by Sarah Bouley
The Shakers were a humble yet industrious religious group who were just as faithful as they were hardworking. They were founded by Ann Lee, a blacksmith’s daughter and a mill hand in Manchester, England, who was looking for a religion closer to God than the Church of England offered. She joined a group called the Wardley Society, a group that had branched off from the Quakers in 1758. The group became known as the “Shaking Quakers” or “Shakers” due to the way they shook and danced while in prayer. After emigrating to America, they adopted their official name, the “United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ.” In their earlier years they referred to themselves simply as the “Believers”. The Shakers have always worked hard to separate themselves from the outside world and to live up to Ann Lee’s ideas of perfection. With their simple, organized lifestyles and strong beliefs the Shakers were able to make a name for themselves as well as a good living.
When they first emigrated to America in 1776, they settled down in Watervliet, New York. The Shakers began gaining followers and with those followers, popularity. Many of the people who joined the Shakers were farmers. This proved to be beneficial to the Shakers as it helped them to expand their community as well as produce crops of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
To really understand the Shakers success in making, trading, and selling their goods, one must first learn how an average Shaker spent their day. In most Shaker communities, the days began early in the morning at about 4:30 A.M. After the daily morning prayer, men were expected to go outside and tend to the farm animals and crops. The women were to make the beds and then start cooking and cleaning the house. The children, who slept in separate rooms from the men and women and were tended to by elder Shakers, began doing their morning chores. At around 6:30 A.M, a bell calling all Shakers to the dining hall for breakfast would ring, which they would all serve, eat, and clean up.
Men and women were separated in the Shaker society. Because of this, both men and women had separate jobs that would keep them busy throughout the day. Women often took care of tending to the house and taking care of housework such as sewing, cooking, and weaving. Men were given the duties of harvesting the crops, building tools and furniture in the workshops, and selling and trading the materials they created. This helped to support the Shaker’s rise in industry and the popularity of their fine craftsmanship. The children had a very different schedule. Instead of working around the house or at the farm, the children attended school. However, boys and girls went during different seasons of the year. Girls were the only sex permitted to go to school in the summer and in the winter only the boys were allowed. This lead back to the separation of the male and female sexes. The schools were excellent and rivaled all others. Students were taught arithmetic, reading, writing, history, geography, science, art, and music. Many people who weren’t Shakers sent their children to go there to learn instead of the other public schools in the area.
Evening activities included a daily meditation period for prayer and calming of the mind. Afterward, Shakers would often meet together. Men and women were permitted to be together at this time. Often times the Shakers would hold an evening worship service as well. The Shakers would often express themselves during these times in dance or song. Giving yet another reason as to how they became known as the Shakers. One of the most popular Shaker songs, “Simple Gifts”, was written by Joseph Brackett, a Maine native. It is known as an American folk song and is still sung to this day.
The Shakers are best known for their popular inventions that are used worldwide to this very day. The simplicity and easy access of these inventions gave them as much of an advantage as large name producers. The Shakers did not, however, patent their inventions. This was a show of humility on the Shakers part. Yet because of this, no one truly knows how many things the Shakers invented and how many inventions deserve their credit.
One of the things that the Shakers were often credited with inventing was the packaging and selling of seeds for gardening. They would often sell these seeds to vendors or go out and sell it themselves. The Shakers would also use the many herbs that they grew at their farms for medicines. These medicines would be kept and sold by the Shakers. They were of remarkable quality. They were often ground up and put into natural capsules made by the Shaker’s own hands. The pills would be placed into homemade bottles and then sold to vendors the same way the seeds were sold.
The Shaker men would leave to go into town to advertise and sell their products. In the later years they would begin to carry catalogs and show off their beautiful and unique inventions and materials for the townspeople to see. By the end of the day, the men would come back having sold their goods for money.
The Shakers also made improvements to already made inventions. An example of this was the improvement to the broom. The broom was originally round and did a poor and time consuming job of sweeping up dust. Brother Theodore Bates of Watervliet realized this and made the first ever flat broom out of straw.
It wasn’t just inventing and improving the Shakers were good at. They also had a talent for building. Shaker furniture was some of the best crafted of its time. The Shaker men built everything from chairs, stools, dining tables, work desks, candle stands, and chests. All were made with the Shakers simple yet sturdy design and were built to last. The furniture was often made with cherry or maple wood and polished to perfection. Women also helped to contribute to the Shakers popularity with their fine sewing and weaving. They created things such as blankets, scarves, and handkerchiefs. Others created more complex materials such as hats and bonnets, sweaters, and woolen cloaks.
Unfortunately, there are no Shakers left alive today that can replicate the work of the Shakers before them. Because of this, we may never get to behold the true elegance of the Shaker’s work. For now we can only keep the memory of the Shakers in our minds by remembering their accomplishments and how they helped to shape modern day technology.