Articles At A Glance
The Shakers and Hancock Shaker Village
By: Richard Bauman
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, March 2008
The Shakers are remembered mostly for their extraordinary handcrafted furniture, but they were so much more than that. They were also herbalists, plant growers and inventors—fervently religious and remarkably creative. A visit to Hancock Shaker Village, near Pittsfield Massachusetts gives visitors a view of the Shakers overall commitment to a way of life that sought perfection in an imperfect world. And how they lived is as fascinating today as it was in their heyday of the early 1800s.
Hancock Shaker Village encompasses more than one thousand acres. But of primary interest to most visitors are the more than twenty preserved and restored buildings and gardens contained within about three acres adjacent to the visitors’ center. Visitors can view workshops that were used for weaving and basket making as well as those shops where furniture was built. There are examples of all these items, and especially Shaker brooms. The Shakers invented the flat broom, commonly used today
The proper name of the sect was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. “Shakers” originally was a derisive name used by outsiders, because frenzied dancing and shaking was part of the sect’s services. They were thought odd not just because of their shaking, but also because they practiced celibacy. Shakers didn’t marry, and spouses who became Shakers lived apart from one another. Children became Shakers either along with their parents, or when orphaned and then adopted by Shaker communities.
Shaker men and women worked and lived apart from one another. Nonetheless, there was gender equality. Women had just as much say in the community’s functions and decisions, as did men.
Ann Lee founded the religion in England. She and some followers immigrated to New York in 1774, searching for religious freedom—and converts. In all, the Shakers established 18 communities in New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts. Hancock Shaker Village was the third Shaker community founded in America. When it was established in 1787, it was named “The City of Peace,”
Each building at Hancock has its own special history, but three buildings there can give visitors excellent insight into the Shakers and Shaker living.
The five-story red brick, white trimmed residence hall known as the Brick Dwelling, belies the notion that Shakers lived in hermit-like discomfort. To the contrary, the building’s rich wood banisters, highly polished floors, softly colored walls, and overall spotlessness accurately reflect living conditions there.
The building was designed by one of the Brothers, and many of them shared in its construction in 1830. Elder William Deming, who supervised the building project, wrote about its construction: “We commenced our building and in ten weeks from the placing of the first stone in the cellar, the house was neatly laid up and the roof put on…The work is well done.”
Each room in the Brick Dwelling is a still-life in Shaker living. For example, the Sisters and Brothers retiring rooms had minimal furnishings and a few personal articles needed to live a simple, orderly life. Whether a retiring room was for men or women, typically there was a single rocking chair in it. In addition to individual beds, there was a table, chairs and one or two candle stands—and that was about it. The rooms were used only for sleeping and for reading religious materials before and after meals.
Cleanliness was definitely next to Godliness in Shaker communities. Ann Lee declared: “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in Heaven.” Brothers and Sisters were expected to keep their rooms tidy and spotless. To help maintain clutter-free surroundings, wooden pegs were installed on walls in each room. Clothes and hats were hung on the pegs, as were chairs and other small objects.
Without question, the most photographed building at the Hancock community is the Round Stone Barn. It is three stories tall with a circumference of 270 feet. It was designed for maximum efficiently in feeding the cows, milking them, and cleaning the building’s 52 stales.
Wagons entered the third floor and deposited hay in the haymow at the center of the barn from which the cows ate. There were trap doors in the floor of the stalls so manure could be removed through them and into the basement where it could be shoveled into wagons.
The barn originally had a cone shaped roof, but, when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1864, the roof was changed to its current configuration.
The Laundry/Machine Shop building, built in 1790, is the oldest existing building at Hancock. There visitors can glimpse how some of the Shaker men and women worked in the service of their brothers and sisters—and how they created some products they sold to “the world.”
The machine shop occupies one half of the building and has working examples of lathes and other tools used in the making of furniture, broom handles and other wooden and metal implements. The lathes, saws and other “power tools” were connected to their power source, a water turbine, by shafts and drive belts.
The other half of the building was the community’s laundry facilities. Laundry was washed in wash machines on the first floor. A lift was used to carry the damp laundry to the building’s upper floors where it was hung inside to dry. The dry laundry was dropped through a chute into baskets on the first floor. There it was ironed and placed on hangers or folded.
Visitors can view workshops that were used for weaving and basket making as well as those shops where furniture was built. There are examples of all these items, and especially Shaker brooms. The flat broom, commonly used today, was invented by the Shakers.
The Shakers had an enviable reputation for high quality plant seeds, which were one of their most renowned products. They packaged and sold seeds mail order throughout the country. Shakers herbs, for medicinal purposes, were also highly sought because of their consistent and outstanding quality. At one time at least 10 acres of land at Hancock were devoted to growing herbs. Today, only a few hundred square feet are used to demonstrate some of the herbs the Shakers grew.
The Shakers, as a whole, were inventive people. They invented the circular saw, an improved washing machine, condensed milk, the flat broom, the common clothes pin, the one-horse wagon, metal pins, a side-hill plow, pea-sheller, silk-reeling equipment, a revolving oven, an improved wood-burning stove, bed rollers and a machine for threshing and fertilizing—to name just some items.
For the infirmed, Shakers created wheel chairs—typically rocking chairs fitted with large wooden wheels. They had “walking frames,” which were much like walkers used today, except made from wood.
The Shaker rarely patented their inventions, and their ideas were often “re-invented” by others, who claimed credit for them. One exception was the Shaker washing machine. Refined over several decades, the Improved Washing Machine was patented in 1877. It looked like a long, enclosed sink counter with large compartments for washing and rinsing clothes. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was labor saving.
Without question, the Shakers are best known for their fine, lasting furniture devoid of fancy designs, and frills. Genuine Shaker chairs, tables and cabinets often sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. The Shakers saw no reason to have varying levels in quality of workmanship in the things they made. “Let it be plain and simple,” was the Shaker canon, “(and) of good and substantial quality, unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability.” All work, and all products, had to be equally well done—and most often were.
The Shakers strove for perfection in their lives. Thus, finding ways to do things better and faster, creating new machines, and producing superior goods were steps toward perfection—and religious experiences for them.
The City of Peace, at its peak in the 1830s, had about 300 residents. While their way of life can be summed up as “plain and simple,” their way of life wasn’t austere. They lived in comfortable surroundings and for the most part were self-sufficient. They didn’t live in “the world,” but they didn’t totally estrange themselves from it. They used its life conveniences when it suited them, including even automobiles in the early 20th century.
Hancock Shaker Village is about five miles west of Pittsfield, Mass., and about 20 miles east of Albany, N.Y., on Route 20. For information about operating hours cost of admission, and special programs, you can contact Hancock Shaker Village by phone at 800-817-1137; FAX: 413-447-9357, or visit their Website: www.hancockshakervillage.org.
*All photos taken by Richard Bauman*
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