quite a few paperback romance novels. These works assist in our research at SVPH – both internally, to develop interpretation and other programs, and externally, when we host outside researchers.

Our library also includes Special Collections – that is, works that are now rare, have special handling requirements, or both. This is where you’ll find most of our antique books with cool-looking covers, among other things.

Works from our Special Collections, bounded in leather (probably calfskin).

So, if our library includes antique publications, what is the difference between a library and an archive? Archives typically contain one-of-a-kind documents or original works – for example, a personal letter, manuscript draft, or even home video. These items were usually things that were privately made and held, rather than published and sold. While libraries also include documentary artifacts, these documents – regardless of if they’re circulating or non-circulating – are usually not one-of-a-kind (or, at least, were not at the time of their creation). Think of books, films, and music you’d be able to buy at a store when they were new.

As I’ve been going through our research library holdings for our NEH digitization project, I’ve been proofreading entries, adding additional information where feasible, and creating cross-references between related materials (such as other works in a series, works by the same author, or multiple copies or editions of the same work). When this catalog is available online, I hope you’ll have fun browsing our virtual stacks!

Donor Impact

Melissa Donahoo, Development Coordinator

In the 1970s, the trees in the Shaker Village Apple Orchard were planted in honor of the nonprofit’s visionary President, James L. Cogar. Forty-five years later, the established Orchard is one of the first things that visitors see when they arrive at Shaker Village.  The Orchard produces apples from 10 heirloom varieties that supply the onsite restaurant, are made into applesauce that is sold in The Shops, featured in special events such as the Hard Cider Bash and highlighted in educational programs.  Despite its prominent location and use, The Orchard has been one of the most underutilized areas of the Historic Centre.

Heirloom apples in the Shaker Village Orchard.

In late December 2019, Shaker Village was contacted by a donor who was interested in learning about some of the projects on our funding wish list that includes projects of all sizes and costs.  Some of these projects are obvious as you walk the property.

Some of the projects on the wish list are not as obvious. In December 2019, we had a number of smaller but significant things we wanted to do in The Orchard and the Herb Garden (adjacent to the 1824 Centre Family Dwelling) to improve the guest experience. This included:

  • Add an accessible path through the apple trees to allow guests to fully experience The Orchard.
  • Add picnic tables in The Orchard.
  • Re-establish the Herb Garden (which had been moved to accommodate the Centre Family Dwelling restoration project, 2017-2019) and add seating.
  • Establish a Native Garden adjacent to the 1820 Meeting House.
  • Add interpretative signage for The Orchard, Herb Garden and Native Garden.
  • Add a monarch waystation and a pollinator bath.
  • Repair the Duck Wagon (the Indian Runner Ducks reside in The Orchard).
  • Relocate firepits to be nearby the Herb Garden and the Native Garden; add seating.

All of these projects have a cost to them that is not funded for in the operating budget.  At $1,000, the largest expense was the sand, gravel, and labor to install the accessible path.

The new accessible path that leads guests through the Apple Orchard.

Our Development Team worked with the donor and packaged all of these items into a single project titled The Orchard + Gardens Project.  The donor very generously funded all of the needs and work began in mid-Spring. We were able to provide more seating and amenities because we were good stewards with our donor-provided funds.

When this project began, no one could foresee the impact the changes would have on the visitor experience and the Village as a whole. In the past we rarely saw visitors near The Orchard or the Herb Garden. Today, we see them interacting in these spaces every day.  Visitors amble through The Orchard to learn about the heirloom varieties, enjoy lunch at the picnic tables, or sit on the benches to watch the pollinators at work in the Native Garden and the Herb Garden. 

The Herb Garden has several plots that guests can learn about.

The completion of The Orchard + Gardens Project has been one of Shaker Village’s tremendous accomplishments of the year. But it’s important to remember that none of it would have happened without an interested donor. When you make a gift to Shaker Village, it doesn’t matter if you donate $10, $100, $1,000 or more. Every dollar counts and makes an impact.  We promise to use your gift wisely and as it was intended.

This is a powerful place. In 2020 it has proven to be a peaceful and restful respite for many of our guests. We remain committed to our mission and sustaining the future of this site, and we thank you for your continued support that makes the programming, the preservation of the cultural landscape and historic structures, and everything else possible.

Out of the Blue

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

What does the color combination of blue and white remind you of? Perhaps it is Blue Willow china, Delftware pottery, or shibori indigo-dyed textiles – or, if you’re one of our Central Kentucky neighbors, it’s University of Kentucky sports!

Two cyanotypes (IDs 0114 and 0112) of a bedroom in the Ministry’s Workshop.

As I have been working our way through the historic photography aspect of our archives and collections, I was thrilled to come across examples of cyanotypes – an early photographic process that results in vivid blue and white prints. If you’re a regular Village@Work reader, you may have spotted one in our previous post about the Pleasant Hill Meeting House!

Cyanotypes are made with oxidized ferrous, i.e. iron, salts – the basis for the original Prussian blue pigment (which, incidentally, was the first modern synthetic pigment). A solution of two types of these salts react with UV light (sunlight!) to develop an image, which can then be rinsed off with clean water, leaving an image positive behind.[1]

The cyanotype process was invented in 1842, and was originally used for reproducing scientific notes (no photocopiers back then!); however, its potential for producing and reproducing images was quickly discovered, and the process was then used for photograms,[2] photographs, technical copies, and fine art. It’s the origin of the term “blueprint” – for decades, technical and architectural drawings were reproduced with the cyanotype process, resulting in blue lines on white paper![3]

Cyanotype (ID 0113) of the ferry at Shaker Landing, with a horse-drawn vehicle aboard.

Because this process is relatively simple and requires no darkroom, it was used long after it was the favored process of professional photographers – starting in the 1870s, it was used by photographers in the field to create “proofs” of a negative before they would develop it in a darkroom.[4] Several of our cyanotypes seem to have been used for this purpose, as they can be paired with exact (or near-exact) copies made with an albumen or gelatin-silver process. Want to play “spot the difference?”

Side-by-side comparison of the cyanotype proof (ID 1413) and the final gelatin-silver print (0438): Shaker sisters entering the Meeting House.
Side-by-side comparison of the cyanotype proof (ID 0314) and a nearly identical albumen print (1390), featuring Shaker sisters and other women on the front steps of the Centre Family Dwelling, c. 1895. Notice the issues that have been corrected in the more professional version.

This process is still favored by many artists, and ferrous salt solutions have been created that can be used on both paper and textiles. Pre-treated “Sunography” paper can also be purchased for a fun and easy photogram experience. I have done this activity myself, with lovely results.

Cyanotype photograms created by the author, Laura Webb, c. 2018.

Have you ever tried making a cyanotype, or another type of photogram or print? If so, how did it turn out? How would you use this process – for art, for documentation, or for making copies?


[1] Rice, Cory. “Historical Processes: The Cyanotype.” B&H Explora (blog). 2019. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/features/historical-processes-the-cyanotype.

[2] Dictionary.com, s.v. “Photogram,” accessed October 15, 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/photogram.

[3] Experiment Station. “What Is a Cyanotype?” The Phillips Collection (blog). May 4, 2012. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://blog.phillipscollection.org/2012/05/04/what-is-a-cyanotype/.

[4] Stulik, Dusan, and Art Kaplan. The atlas of analytical signatures of photographic processes. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013. https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/atlas_cyanotype.pdf.