When that long-anticipated box arrives from your favorite mail-order seed company this spring, remember to thank the Shakers. I ran across this little pamphlet while sorting through my collection recently, and was reminded of the Shakers’ contribution to the dissemination of seeds and herbal medicines in early 19th-century America:
Members of this utopian Christian sect were among the first to package seeds in little envelopes for mass-market sale in retail stores. Officially known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, they were commonly called “Shakers” because of their frenetic style of dancing during worship.
The Shakers believed that God was found in the details of one’s work, and they were dedicated gardeners, always growing enough to feed themselves plus extra for the poor. This abundance extended to seeds, as well.
In general stores in New England, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky, beginning in the early 1800s, the “papers” of Shaker seeds were offered for sale in beautiful boxes. Later, the boxes were decorated with colorful lithographed labels, a relatively early use of this marketing tool. You can see examples of the seed boxes at the website of the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York (click on Collections, then the live link in the text).
The back cover of my little booklet shows the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, Columbia County, New York, as it would have looked in about 1880:
The Mount Lebanon community was settled in 1787, and the Shakers began growing medicinal herbs to treat their own ailments soon thereafter. Again, they had an overabundance, so they began trading their extra medicinal herbs with doctors in exchange for medicines they could not produce themselves. About 1820, they started selling their herbs, along with medicinal preparations such as extracts and tinctures. In 1849, the Shakers from the Mount Lebanon community sold 8 1/2 tons of prepared herbs. (A photo of some of their medicine packaging is also shown on the Shaker Museum and Library’s website.)
Below is an 1891 trade card from my collection extolling the virtues of Shaker Family Pills, which allegedly included the ability to “stimulate a torpid liver” and thus relieve constipation:
Also from 1891 is this trade card for Shaker Soothing Plasters, recommended for “Backache, Lumbago, Muscular Rheumatism, all pain and lameness in any part of the body, and every ailment in which an external application is desirable and valuable”:
The self-sufficiency of the Shakers is illustrated by this postcard from about 1906 of the community at East Canterbury, New Hampshire. In the background is a water tower and windmill, which allowed them to collect their own rainwater and provide power for their many manufacturing operations:
The Shaker sect has virtually died out because of its believers’ strict practice of celibacy (in the early years, it maintained its ranks through adoption of orphans). So if you want to thank a Shaker face-to-face these days, you’ll have to travel to New Gloucester, Maine, where the last remaining active colony of Shakers resides. The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester welcomes visitors and offers a variety of special events to the public year-round. You’ll find a number of products made from Sabbathday Lake herbs for sale on the website, too.
Museums and demonstration sites that interpret Shaker history and culture are listed below. Enjoy!
• Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg
• South Union Shaker Village, Auburn (offers herbal products on its website)
• Alfred Shaker Museum, Alfred
• Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Gloucester
• Fruitlands Museum, Harvard (interprets the history of the Harvard Shakers)
• Hancock Shaker Village, Hancock (look for the heirloom seeds for sale on its website)
• Shirley Historical Society, Shirley (offers guided tours of the site of the former Shirley Shaker Village, including several original buildings)
• Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury (the one shown on my postcard above)
• Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield
• Shaker Heritage Society, Albany (maintains the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District, site of America’s first Shaker settlement)
• Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham (museum on site of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, shown on the back of my booklet)
• Warren County Historical Society, Lebanon (interprets history of Union Village Shakers)
• Friends of White Water Shaker Village, Cincinnati