The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 – Medicinal Weeds

Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.

Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.

Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.

Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.

Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.

They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.

Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.

Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.

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.

Housekeeping – 1790s Laundry

 

Housekeeping  – 1790s – Laundry

Another really labor intensive and, to my mind, awful job was laundry. Water was heated in one of those large heavy kettles and the wet laundry was stirred in it. Water had to be carried from the well and if no well had been dug, from the nearest spring. Clothing was scrubbed clean on a washboard.

washboard

This is an antique. I am probably the third or fourth generation to own it. This is a small washboard, probably used for lingerie. The washboards used for heavier clothing would have been much larger.

Of course the laundry detergents we use now did not exist. Usually soap was made from wood ashes and fat. The wood ashes were soaked in a barrel. Why, you may ask. Because wood ashes contain lye. Mixed with fat, lye makes a hard and very harsh soap. Getting one’s mouth washed out with soap must have been incredibly unpleasant!

On the frontier, this lye soap was also used to wash bodies. Lydia, since Rees travels regularly to cities like Salem and Philadelphia, and also because Maine was not the frontier in the 1790’s, would have access to other soaps. Castile soap was made with olive oil and was first created in Spain -thus the name. One of the first manufactured soaps for skin was Pears soap and it was made with glycerine. (Ivory, the so pure it floats soap, was not produced until the 1840s. But I digress.)

Since clotheslines had not been invented yet,  laundry was usually draped over bushes or shrubs to dry –  that must have been fun in the winter. The Shakers invented a variety of methods to dry clothing indoors. If you visit Hancock Village you can see one method with a kind of folding screen like contraption. We can also thank them for inventing clothespins – the kind whittled from one piece of wood with two prongs.

Wealthier women hired a laundress who washed the linen – and later the cotton – sheets and clothing. (For those literary people, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was a laundress as was Emmett Otter’s mother). Until calico came in vogue, (since it was cotton it could be washed) only the body linens were laundered. The silks and velvets were not. (Can I say yuck?) After a few wearings they were passed down to a favored servant. Contemporary accounts describe how these pieces of clothing, gowns mostly, were cut up and the still wearable pieces added to other dresses or made over into other clothing.

Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day. (Wednesday was sewing or mending day for those interested.) Flatirons were heated by the fire and when it reached the proper temperature was used. When it cooled it was put back into the fire and another iron was taken from the hearth. The Shakers also invented a chemical to put into the clothing before ironing to reduce the wrinkling: this was many decades before it was used in the World.

When I think of how much laundry my small family generates and imagine trying to keep up with a large family I shudder. And on laundry day, cooking meals still had to be done. Any free time was spent on spinning or, if a loom was owned, on weaving. Since looms were very expensive not every household had the money to purchase one – that is why itinerant weavers like Rees had jobs. Looms of course were passed down – and that is the genesis of the word heirloom.

Many women – I read one statistic that put the number as high as 50% – could not read or write. Girls did not always go to school. They were too busy working in the home.

I think it bears repeating also that women worked usually with a heavy infant in their arms or a toddler at their heels and were probably pregnant besides.

American Politics

The recent election was acrimonious and ugly. People have unfriended erstwhile friends or just simply stopped talking with them.  While there may be unusual facets to this election, those in the past were not nice or gentle. I am including a section from my new book: The Devil’s Cold Dish, where I describe some of the unfortunate aftereffects of politics. Now this was in 1797 and I wrote this in 2014, so the emotional tenor is based solely on my research.

Turning her gaze to Rees, Jerusha said, “Your cheek is bleeding.”

“Yes, it is,” Rees agreed.

“Fetch me a bowl, Abby,” Lydia said. “And put some warm water in it, please.” She urged Rees into the side room and into a chair, despite his protests. “What happened?”

“Oh, Tom McIntyre had another customer. Mr. Drummond, a gentleman from Virginia by his accent. One of those land speculators. He was holding forth on George Washington and why he should have been impeached. I don’t know why people can’t leave the man alone.” With last fall’s election, John Adams had won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson the vice presidency. Washington had gone into retirement, a battered, aging lion.

“Was Mr. Drummond the one who did this?” She gestured to the cut upon his cheek.

“No,” Rees said. Drummond had already left when the argument exploded.

“I suppose you had to speak up,” Lydia said, her voice dropping with disappointment. “I love your sense of justice but I do wish you didn’t feel the need to fight every battle.” A former Shaker, she abhorred violence. Besides, she worried about the consequences, especially now after the serious injury to Sam.

Rees knew how she felt. He was trying to curb his temper, mostly because he wanted Lydia and his adopted children to be happy in Dugard. But so far he’d broken every promise to do better that he’d made to himself.

“We wouldn’t have a country without the president’s leadership during the War for Independence,” Rees said, hearing the defensiveness in his voice. After fighting under General Washington during the War for Independence, Rees would hear no criticism of the man who’d become the first president. Those who hadn’t fought, or who had only belonged to the Continental Army between planting and harvest, could not possibly understand what Washington had achieved.

Rees hesitated, fighting the urge to justify himself, but finally bursting into speech. “Mac and that Drummond fellow both favor Jefferson and the French. Drummond said that President Washington’s actions during the Jay affair smacked of treason. And when I said that the president had done his very best and that if anyone was guilty of treason it was John Jay, Mac said that the problem was that General Washington was a tired, senile old man.” He stopped talking.

When McIntyre had called Washington senile, Rees’s temper had risen and he had pushed the smaller man with all his strength. Since Mac probably weighed barely more than nine stone, he flew backward into the side of the mill. Flour from his clothing rose up at the impact, filling the air with a fine dust. That was when Zadoc Ward, Mac’s cousin, jumped on Rees and began pummeling him. Rees had already had a previous fight with the belligerent black-haired fellow who was usually found in the center of every brawl. Rees had caught Ward bullying Sam in the tavern and would have knocked him down if Constable Caldwell hadn’t broken up the fight and sent Rees on his way.

Rees permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. At the mill, he’d put down Ward like the mad dog he was. But by then Mac’s eldest son, Elijah, and some of the other mill employees had arrived. They’d grabbed Rees. In the ensuing altercation, Ward, who was looking for revenge, had hit Rees in the face and sent him crashing to the ground in his turn. But Rees had bloodied a few noses before that. He didn’t want to admit to Lydia that he had participated in the brawl just like a schoolboy, but he suspected she already knew. She frowned anxiously.

“Well, you can hardly blame Mr. McIntyre for his unhappiness,” she said, turning Rees’s face up to the light. “The British have continued capturing American ships. Wasn’t his brother impressed by the British into their navy? Anyway, it’s not only the French who were, and still are, angry about Mr. Jay’s treaty. You were the one who told me he was burned in effigy all up and down the coast. And that the cry was ‘Damn John Jay. Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay and damn everyone who won’t stay up all night damning John Jay.’”

“Yes,” Rees admitted with some reluctance.

“And now, with the Bank of England withholding payments to American vendors, Mr. McIntyre might go broke and lose his mill.”

“But none of this was President Washington’s fault,” Rees argued. “He has always striven for fairness. To be neutral in all things. Personally, I blame Mr. Hamilton.”

“I’m certain Mr. Jefferson bears some of the responsibility,” Lydia said in an acerbic tone. “He is so pro-French.” Rees wished he didn’t agree. Although he concurred with many of Jefferson’s Republican ideals, the vice president was pro-French and a slaveholder besides. And Rees could not forgive Jefferson for turning on Washington and criticizing him. “Discussing politics is never wise,” Lydia continued. “You know better. Passions run so high. And I see your argument resulted in fisticuffs.”

“Mr. McIntyre struck me first,” Rees said as Lydia dabbed at the cut above his eyebrow. The hot water stung and he grunted involuntarily. “You know how emotional he is.” Mac had spent his life quivering in outrage over something or other, and for all his small size he had been embroiled in as many battles as Rees. But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, Rees was beginning to wonder why Mac had been so eager to quarrel with him. They’d always been friends. Yet Mac had been, well, almost hostile.

“He can’t weigh much more than one hundred twenty or so pounds soaking wet,” Lydia added in a reproachful tone.

“I know. This,” he gestured to the cut, “came from his cousin, Zadoc Ward.” In fact Ward would have continued the fight, but Elijah had held him back. “I knocked him down, though,” Rees said in some satisfaction. Lydia did not speak for several seconds, although she gave his wound an extra hard wipe.

My Mother always said never discuss politics or religion. Failing a neutral topic, fall back on the weather. I find that advice hard to take – I’m sure it was just as difficult to follow it in the past as well.

Speaking Engagements

I had a great talk at the Newburgh Library last Wednesday. I have two more coming up. On Sunday, October 23, I will be talking at the Orangeburg Library – in Rockland County, New York. The talk begins at 2.

The following Sunday, I will be speaking about witchcraft at my own library – the Goshen Public Library in Goshen, New York. Hard to believe but I have never spoken there. I felt shy pushing myself into a slot where I work.

Come and ask questions.

Bouchercon

As I have mentioned before, I love attending Bouchercon. Not just because it is fun, although it is, but because it is so inspiring. This time I was put on a panel with other authors I have read, except for the one whose book has just come out. And one of my favorites as well: Laura Joh Rowland. I attended the interview of Harlen Coben by Michael Connolly – two heavy hitters. And the panel on social media. Well, I don’t need to continue. The point is that listening to other writers talk, about problems I struggle with – and sometimes they even have solutions – re-energizes me.

And the opening ceremonies with the faux Mardi Gras parade! Words cannot express. I wish I had taken some pictures but I was so caught up in the moment I never thought of it – even for the dragon float.

Holding the conference in New Orleans was wonderful as well. The people are so friendly and the food is great. We also took a few tours. My two favorites: the Whitney Plantation and the Mardi Gras World

I saw the two pretty plantations: Oak Alley and Laura.

oak-alley

 

 

laura-plantationThe Whitney Plantation is different; instead of the lives of the wealthy it focuses on the lives of the enslaved who made that affluent life possible.

antioch-baptist-church

The Antioch Baptist Church; the first African-American church in America.

wall-detail

This is detail from the wall listing all the enslaved at Whitney. I did not take many pictures; it was so sad and horrifying.

If you go to New Orleans try to stop by Mardi Gras World.

mardi-gras-float

fluffy.jpgAnd Fluffy from Harry Potter

Details of the floats. (I thought I would end on a happy note.)

Hired men: the Shaker challenge

Farming is hard work even now with all the modern equipment we use. (Both good and bad don’t you think, but clearly a topic for another time.)   In the 1790s farming was even harder. It remains and was certainly even more so then a very people intensive profession. Lots of help was required, and that is true even now. So hired help was a common feature of early America. Sons and daughters hired themselves out to the neighbors until they had homes and farms of their own. Younger sons, who often never obtained a farm of their own – the older sons inherited – frequently hired on to other farms.  Unattached males traveled from farm to farm exactly as migrant labor does now. This is a long standing practice, continuing right up to modern times. Think of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and the current use of migrant labor. Farms really couldn’t function without this kind of a labor pool.

As usual, I digress.

So Rees and Lydia would have employed help, both inside the farmhouse and outside in the fields. think of Abigail and the boys David took on to help him brng in the harvest.

Even the Shakers employed hired help, primarily men. During the nineteenth century the number of hired men increased as the flow of male converts decreased. (The Shakers always attracted more women than men for a variety of reasons.) The use of hired men within the Shaker community created a number of consequences. Since the men were ‘too much of the World’, they slept in a separate building and were required to eat alone. I would guess that there were still unexpected and forbidden attractions between Sisters and the men. Human biology is very hard to resist and one of the primary sources I read discussed the problems of keeping the boys and girls adopted into the community separate. The attraction the adolescents felt to one another and their efforts to attract attention was a great trial to the Shaker caretakers.

But some of the problems were cultural, if you will. After the Believers had become teetotalers, the Families in Canterbury (New Hampshire), were much exercised over whether to brew beer for the hired men. The community worried that by brewing beer they were risking not only their ideals but also the consequence of drunken men living in the heart of the village. (Described in “The Shakers, Neither Plain nor Simple”. Even though Sisters took on ‘male’ tasks, men were still required.