Although Waterlviet (just outside of Albany) was the Shakers’ first home, the herb business there began after the business in New Lebanon, New York – now known as Mount Lebanon. The community began with a few farms and later expanded to become the largest, most prosperous and most influential. It was considered the most ordered and became the Central Ministry.
Until 1821 only wild herbs were gathered but they were gathered in such enormous quantities that many disappeared and quite a few are on the endangered list. In January of that year they began selling herbs to the World, i.e. to people outside the community. After that they began planting physic gardens.
Waterlviet began selling in 1827 and by 1830 had produced a printed catalog.
The Mount Lebanon catalog soon followed, along with Sabbathday Lake (established in 1794 and the last of the Eastern communities to be established), and the New Hampshire, the Connecticut and finally the Western communities in Ohio and Kentucky. By 1840 the catalogs were four pages long.
But how did they market? We know they did so (and very successfully too). The market they were entering was sated with exotic elixers and medicines and wild promises to cure every malady.
First, their herbs were marketed as pure and, as their reputation for purity of medicinal herbs grew, the business expanded. (Competitors began advertising their herbs as ‘Shaker’ seeds and herbs.
The catalogs, as mentioned above, became larger and with more material and information in each new edition. Like marketers today, they began offering discounts. An account book from the late 1830s offers a discount of 25% for 25 dollars purchased.
They direct marketed to physicians and included samples.
Their ‘territory’, if you will, was world-wide. They imported coriander to sell and by the mid-1800’s were shipping to London, England and San Francisco. They had a busy river trade up and down the major rivers, the Red River, the Ohio River and the Mississippi peddling brooms, straw hats, socks and jeans as well as seeds and herbs.
After the Civil War, and especially toward the early 1900s, the Shaker membership declined. The herb business also began slipping and many of the business were closed. The Sabbathday Lake herb industry was closed in 1911. Some of the others hung on a little longer. The Sabbathday Lake community is unique in that the herb industry was reestablished in 1960 and I was able to purchase a packet of lavender, packed in Sabbathday Lake, in a gift shop attached to the ruins of the community in Albany.
And most people know the Shakers only for their furniture!