Shirred and Swirled

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

In a previous post, I mentioned that sifting through our object records let me find large batches of similar items, and compare and contrast them. When our digital collections go live, you’ll be able to do the same thing – but until then, let’s practice together!

Have you seen any of our Shaker rugs on exhibit before? You may have seen the “GOOD” rug, on display in the East Family Brethren’s Shop, or our “Horse Rugs” (one of which is now on display at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville). However, there are only so many examples of a type of object a museum can show in most exhibits. Sometimes museum curators choose to display an example of an object type that is the most well-known or special; sometimes they choose items that are the most “typical” representation. Either decision involves narrowing down many alternate choices. Using rugs for this exercise, let’s see what information we can gather!

  • What do these rugs have in common with each other?
  • If you’ve seen either (or both!) of our more “famous” rugs, what do these have in common with the ones below? What makes them different?
  • Can you determine one, or several, overarching design themes?
  • What colors are used most frequently? What materials? What is used more rarely?
  • One of these rugs is depicted twice, in two different formats – can you find which one?
“Shaker Shirred Rug,” Charles Goodwin, Index of American Design; Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Can you spot this rug in our photos?
Object 61.3.350; cotton, wool and burlap. Shirring often creates a “shag rug” like texture.
Object 61.4.129; cotton, linen and wool, including knit and jacquard fabric; one of several with organic forms. This one reminds me of a geological formation, like agate or malachite.
Object 62.4.64C; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. The vibrant colors and geometric angles of this rug design are strikingly contemporary.
Object 62.4.61; constructed from a combination of shirring, scaling and braiding.
Object 62.4.64B; cotton, wool and burlap. Constructed in a Maltese cross design, with shirred strips and a braided edge.
Object 61.4.125; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. Organic shapes of shirring stitched onto a “sandwich” backing of lace weave, burlap and a woven rag rug.
Object 61.14.1; cotton and wool. Sewn to a woven rag rug with a corduroy backing. Does this rug look familiar?
Object 61.4.128; cotton and wool. Sewn to woven rag rug with ticking fabric backing. Central design motif is said to resemble an eye. What do you think it looks like?

So, what did you notice? Here’s some context, courtesy of the object notes and descriptions on file:

Many of these rugs are called “dollar” rugs; this is because they are created with scraps of fabric in the size and shape of silver dollar coins. These scraps are then “shirred;” that is, threaded into strips resembling Hawaiian leis, or fuzzy caterpillars. Most are made from scraps of fabric of a variety of materials, many dyed in vibrant earth tones. However, while the phrase “rag rugs” usually evoke either the flat-woven rectangular form or the braided, round or oval form, these have a thick texture and complex forms, either in abstract or figurative designs.

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories

By Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

Do you have a favorite Shaker artifact?  When you think of Pleasant Hill, do any special objects come to mind?  If you could pick one word to describe Pleasant Hill or the Shakers, what word would that be? 

Trying to pick one word or one artifact can be challenging, but it is a fun exercise because it can help to clarify what the Shakers mean to you personally.  Every artifact offers visitors an opportunity to connect with the Pleasant Hill story, and our latest exhibit, Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories, helps to establish these relevant connections. 

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories highlights Shaker Village’s artifact and archival collection, and encourages visitors to think critically about what, and why, we collect.  Featuring over 20 artifacts, this exhibit will help visitors piece together the Pleasant Hill story by not only exploring the objects left behind, but by considering why they matter.  The Shakers called Pleasant Hill home for over a century, and their diverse individual experiences left us with a collection that is equally varied and diverse. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was founded in 1961 to “collect, preserve, and display the records, artifacts, tools, and products of the Shaker community.” Today, Shaker Village actively maintains 34 historic structures, 25 miles of rock walls, 3,000 acres of original Shaker land, and over 7,000 objects and documents!  The Pleasant Hill Shakers have a fascinating story to tell, but how do we, as a museum, tell that story? 

Shaker material culture, particularly Shaker furniture, is often the point of entry into the Shaker story for many visitors.  Pieces of Shaker furniture were the first artifacts to be collected and studied by early 20th century Shaker scholars.  Furniture was so heavily studied and written about that it became the focal point for discussions on the Shakers for much of the 20th century, much to the chagrin of Shaker Mildred Barker, who famously stated, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair.”

Shaker chairs featured in the new exhibit.

While furniture and furniture making were important components of the Shaker experience, there is so much more to the story.  This new exhibit features Shaker furniture along with additional artifacts from the collection to emphasize the importance of analyzing objects to understand their significance to the history of the community.  By digging deeper into these artifacts, and uncovering the personal stories behind them, we can explore the dynamic nature of this community.     

The exhibit will lead visitors through a series of questions that address the artifacts themselves and the scope of the collection as a whole.  Guests will also be encouraged to get involved in the research process to uncover the individuals and stories behind our artifacts.  In doing so, we hope that visitors will understand not only how the artifacts fit into the larger Pleasant Hill story, but also how these stories help build meaningful connections with their own lives. 

Every artifact has a story to tell, you just have to know what questions to ask. 

Join us as we examine the importance of artifacts, and the ways in which we can use them to understand more about life in this community!

This project is supported with funding from the Kentucky Local History Trust Fund (KRS 171.325), a program administered by the Kentucky Historical Society.  For more information, see history.ky.gov/local-history-fund

Past “Perfection,” Depth and Breadth

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Hello again! Welcome to the second installment of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant blog series.

Even before I last checked in with you, I had been diving deep into our object records to make progress on phase one of this project.

Pop quiz time!

Q. What does phase one entail, again?

A. If you read last week’s blog you may remember phase one includes, “Sift[ing] through existing digital records with an editorial eye, checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.”

Here’s a breakdown of my progress so far. I’ve edited 940 objects in a little over seven days of work. I’m no math whiz, but my calculator tells me that I’m averaging roughly 120 object records per day. That’s six online catalog “pages” of 20 records each. With 4,624 object entries currently digitized (not including records for photographs, archival documents and research library publications), that means I’m roughly one-fifth of the way through phase one of this project. If all goes well (knock on wood), I’m projected to complete this phase in early September. Thank you, calculator!

I’m going through our records with specialty museum software called PastPerfect. This software has had lots of updates and features added since it first came out in 1998, but honestly it has a user interface that still looks like it survived Y2K.

museum software, computer software, archive software
PastPerfect Museum Software: a blast from the past.

It may not look sleek, but it’s very thorough! I’m a detail-oriented person, so we get along fine. And this is certainly a meticulous job – some might say tedious, even. So far, even maintaining my “productivity averages,” I’ve done many passes over the same records several times a week, developing consistent syntax and record-keeping, along with teaching myself software tools, tricks and shortcuts as I go.

With this “close looking,” I’ve run across items deep in our collection that even I didn’t know we owned, which you can expect to see examples of in later posts in this series.

printing press, handpress, archive, Shaker handpress, Shaker printing press
Surprise item: hand-powered printing press (archival photo).

I’ve also caught lots of oddball errors. For example, one past software update moved object information into a field called “Species,” referring to Natural History. This meant I’d see objects called “Species: Stove” and the like. Other times I’ve found amusing typos, such as one referring to Shaker Pure Extract of Malt as “Pure Extract of Meat,” which sounds awfully unappetizing!

As I’ve been making my passes through our collection records, I’ve also noticed trends in accessioned (which means “to record in the order of acquisition”) [i] objects. As we add items in batches, often as they are donated or purchased, I get a sense of that collector’s interests. There will be waves of rugs, bottles, baskets, or chairs all at once. It’s fun to speculate about the previous owner’s personality and to notice subtle differences between otherwise similar items.

While our digital catalog’s final form will, of course, keep our donor’s personal information private, soon you too will be able to investigate the depth and breadth of our collections.


[i] The Free Dictionary by Farlex, s.v. “accession,” accessed July 23, 2020, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/accessioned.

Sharing the Archives, One Bite at a Time

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“I visited here in 1993 and remember seeing an interesting clothes press. Where is that now, and can I see it again?”

“These journal excerpts are fascinating! Can we read the whole thing?”

“Do you have any other examples of Pleasant Hill oval boxes I could look at?”

“Can anyone go poke around in your archives, or only researchers?”

“Where’d all the stuff go that used to be in this building?”

Shaker artifacts are housed in protected storage.

As historical interpreters working with the public, my colleagues and I often receive questions about our artifact collections. You may already know that we’ve had to shuffle many of our artifacts due to recent preservation work, including in the Centre Family Dwelling. What you may not know is that our artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in our collections!

So, why don’t we have all of this great Shaker “stuff” out for everyone to see all of the time? It’s not because we don’t love our visitors (we do) or want you to see them (we do). First, space is always at a premium, and a room packed with furniture doesn’t make the best exhibit. Second, and more importantly, many of our artifacts are fragile — for their conservation, we need to limit how often they are handled, exposed to sunlight and taken out of controlled storage.

Large items like furniture are carefully organized and archived.

“How can I see the artifacts if they aren’t on display?” I’m glad you asked! With grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the help of the internet, the team here at Pleasant Hill are developing a means of digital access to our collections. Anyone with an internet connection can search or browse our documents, artifacts and photographs, regardless of who or where they are. This eliminates the risk of damaging any of the objects. Sounds like a win-win, right?

In order for all of the information to be documented someone (…me) has to:

  • Sift through existing digital records with an editorial eye checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.
  • Find, or create, and enter in missing information such as images or dimensions.
  • Start chipping away at creating records for items that have never been digitized.

With approximately 4,700 object records in our database alone, it’s an elephant-sized task! You know what they say about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

From now until the end of the year, this blog series will go behind the scenes of this project, and tell the stories of some of the objects you’ll see in our database. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you along the way!

A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.