The Shakers and Herbs, Part One

The Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774. Like most of the new colonists, they brought some herbal knowledge with them. Yarrow, boneset, dandelion (which is not native to North America) are some of the plants brought over from Britain. Although there were doctors, most of a family’s medical needs were served by a wife or mother, midwife – not the doctor. But I digress.

Again like many of the new colonists, the Shakers drew upon the knowledge of the local tribes to learn about the herbs in the woods. At first, the Shakers wanted the herbs to treat the illnesses in their own community. Later, they planted physic gardens to meet their needs. As farmers everywhere do, if they grew a surplus, they sold it. This was the beginning of a thriving  and very profitable business.

Although Watervliet was the first Shaker community, (just outside of Albany several of the old fields now lie under the Albany airport), the Central Ministry was located at New Lebanon in New York (west of Albany.) The herbal trade began here and soon spread to several other communities, Canterbury, NH and Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio among them. AS we all know, the health business is rife with quackery, The snake oil salesman is a caricature of reality for our early history. The Shakers, despite the fact they were considered religious oddities (almost cultists) brought herbal medicines to respectability.

It was also incredibly lucrative. At its height, the business grossed $150,000 annually. This in a time when an experienced carpenter might make four shillings a week. In today’s money, that $150,000 a year would be worth upwards of 2 million.

The Shakers, by the way, kept meticulous records. Besides commercial transactions , they carefully documented what herb was shipped where and what it cost, they kept records of every aspect of Shaker life. The health of every individual was of prime importance. In fact, the Millennial Laws decreed that “As the natural body is prone to sickness and disease, it is proper that there should be suitable persons appointed to attend to necessary duties in administering aid to those in need.” In health care, as in so many other practices, the Shakers were well in advance of the society that surrounded them.

A quick review of the records pertaining to the deaths of these community members and in an age when the life span was between 40 and fifty, it is not surprising to find Shakers passing away at 87, 88 and even 101.

I based my primary Shaker community Zion on Sabbathday Lake which is located in Alfred, Maine. It is still home to the last remaining Shakers. (Three at last count. When I first began my research several years ago there were ten.) A visit to any of the gift shops in what were once thriving Shaker communities reveals packets of herbs for purchase, all packed at Sabbathday Lake. The remaining Shakers continue to labor exactly as they always have done.

Next: a review of some of the less common herbs used and sold by the Shakers.

Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

More about food – Garden Sass

Women in the cities might not be responsible for smoking and drying game and pork as well as preserving other types of food but women on farms and certainly on the frontier were.

Most homesteads owned pigs and even in cities the pigs ran free. Chickens might be in coops or be truly free range, foraging for themselves. (That must have made hunting for eggs fun).

And, no matter how much acreage was in corn, rye or other grains, housewives always had a small patch of vegetables. (Many of them must of had flowers too since lists of seeds and bulbs that were brought over included seeds for peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees as well as seeds for snapdragons, peonies, morning glories and tulip bulbs.)Wheat bread was expensive although wheat was grown in Pennsylvania. In Maine rye and buckwheat were the common crops. Most people ate a bread called ‘injun loaf’, a combination of rye and corn.

Vegetables grown included spinach, rhubarb, several kinds of peas, beans as well as turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets and cucumbers. In more southerly climates than Maine artichokes were popular. A variety of herbs were also grown and had to be tied to the rafters and dried every fall.

Where are the potatoes? Although a new world crop (the Incas had thousands of varieties), potatoes did not get to the colonies until late in the 1700s. They quickly became a popular crop. And where are the tomatoes? Considered poisonous a hundred or so years earlier, they were still suspect.

All the vegetables were lumped together under the term garden sass.

Sugar and salt were both expensive. Salt especially was valuable and desperately needed for food preservation. Honey was the most common sweetener – ironic since bees are not native to the New World. They were brought over with the first colonists, however, and quickly became wild. The other common sweetener was from the sugar maple – maple sugar and syrup.

One final comment: the immigrants to this country brought their own eating habits with them so there were variations in what the colonists ate, depending on country of origin. The Scottish, for example, had to give up oatmeal porridge and switch to cornmeal mush for a time.

Goodreads Giveaway -Death of a Dyer

I am giving away ten copies of Death of a Dyer, my second Will Rees mystery on Goodreads.

In this book, Rees returns to his hometown and tries to settle down. Lydia accompanies him as his housekeeper -both are not sure where their feelings might take them. David also returns home although he and his father are still at odds.

Rees has been home for only a short time when he is asked to look into the murder of a childhood friend.

9781250033963

Housekeeping – 1790s. Refrigeration

 

Another amazing invention, in my opinion, is refrigeration. We take it for granted but refrigeration, especially mechanical refrigeration, is pretty new.

Ice has been used to cool food for millennia. In 400 BC Persian engineers had already mastered the technique for storing ice. Ice was brought in from the mountains and stored underground in specially designed spaces. The ice was used to chill treats for royalty. (Of course )

In England during the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries in England low lying areas near the Thames were flooded in winter. The ice was stored in an ice house, insulated by sawdust, moss or something similar. As early as 1823 ice was imported from Norway and of course in the US, ice was transported from the North to the South, i.e from Maine to points as far away as South Carolina. This led to a new industry: the ice trade. Ice was cut from frozen ponds and streams and stored in ice houses before being shipped – eventually – around the world. As one would expect, the citizens of New York City and Philadelphia became huge consumers during their long hot summers.

The ice trade revolutionized the U.S meat, vegetable and fruit industries. It led to the invention of ice boxes; yes, wooden boxes lined with zinc or tin and other insulators like moss, sawdust or cork, with a box for ice. A drip pan underneath caught the melted water. The horse drawn wagons of ice and the ice man became a familiar sight. By 1907 81% of the households in New York City had ice boxes and they are widely credited with a drop of 50% of infant mortality in the summer.

Mechanical ice began to be produced in the late 1800s but was chancy and the process used toxic ammonia gas. Mechanical refrigerators did not go to the homes until the various fluorocarbons were developed.

Prior to refrigeration milk spoiled quickly; in fact, all perishable foods spoiled quickly. People had cold cellars to cool food and tried putting milk down the well to cool it. I read that cheese was an attempt to use milk before it soured.

So, to my way of thinking, the refrigerator is even more important than indoor plumbing.

Paul Bunyon

When I was a child my mother told me and my brothers stories of Paul Bunyon and his big blue ox Babe.  Re was a giant, as was his ox, and they had many adventures. There is even a statue to him in Bangor, Maine.

Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine.JPG

In my childhood mind, he ranked right up there with Batman and Spiderman. Human, yes, but with extraordinary powers.

When I was researching my latest book, however, I discovered that Paul Bunyon represented a certain truth about the early American experience: the loggers or lumber men. In Maine, logging camps were set up in the woods and the massive trees were cut down with nothing more than human sweat and axes. Lumber was important for building, yes, but this was also the era of sailing ships and tall masts were a requirement.

In the spring the loggers would ‘drive’ the logs down one of the many rivers to Falmouth. The lumber drive would end in Falmouth with a celebration. (I’ll bet. Talk about dangerous work!)

If by chance you should visit Maine, you can see the art of log rolling on the road between Ellsworth and Acadia.

food in the 1790’s – salad and maple syrup

Although trading went on, most food eaten was, by necessity, local. The port cities like Salem could import oranges, nuts, figs and more but for the outlying farms these items were exotic luxuries.

Salad (or salat) has been eaten for hundreds of years. Greens such as beet and turnip tops and spinach, cabbage are all greens that might be used. For the early New Englander, wild greens such as dandelion greens or violets would be eaten. (Fiddleheads are still eaten by Mainers, cooked of course, and have a flavor similar to spinach.) Our idea of a salad with lettuce and tomato was not the salad eaten by the early colonists. One of the memoirs from this time expressed a hunger for greens after a winter of salted and smoked food.

Poke weed was also used as a salad green. It is, however, poisonous, although the very young leaves – from accounts I have read – are not. I haven’t tried them. I have also read that the leaves are edible after cooking three or four times, discarding the water in between.

One note: since the native American tribes knew how to tap the sap from maple trees, maple syrup quickly became a staple. It was used as both lightly boiled sap, and the syrup we are more familiar with today.

 

 

Devil’s Cold Dish

I am happy and so excited to announce that I have received the cover for the new Will Rees mystery – A Devil’s Cold Dish. The graphics arts department at Minotaur is so good. In my opinion, they have scored with every single cover.

devils cold dish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will and Lydia Rees return to Dugard after their adventures in Salem and find themselves in new trouble. Not only is Will accused of murder but Lydia finds her own life in danger.

Coming June, 2016

Goodreads Giveaway – Two Days left

I think I will cross the 400 mark. My giveaway runs out Sunday night and I always see a big bump over the weekends. I am really excited since I, as the author, think this is my best. Salem is such an interesting town and with a fascinating history – right from the beginning. A community that evolved from witch trials to the leading shipping center of the fledgling USA – amazing.