The Shakers: Masters of Invention
A Journey Back in Time.
In the fall of two thousand and eight, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Pleasantville,Kentucky, where there is a working farm and living history museum for the Shaker people. This village is completely operational, consisting of an Inn, workshops for all the various Shaker products and inventions, museums, a sorghum mill, gardens and livestock. Pleasantville attracts tourists from all over the world every year. During my stay, I learned much about this very unique group of people, and truly believe that because of the philosophies they followed, the Shaker people were the Master Inventors.
There were many religious sects who immigrated to early America because they desired religious freedom. Among these was a group known as the Shakers. A woman named Ann Lee was being held, accused of treason against the new government. Her small group had recently descended on the frontier near Albany and ignited a wildfire of disruption and religious fervor. They were called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but because of their ecstatic dancing the world called them the Shakers.
Congregation members lived in gender segregated, dormitory-like housing, but came together to work, and pray. Like the Quakers they followed the practice of worshipping a God who was both male and female. Those expressions took the form of hymns and work songs, as well as their ecstatic methods of worship which included shaking and dancing. They believed that Jesus Christ had come back to earth already in the form of Mother Ann Lee, though she did not promote this idea. It was only after her death that members made this distinction and the belief that they were in the one thousand years of peace before the Rapture, when all believers would be swept up to heaven. It’s members also believed that all men were equals, regardless of race or gender, which was a radical concept at the time.
The Shaker people led a simple and self-sufficient existence from the fruits of their land. They became well known for their architecture, crafts, and furniture.The Shakers separated themselves from the rest of society, but sold their beautiful furniture to anyone who wished to buy it. Their craftsmanship quickly earned them a solid reputation and their furniture was highly regarded and sought after.
At their peak they boasted eighteen communities in New York, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Kentucky, one of the largest of which had over three hundred members . The Shakers flourished into 20th century when celibacy took its toll on the sect, and their numbers dwindled to near extinction. One of the last villages to close was The City of Peace, or Hancock Village located by Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which became a barren town in 1960 when the last of the Shakers moved away. The town stands today as a museum and monument to the simple way of the Shaker people and its continuing influence on American folk art and aesthetics. Upon arriving to the village at Pleasantville Kentucky, it was like I was transported back in time. “I woke with the sun shining into my spartan room and was drawn outside when the mist still lingered upon the hills and the golden light of the morning radiated on the red maple leaves that rustled beneath my feet,” (Wygovsky, 2008).
There are many inventions that originated from the Shaker people. The most commonly known of all was their beautiful furniture, everything from the famous chairs and rockers to wardrobes and benches. They had an interesting way of weaving the thin pieces of bamboo that was used for the seats and backing of chairs, often dyed in contrasting colors. Each piece was painstakingly made, and held to the highest standards. The methods of furniture making they employed are still being used to this day, and while there are very few actual members of the Shaker religion, there are many craftsmen who have mastered these methods and continue to make the furniture today. Most of the furniture comes from the remaining villages that have now been converted into living history museums, and it is still possible today for anyone to purchase “Shaker” furniture.
Another hallmark of the Shaker people was their invention of the oval box, made out of bamboo and died many colors. They also made them in circular shapes and in sets of nesting boxes. The Shakers knew that wood swells across the grain when it is damp, so they cut fingers that overlapped in a seam to help fortify the design. These boxes were light and delicate, and made to last for a very long time. The seams were held with tiny brass divits and the handles were woven into the framework of the box. Another famous invention was the corn broom. Most people don’t know the origin of this simple and very effective cleaning tool which has become a household staple today.
The Shakers built special rolling devices that took dried and split corn stalks and tightly rolled them and bound them into the now traditional broom shape and then were attached to wooden handles. The Shakers believed in cleanliness and finding more efficient ways to clean and this may have been the initial reason the prototype for the corn broom came about. Most Americans have a broom that has this very basic design in their households today.
The Shakers were also believed to be the very first to mass produce seeds through mail order. They were very successful farmers, and would harvest, dry and package their seeds to sell to the public. This concept caught on like wildfire and carried a huge impact on the way that farming progressed in America. Their abilities in agriculture were phenomenal. Crops were cultivated and selectively grown according to size and yield and then these qualities were reproduced and sold as seeds through the mail.
The architecture of the Shaker people is also quite unique. The round barns that were designed and built are fascinating and innovative. Many of these beautiful structures still stand today. The “Shaker stairs,” are another interesting and amazing thing to behold. The stairs were built into the wall with no external supports, looking as if they were freestanding and bearing remarkable and artistic curved railings. The Shakers were known for other contributions to the improvement of several breeds of livestock, in particular sheep, chicken and cattle.
Even today, the Shaker village at Pleasantville, Kentucky, is dedicated to helping preserve several rare breeds of livestock in order to continue the legacy of the original Shaker people. Other inventions by the Shakers are the apple peeler, the apple corer, the rolling pin, dough mixer, circular saw and the clothespin.
There is some speculation that the reason the Shakers were responsible for so many useful and ingenious inventions is because of the way they lived. Anyone could become a Shaker, therefore people from all walks of life would come to live in the Shaker village. Farmers that fell on hard times, widows with children, retired teachers and doctors, soldiers and former slaves. All were welcome to live among the Shaker people. The only requirements were that you must live as a Shaker while you were there. This extended to segregation of the sexes, and working in a trade that was suitable for the set of abilities that each individual had. It was commonplace for those who found themselves in bad circumstances to seek refuge at a Shaker village. Sometimes farmers who had little success during the growing season would travel to a nearby Shaker community and stay through the winter, then return back to their own farm in the springtime and work through the growing season. Anyone from any walk of life was invited to come and stay within the Shaker village, and the only expectation was for each person to contribute to working the farm.
It is speculated that because of the beliefs of the Shakers that all men were equals in the eyes of God, it attracted people from such varied backgrounds as to provide a deep pool of talents and intelligence to draw upon for the entire Shaker way of life. In any civilization, the entire community benefits as a whole when the individuals are vastly different from one another and accepted as such. If a community were to allow only stone masons to reside there, for example, you would not be as likely to find among them people with a mastery of wood carving. In this way, the Shakers had the advantage.
The Pleasant Hill Shakers were mostly first and second generation pioneers, people that followed the same trail as Daniel Boone. This was the case of many Shakers in other parts of the country. In fact, one of the many things that the various Shaker villages had in common was that their residents were all typically pioneers, looking for a new start. (Shaker) The eventual downfall of the Shakers was the fact that they believed in celibacy. Even with the occasional adoption of orphans, they lived by the rule of celibacy and therefore procreation was not allowed. Women and men were divided regardless of whether or not they were married before arriving at one of the Shaker villages.
During the beginning of the nineteenth century, the number of Shakers dwindled as people moved away or died of old age. Today, there exist only two known Shaker people, both of whom are elderly and the last living legacy to the Shaker way of life. Sadly, there is no room in our modern society for such a simple way of living ones’ life, and it is more or less considered very old fashioned and just another distant part of our history. We don’t have time for such things as growing our own food, building our own homes, and even things like fellowship and an enjoyment of nature in its most basic form are all foreign concepts today. I am thankful that I had to ability to get an inside look at the way these wonderful, fascinating people lived. I hope to use some of the things I learned about the way they lived to model in my own life, and maybe improve my appreciation for all the advantages I possess. And I am thoroughly convinced that the Shakers truly contributed greatly to the way that all Americans live today, even if this not not a widely based acknowledgement. The Shakers were in my book, the Masters of Invention.