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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

History Of The Unique, Simple Lives Of The Shakers

Dallas Bogan on 4 September 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The Shakers were unique in their ways of life, so much so that they revolutionized the simple affairs of existence for generations to come, whether for themselves or the common household. One reason for their survival was their pioneering efforts of inventions that allowed them to work more efficiently.
To make life easier, they utilized an ingenious capacity to make tools that ultimately helped them in the field and in the kitchen. For instance, for the farm they invented the hay rake, mower, and a special plow for working on hills, the latter of which was specifically designed to eliminate much of the hard labor regarding their oxen and horses. They also invented the circular saw and clothespin.
Among their many accomplishments was the creation of new markets, which included packaged seeds, they being the first to embrace this process. The containers were easy to recognize with the seeds themselves being highly dependable. They were also first in the dried fruit technique, and their procedures for harvesting and selling their fresh food products were used worldwide.
Their overall packaging technique was most unique along with their characteristic buckets and decorative labels. They had a talent for producing visually attractive products.
Farms were immaculately laid out, with neatly designed areas for wheat, corn, potatoes, vegetables and herbs. Some Shaker communities included orchards and strawberry fields as well.
Animals were treated with great care; for it was a belief of the Shakers that a person's character was partly based on how well he cared for his animals. Careful cleaning, good food and housing, and being especially watchful that the animals were not overworked, all were high on their priority list.
Even the honeybees were made comfortable through an inventive natural air conditioning system, which circulated, through their hives.
Lands were well cared for by rotating crops and controlling pests naturally. This factor alone led to high efficiency and proven success.
The kitchen, of course, was the main workroom in the house. Food for the entire community was made three times daily by a group of cooks. Efficiency reigned in this area and so they devised, or invented, special tools and appliances that would save time in this laborious job. Some of their more ingenious inventions were the apple corer, pea splitter, cheese press, and double rolling pin.
Through the use of the apple corer and double rolling pin, they could produce sixty apple pies in the time it would customarily take a housewife to make two or three. A revolving oven, another form of shortcut, could bake sixty pies at once.
Many of their products sold were made famous by the apple, such as their canned applesauce, which was sold throughout the United States.
They learned, from their apple processing methods, the art of preserving other fruits and vegetables. One outstanding innovation was their method for extracting juices from herbs, which were manufactured and made into medicinal agents.
The Shakers used large quantities of food, the high production not taking away from the delicious taste. The taste test was balanced with the use of herbs and spices.
Shaker cooking could be reproduced since they were one of the first to use scientific processes for their food. Specific measurements, along with lengths of time and temperatures, were all utilized as quality and time saving features. Their recipes were gathered, put in cookbooks, and sold worldwide.
The dining tables were long and modest and were without tablecloths or other fancy goods. Food was consumed from plain plates and was not wasted as it was used in meals the next day.
Before each meal everyone had about 15 minutes of quiet time kneeling for a silent grace. (The Society, in early years, ate their meals in silence. Sometime later the non-talking ban was lifted.)
The Shaker home was one of simplicity that was easy to maintain; cleanliness was the nucleus to community life. The flat broom, another Shaker invention, replaced the old round brooms. The sisters broomed the entire house every morning before breakfast, while the brothers cleaned up the workshops in the afternoon.
The Shakers inserted wooden pegs into wooden strips that were fastened to the wall. To make sweeping easier most of the loose furniture was hung on the pegs.
Cabinets and chests were customarily built into the wall, which would virtually eliminate dust gathering. Furniture was simply built mainly to inhibit the need for extra dusting. All chests, desks and tables had drawers in them to store their necessities, thus keeping the clutter off the top.
House ventilation was an item of importance. Their belief was that fresh air was critical for good health; large windows fulfilled this need.
Their day began early. Between the hours of four and five a.m., they rose to pray and tidy up their homes. The sisters then prepared breakfast while the brothers tended their chores on the farm and in the workshop.
When the breakfast call was sounded everybody gathered, meditated, and ate silently. Thereafter the children were sent off to school. The boys attended school in the winter while the girls attended in the summer. After school both sexes performed their chores in the kitchen, garden, laundry, dairy, workshop, etc.
The sisters were unusually busy, executing their household chores along with some learned crafts such as candle-making and developing herbal medicines.
When not working the fields the brothers spent their time in the workshop building their chairs, tables, boxes, brooms, buckets, tools, etc.
Community matters were debated during their scheduled meetings. These subjects included their harvests, outside news, squabbles among the members, and certainly information concerning the whole family. Brothers and sisters would sit across from each other at a distance of several feet.
Dress codes were unrestricted at first, but these beliefs were later changed to highlight the quality among the members of each Family. Different suits of clothes were used for different occasions, such as, ones that were used during work, outside of work, and on Sundays. Clothing was quite simply made, the women wearing plain dresses and the men wearing plain shirts and pants.
Shaker lives were quite synonymous. All the villages were significantly similar, with designated buildings for sleeping, eating, working and worshiping. Community members were organized into families of 50 to 100 brothers and sisters. Most often their blood relationship was omitted, they just being a part of the fellowship.
Their buildings consisted of separate doorways and staircases, one each for the men and the women.
Two elders and eldresses headed each family of brothers and sisters. Each was designated as the religious heads of each family. Deacons and deaconesses functioned to assign work within the family.
The individual Society families managed agriculture and woodworking. Funds were raised for the village and governed by trustees who sold their products to the outside world, which the Shakers considered inferior to themselves. The trustees were the only members designated to deal in this way.
Sunday was the day set aside for community worship. Their song and dance went on during the morning and afternoon hours. The rest of the day was spent in conversation and relaxation, each respecting the "gender gap" that the Society was founded upon.
Joining the Shakers depended upon two commitments - being free from debt and living within the Shaker rules of "celibacy and separateness." Children and "partial" Shakers resided separately from full Shakers in a group known as the Novitate Order. Orphans and adopted children were also accepted into their communities.
Others, who had suffered hard economic times, joined the Shakers, many leaving when their personal settings improved. These folks were called winter Shakers or bread-and-butter Shakers. If they decided to fulfill the strict Shaker requirements they could join the main families.
Leaving the Shaker community was not so difficult, the door always being left open. Many members left quietly at night, while others left normally, the latter being given some money and provisions. The most prodigious argument arose when the community member wanted their property back upon leaving.
Facing public opinion, the Shakers have now and then been crucified for their religious beliefs. Gender separations, breaking up of homes, and the sharing of property and goods are considered the main culprits. But some might say that the Shakers were well ahead of their time in community appraisal.

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This page created 4 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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