Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Shaker Cottage Industry

Shakers' needs were no different from those of any rural population in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Not yet having access to cheap, mass-produced goods, the communities had to produce most of what they needed, from food to clothing to furniture. But unlike the world's people, they had many hands to do the work and could enjoy certain economies of scale. This first photo shows a tailor shop with wooden patterns and cutting counters. With up to 300 members at Hancock, there was always a demand for garments from women's dresses and shawls to men's shirts and trousers. The Shaker cloak became an item sought by the world's people and grew to be a source of needed cash for the communities.

Shaker oval boxes and carriers were used for a wide range storage and transport. They were not unique in concept, but their superiority in design and workmanship made them much sought after. They were produced in the thousands and today are symbols of Shaker life and quality. Reproductions are widely sold.

The Shaker chair was a refined version of common chairs of the time. Their unique combination of strength and lightness have made them classics. Many communities had their chair shops and sold their excess production, although it was Mt. Lebanon alone that developed a truly commercial enterprise. And experts can determine which community made a chair by the slight differences between them. The brethren made the frames and the sisters wove the cotton tapes most commonly used in the seats and sometimes in the backs of chairs. Weaving the tapes into the seats could have been done by men or women.

Turning the wood to produce the rounded posts, stretchers, and finials was often on a treadle lathe. The brother turning the wood also produced the power that turned it. Eventually Hancock developed a water-powered mill that we'll see shortly.

Now here's an item I wish I had. It's a chair vise. It clamps the chair and holds it at working height. The base swivels to allow the chair to be turned continuously as you proceed with weaving strips first into the top side and then the bottom and back again. Since I have six dining chairs to reseat this winter, this device could really speed up the job.

Here's an example of Shaker ingenuity and invention. The brothers, like men everywhere, had a habit of leaning back in their chairs. That not only made dents in wood floors, but also sometimes ended with the brother falling over backwards. These tilters built into the bottoms of the back legs give continuous full contact with the floor when the sitter leans back, which both protects the floor and provides increased stability.

I mentioned the water-powered mil. Here beneath its floor is the turbine that replaced the original waterwheel.

That power was transferred by belts and shafts to run all sorts of woodworking tools. It also powered washing machines housed in the laundry, elsewhere in the building.

Being a communal society, the Shakers had what was in effect a commercial laundry. The sisters rotated job assignments each month so everyone shared both the good and the bad jobs throughout the village. Here in one room of the laundry are tables for folding clothes and racks for drying them. The large stove in the center of the room was designed to heat the flat irons they used.

With that huge stove in the room, I don't know why they needed this one, but it does illustrate Shaker innovation. There is a stove in the top photo of the tailor shop that represents the basic Shaker stove. It consists of a firebox connected to a stovepipe. A superheater has been added to the one above. The purpose of the superheater is to simply slow down the escape of hot gases from the firebox to allow more heat to escape into the room. And they do just that.

And finally, there was production of fabric. Wool, cotton, and linen all were spun into yarn and woven into fabric. The Pleasant Hill Shakers in Kentucky had a silk worm industry, as well, and shipped silk and silk fabric to other communities. I'm not aware of Shakers ever selling fabric to the world, but they did sell finished goods, from linens to garments. But the major part of their output was clothing for their own community.

After the Civil War when manufacturing took off in this country, the Shakers could buy bolts of cloth cheaper than they could make it. They lamented the inferior quality of the fabric they bought, but with shrinking membership had little choice but to buy instead of make.


  1. Another fascinating episode. I am enjoying this little series enormously.

  2. More ingenuity. It must have been good to feel part of such a community, all pulling together.

  3. Such a hardworking, inventive society.

  4. Great to see so much of this preserved, both physically and in the records of the community. I just love to see beautifully crafted wood.

  5. The thing is they seemed to have and make only what was needed and never to excess or for greed. I suppose I could be mistaken. It's like everything has its place and function, and I love that. No excess piling up of stuff for the sake of having stuff.

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