Shakers, Quakers, and Other Idealists

by | Aug 30, 2023 | What I'm Seeing and Hearing, What I'm Thinking | 4 comments

[courtesy Hancock Shaker Village]

At the end of July, my husband and I visited Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts. We had been there over 30 years ago, but we thought it might hold some renewed interest.

The Shakers, according to Britannica (though this was not mentioned at Hancock Shaker Village), are a spin-off of a branch of English Quakers. They do indeed share some qualities and values with Quakers, most notably pacifism and a belief in the equality of all, regardless of gender, race, or social status. Both groups were known for fair dealing, and in earlier days, Quakers were often successful business owners (chocolate was a big one), just as Shakers started and maintained many businesses (especially furniture making, seeds, household implements, and textiles).

A lot of people confuse Shakers and Quakers as well as Shakers and Amish people. While Shakers, like Amish, were known for their farming, Shakers were always eager to innovate and improve their methods. They invented, according to Britannica, “the screw propeller, babbitt metal, a rotary harrow, an automatic spring, a turbine waterwheel, a threshing machine, the circular saw, and the common clothespin. They were the first to package and market seeds and were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States.” We also learned that they invented the flat broom! (as opposed to cylindrically shaped brooms). Their aesthetic inspired artists such as composer Aaron Copland and painter Ellsworth Kelly.

Shakers, unlike Quakers or the Amish, insisted on celibacy for all their members. The only way they could expand their numbers was through conversion (including families who already had children). At their peak in the 1840s, Shakers had some 6000 members living in 18 communities in eight states.

Shakers also played an important role in providing homes and care for orphans. My understanding is that when these children turned 18, they could choose to stay in the community or leave. Most left.

In addition to requiring celibacy, Shakers attempted to build communal loyalty in other ways. Exclusive relationships of any kind, including close and purely platonic friendships, were discouraged. For the first 125 years of so, children were not allowed to have dolls. And while there were many animals in Shaker villages, they were farm animals, not pets. “No Believer is allowed to play with cats or dogs,” the Millennial Laws stated, and there were rules against naming animals. By 1928, when the photo above, of a girl named Anita Potter was taken, these rules were no longer in effect. The cat was named Theodore Roosevelt Chickenhouse.