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“Shakerism, Its Meaning and Message”

Excerpts from: Chapter XVII, pages 310-318


Although claiming to live in the New Heavens, to have been harvested from the world and to lead a pure, spiritual and peaceful existence, the Shaker is by no means a dreamer or a mystic.   Hard-headed, shrewd, sensible and practical, he neither cheats  nor means to let himself be cheated, prefers to give more than the contract demands and glories in keeping the top, middle and bottom layer equally good in every basket or barrel of fruit or vegetables sent to market under his name.  He aims to employ his whole being and all his time, consistently and honorably, in the service to which he has devoted himself.   He sees no virtue nor economy in hard labor when a consecrated brain can work out an easier method.  There is no quickener to brain and hand like a heart at peace, a conscience clear and a sense bright with the joy of holy living; and thus the world is richer for many tangible proofs of the Shaker’s consecrated ingenuity.

The list of inventions and devices of Shaker wit and wisdom is a long one, and if extended into little labor-saving contrivances about the dwellings, shops and barns would seem almost endless.  Nearly all of their many valuable inventions have been unpatented.  To the Shaker, patent money savors of monopoly, the opposite of the Golden Rule.  Whatever he invents is for the use of the whole world.  Many times have those not so conscientious patented as their own. inventions which were taken  from the Shakers.  From statistics outside the Order, the statement has been made that more useful inventions have originated among the Shakers than any other people of the same number.

Ten years before the screw propeller was put into use as a new system of navigation, it was invented and used by Thomas Wells, of Watervliet, N. Y.  “Babbitt Metal” was the invention of Daniel W. Baird, of North Union, Ohio, and his claim was established in a court of law whither he had been subpoenaed as witness in a law suit, between the man Babbitt and the firm Ward & Co., of Detroit, for infringement of patent.  The firm, whose case was established by Daniel Baird’s testimony and his little box of soft metal, would have handsomely remunerated him, but he would take nothing save the expense of coming to court.  Afterward, he accepted a free pass over the railroads and steamboats under control or influence of the firm.  The same brother originated the rotary or revolving harrow.  The one afterward patented by another man was contrived after watching Baird’s.  Daniel Baird also invented an automatic spring, for domestic purposes.

South Union, Ky., was the home of Sanford J. Russell, a Shaker, who invented and, strange to say, patented a sash balance, which without cords or pulleys worked perfectly, moved at a touch, locked at any desired point and, as the “Scientific American” said of it, “furnished the best ventilator known.”

Elder Matthew B. Carter, of Ohio, invented an ingenious governor of an over-shot water wheel.  George Wickersham, of Mount Lebanon, is said to have invented the Turbine water wheel.  As early as 1815, a home-made threshing machine was in use.  Boards were matched for the first time in this country by machinery in the same year.  It was the invention of Henry Bennett and Amos Bishop, who used vertical rollers to keep the lumber straight, and ropes and windlass to propel the same over circular saws, first making a groove, then a tongue.   The improved system was brought out in 1828.  A planing machine, since which all others have come into use, was invented at Mount Lebanon.  A fertilizing machine was added to the list of mechanical contrivances by Charles Greaves of Mount Lebanon . Elders Daniel Boler and Daniel Crossman, of the same society, invented machinery for splint making, basket working and box cutting.  Shaker splint-bottomed chairs and poplar wood baskets and boxes are still a favorite product of Shaker ingenuity.

A Harvard sister, Sarah Babbitt, known as “Sister Tabitha,” has the honor of inaugurating a new industrial era, by the invention of cut nails and of the circular or buzz saw.  She was watching the brethren make wrought nails, when it occurred to her that they might be cut from a sheet of iron rolled to the desired thickness.  Her idea was worked out to a success, and the cut nail became universal property.

At another time, she stood watching the brethren saw wood, and, remarking that half the motion was lost, the idea of a circular saw came to her.  Avoiding the ridicule that a new idea invokes, she went to work quietly by herself.  Making a tin disk and notching it around the edge, she slipped it on the spindle of her spinning-wheel, tried it on a shingle and found it was a success.  From this rude, tiny saw, fastened to a spinning-wheel by a Harvard Shakeress, came the circular saw of today.  Sister Tabitha’s first saw was made in sections and fastened to a board.  A Mount Lebanon brother improved on this by making the saw out of one piece of metal.  The first circular saw is now preserved and is on exhibition in the Geological Building at Albany, N.Y.

The Improved Shaker Washing Machine was invented at Canterbury, N. H.  Canterbury also contributed to the world's stock of conveniences an improved windmill.  From Enfield, N. H., came a folding stereoscope, the work of Nelson Chase.  George W. Wickersham also invented a summer covering for a flat-iron stove, by which the hotter the irons, the cooler the room. Sewell G. Thayer, of North Union, put into use a stove-cover lifter, which possessed the Shaker qualities of always finding and keeping its own place.  A very convenient wood stove also ranks among Shaker notions, and in spite of steam radiators, which have been in use in their dwellings for over forty years, many still prefer this heating apparatus in their shops.  Machinery for twisting whip handles, a pipe machine, a pea sheller, a butter worker, a self-acting cheese press are among Shaker inventions.

Few of the millions who daily drive for business or pleasure, in the many forms of one-horse vehicles, know or remember that the first one-horse wagon used in this country started out from the dooryard of the Shakers at Enfield, Conn.  The horse collar dates from the same place.   The common and useful clothes-pin was invented at North Union.

Union Village claims the large loom for weaving palm leaf Shaker bonnets, the invention of Abner Bedell.  The two looms of his making are now in the possession of the Ohio Historical Society.   The same brother, in 1837, invented and made the woodwork of a silk reeling machine that would reel sixty-three skeins of silk thread in a day; Thomas Taylor, of the same society, invented the iron vessel and furnace by which the reeling machine was operated.   An appleparer, which quartered and cored the fruit, was the invention of Sanford J. Russell, of South Union.  An invention which has greatly lightened the labors of the sisters who do the family baking is in use at Canterbury.   It is a revolving oven, the inner body of the oven having four compartments, each presenting its own door.  This is the contrivance of Eldress Emeline Hart, now of the Ministry of New Hampshire.

Metal pens were first invented by Isaac Youngs, of Mount Lebanon, N. Y.  The first were made of brass and silver, and some of these pioneer pens are still in use.  Silver pens were made in 1819, and the next year were sold for twenty-five cents each.   Machinery for rolling the brass and silver plate and shears for cutting the pens were home inventions.  In 1820, the inventor writes: "“I now have my new shears, with which I have cut two hundred and ninety-two pens in fourteen minutes.”    The metal used was melted silver coins.  He says: “I melted up fifty-five or sixty dollars of silver money.”  The brass pens had handles of wood or tin, and one tubular handle of tin closed like a telescope.

The first machine for cutting and bending machine card teeth and punching the leather for setting was invented and used at Mount Lebanon.  Broom making was an important Shaker industry and is still followed.  Shakers at Watervliet first raised and manufactured broom brush into brooms, invented and made the first flat broom, and an improved turning lathe for the handles of brooms was the work of a Mount Lebanon Shaker.  A machine for sizing broom-corn brush was invented at Harvard.  The flat broom was invented and made by Theodore Bates, the machine for turning handles by Jesse Wells.  The Shaker broom industry began in 1798.  Among the many industries devised by Shaker prudence and thrift, that of drying sweet corn ranks as important.  The first done in this country was at Mount Lebanon in 1828, where the business is still followed.  Watervliet and Enfield, Conn. are also noted for their dried sweet corn.  At first, the corn was boiled on the cob in large, iron kettles, cut off with knives and dried on boards in the open air.  In 1840, drying-houses were erected with run-ways extending out for large, wheeled platforms, on which the corn was thinly spread and raked at intervals.  The process was slow and the corn subject to loss from bad weather.  Nevertheless, contracts were made with the neighboring farmers, who delivered the husked corn.  The modern method with improved appliances is a profitable business.  The improved modern kiln for drying the corn is also a Shaker invention.

Three societies, Mount Lebanon, N. Y., Enfield, Conn., and Union Village, Ohio, claim the honor of originating the seed business, which was a leading industry throughout Shakerdom for many years and netted many thousands of dollars annually to the different societies.  It started in a small way in the year 1800, gradually increasing in dimensions, until in all parts of the country the Shaker Seed wagons and the shrewd, honest, sedate but kindly Shaker Brothers, who sold the seeds, were familiar as the springtime.  The business, in all its branches, raising, gathering, papering and selling, gave employment to brethren and boys of all ages and grades of ability.  In 1816, the Centre Family at Union Village began to make bags to put up their seeds.  A machine for filling seed bags and the printing presses for printing seed bags and herb packages were invented at Watervliet, N. Y.  This lucrative and agreeable employment, from a number of causes, has passed entirely out of the hands of its originators.  Shakers were also the first in this country to introduce botanical medical practice, the first roots, herbs and vegetable extracts for medicinal purposes placed on the market having borne the Shaker stamp.  The manufacture and sale of medicines is still followed in some of the societies.  From Mount Lebanon, where the manufacture is conducted by Brother Alonzo Hollister, a skilful pharmacist, the shipments of medicine are largely to London.

Canterbury Industries.

Elder Henry C. Blinn writes thus of Canterbury: “Prominent among the earlier industries stands weaving.  In 1796, this was all done on hand looms.  From a personal diary handed down by one of the sisters, Ruth Stevens, of Canterbury, the following results are credited to the weavers of the society during 1796:  Wide cloth, 4170 yards;  binding, 2975 yards;  tape, 1140 yards.  Carding was performed by hand until 1812, spinning-wheels and hand looms were used by the sisters until 1824, when the spinning jenny was introduced and power looms followed in 1842.  Other means adopted for a livelihood were the manufacture of superior Shaker flannel from sheep raised in Shaker pastures, wool hose and underwear, hand knit; also brooms, brushes, scythe snaths, rakes, boxes, chairs, tubs, pails, leather, candlesticks, etc.

“Later, butter and cheese were sold, also apple sauce and some medicines.  It is recorded that in 1811 there were made in Canterbury 2884 pounds of cheese.  Among the medicines, witch hazel extract of more recent date and a good sarsaparilla, prepared from a formula by Dr. Thomas Corbett, the only Shaker physician in New Hampshire, were for some years in demand and are still on the market.  The trustees were counseled not to sell any article unless it were free from blemish.  This standard has always been maintained.”

The work of the Shaker home is done by the sisters.  Hired help may be a necessity on the farms, but the sisters will have none of it in the women's department.  The work is divided among different sets of sisters, taking their turns in the different departments, each set serving a turn of four to six weeks.  Rug and mat making and fancy work, with their famous preserves and other products of the housewife’s art, furnish a lucrative employment.  The ubiquitous summer boarder from neighboring resorts finds a trip to the Shakers pleasurable, while in some of the societies, for the convenience of such guests, meals are served.  This gives opportunity to serve up at the same time good dinners and pure Gospel, and some are quick and apt to improve the opportunity for missionary work along the various lines of reform in which they are interested.  The clothing of the sisters is mostly made at home, part of the clothing of the brethren is also of home make, while in some of the families an old-style shoemaker still produces the old-style "Shaker shoe," with whose ease and comfort the new fashioned “common sense” boot can by no means compete.

The manufacture of “Shaker chairs” is carried on by the South Family at Mount Lebanon.  The chairs are of all styles and varieties, and possess the Shaker quality of thorough workmanship.  Palm leaf table mats were formerly made in some of the societies and were a favorite article in the market.  Macrame mats are still made at Enfield, Conn.  The sisters of Mount Lebanon, Hancock and Canterbury, make a handsome, comfortable woman’s wrap, known as the “Shaker cloak,” at once distinguished in appearance and possessed of excellent wearing qualities.  Hand-knit gloves of silk and fur are also a Shaker specialty.   A remarkably effective, healing lotion for the skin, named “Healolene,” is the invention of a sister now living in the North Family at Mount Lebanon, where it is manufactured.

Maple sugar orchards are a source of revenue to some of the societies, between one and two thousand trees rendering up their sweets to the industrious tappers.  In recent years, an improved carpet and rug beater of rattan, steel and corrugated steel, which is simple, effective and has a ready sale, is manufactured by the North Family at Mount Lebanon.  Although not a Shaker invention, the convenient handle is a Shaker improvement on the original.  For many years an important industry was shirt making.  The machines were run by water power and large, airy, beautiful shops for the business are found at several of the societies.  In former years wool growing was an important industry, and thousands of acres of the mountain slopes were covered with flocks of sheep besides herds of cattle.  These resources have proved unprofitable under the changed conditions of today.  Most of the industries in which the societies in past years found lucrative employment have been taken from them by the industrial developments and monopolies of recent times; and while their large possessions of real estate have greatly diminished in productiveness, with the farm lands of smaller holdings, taxation has steadily increased.


End of Excerpts   —  File 4 of 4
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