June 24, 2014

At Hancock Shaker Village: Women's Work

Angelica, a medicinal herb

In Shaker communities, men and women lived and worked separately: their retiring rooms were on opposite sides of the Dwelling house, they worshipped on east and west sides of the Meetinghouse. There was separation, but no hierarchy: a woman, Mother Ann Lee, was the founder of the sect; women and men shared equally in the governance of the communities. As pointed out in one of the explanatory texts at the Hancock Shaker Village:
The Shakers believed in dividing labor into "women's work" and "men's work", particularly because they wanted to keep men and women separate. Women and men had their own workshops. However, the duties of Shaker men and women were more similar than men and women in "the world" because Shaker women ran businesses for communal family income and Shaker men shared equally in child care by raising the boys.
An important Shaker business was the selling of medicinal herbs and remedies. I assume that men did the gardening, since they did the farming, but women may have helped in the gathering and packaging. In an interesting article on Shaker herbs at Mother Earth Living, which quotes Elisha Myrick, a Shaker brother at Harvard, MA, who wrote in his journal of 1850: "Seven sisters and 4 brethren go out beyond the depot to pick wintergreen, get a small quantity."

In addition to small herb gardens at the Hancock Shaker Village, there was a garden with dye plants such as Madder and Woad and Coreopsis tinctoria.

These natural dyes were used to color spun wool that the Sisters then wove into cloth, an important aspect of the Sister's work. On the left is wool dyed with Madder, on the right with Queen Anne's Lace.

Flax was grown for linen. The spiky implements you see above are hatchels which are used to comb the flax fibers before they are spun. Here is a link to a video with shows the process of breaking down the flax stems and preparing the fiber for weaving.

This is a photo of one part of the weave loft, with a small loom for weaving tape for chair seats and a large loom made in 1934 by Brother Henry DeWitt of the Mount Lebanon community. From the museum's description:
The Shakers were adamant about manufacturing their own cloth from the moment their communities were gathered into order. Additionally, they sold textiles and associated goods to the outside World. Members of the New Lebanon, NY, community were in business as clothiers serving both their community and non-Shakers. Over time the Shakers came to rely on outsiders for their cloth. Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, writing in 1856, stated that "in early times of the Chh....there was very little cloth purchased from the world. The making of our own cloth has greatly diminished, owing greatly to the increase of factories, in the world, which enables us to purchase cloth cheaper than we can make it among ourselves, tho' the cloth generally is not so durable as home made."
Although they were self sufficient, as shown in the above quote, the Shakers did not shy from modern conveniences, installing electricity when it became available, buying an automobile and building a garage for it. 

The making and sale of woolen cloaks was a business of the Sisters at Hancock from the 1880s until the 1940s. They were very popular out in the World: President Grover Cleveland's wife wore a Shaker cloak to his inauguration in 1892.

Then there was the mundane task of the laundry, which was the job of women. The laundry was housed in the same building as the men's machine shop, and both were powered with water turbines, the water coming from a reservoir. The Sisters rotated through the various chores each month, so no one was permanently assigned to one job.

This is the ironing room, with stoves for heating the irons, and long tables for the work.

The dairy was another important aspect of Sister's work. They made butter and cheese and their products were known for quality throughout the Berkshire region.

Then there was the cooking: women prepared food for the community of one hundred people. The stone floors and oven designs were up to date and efficient.

Enormous kettles could prepare large amounts of food. When I was visiting the museum, a volunteer was baking a cake from a Shaker recipe. I noticed that none of the ovens were heated for baking, so I asked her where the cake would be cooked: "oh, we have a modern oven" she replied. When the community became smaller and moved into the 20th century, the Sisters had more modern appliances. We don't see them at the museum because it is set up as life in the community would have been in the mid 19th century. I suppose that this is one of the questions in historic preservation: which era of an ongoing, living community do you choose to represent?

The food cooked in the cellar of the Dwelling house was carried up to the dining room by the use of dumb waiters, or "sliding cupboards", as an Elder described them in 1832.

Lastly, I feel right at home looking at the canning jars and the shelves laden with preserved food. This is a technique that hasn't changed: place hot food in jars, seal, boil in a water bath, then cool. The only change is that paraffin wax was used to seal the jars and now we have self-sealing lids as a modern convenience. As with dyeing wool, where I now work with simple acid dyes instead of the more complex natural ones, the process is similar, creating a link to time gone by; the lives lived by Shaker women were so different from ours, but there are places where our understanding can bridge the years and the differences.

Other posts on the Shaker Village:
The Shakers: A Community of Faith and Work
At Hancock Shaker Village: Men's Work


  1. How difficult it must have been not to yield to the temptation to be proud....of the humility, the restraint.

    1. You may be right about that, though the Sisters may have been truly humble.

  2. ...the visual integrity and calm...