Very excited to announce I will be at the Elm Street Bookstore in New Canaan, Ct on Saturday, September 9 from 12 noon to 2:30. I expect to talk about witchcraft as well as the Shakers and will bring some show and tell items.
The Shakers served plain food but it was nourishing and, from the recipes I’ve tried, flavorful. There was some overlap of course. Basil, for example, was used as a tea and an aromatic to prevent excessive vomiting. Rosemary was also used as a tea and its oil was made into a liniment.
Some of the other herbs are not so unsurprising. One of my favorites is for a Dandelion salad. (Seriously!) The mixture includes dandelion leaves, simmered until tender and drained, then put into a saucepan with egg yolks, cream, butter and other herbs such as mint, lemon thyme and so on. The mixture is put on slices of stale bread and fried and then seasoned with oil and vinegar and parsley.
Fish was poached with chamomile leaves or covered with chamomile sauce. (Make a roux with butter and flour (2 Tablespoons each), add a Cup of chicken stock, parsley, the chamomile leaves and add salt and pepper to taste,) Marjoram, basil, parsley and basil went into meatloaf, tarragon, summer savory, marjoram, chervil and thyme into chicken fricasee.
Hancock Village served an herb soup made up of chopped sorrel, chopped shallots, chervil, mint and parsley boiled in milk. Butter and salt and pepper are added to taste and the whole mixture poured over squares of toasted bread.
I want to add a note about the Shaker’s recipe for bread which I found in a James Beard bread book. It is so delicious I could eat an entire loaf. But I digress.
Another soup is apple soup, so tasty on a cool fall day. A quartered apple, cored but unpeeled, a quartered onion and a herb mix of marjoram, basil, summer savory and more combined with cinnamon is cooked in the top of a double boiler. The apple is removed when soft and the soup is strained. Cider and cream is added when ready to serve.
Some of these herbs and herb mixes can be purchased in the gift shops of the various museum communities and at Sabbathday Lake. Hancock Village had a mix that includes basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme and more. It has been several years since I purchased my supply so I am not sure it is still available.
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 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.
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.
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.
I have begun a giveaway of ten copies of A Simple Murder, the first in the Will Rees history.
A traveling weaver, Rees goes home after some time spent on the road. He find his son. David, has run away. Rees tracks him to a nearby Shaker community but he has no sooner arrived than the body of one of the Sisters is discovered. Rees is accused but quickly finds the friendly farmer in whose barn he had spent the night.
From being the suspect, Rees goes to being the detective. What he finds in the Shaker community will change his life forever.
Next month we will move on to Death of a Dyer.
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.
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.
With a group, particularly a religious group, that has had such a long history, I think there is a tendency to see them as they are and extrapolate backwards. Attitudes toward drinking alcohol have changed so dramatically in the intervening few centuries that that approach is impossible.
Rees’s period, the Federalist period in American History, was a hard drinking age. Ale was used almost like water and was consumed by women and children as well as by men. Cider, which was usually hard cider (it could hardly be anything else without refrigeration) was a common breakfast drink. Many of our founding fathers took a glass of cider first thing in the morning in the same manner we drink our orange juice. Rum was used as part of sailors’ wages. (Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct in the refining of sugar. The more molasses in the sugar, the browner. Sugar has a dark history. Planting and harvesting the cane required more slaves. Cane exhausts the soil so more land was needed. And of course we are all familiar with the health risks of sugar. But I digress.) In any event, rum was the drink of the Colonies. After the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, whiskey became more popular, more American if you will, just like coffee did in comparison to tea.
The Shakers brewed cider and like the society around them drank ‘spirits’. It was the custom for every Brother and Sister who wished to take a glass in the morning before breakfast and then through out the day. For dinner the Brothers were permitted two gills and the Sisters two thirds of a gill. (Does anyone but me wonder about the livers of all those drinkers?)
But with the Millennial Laws, especially from 1845 (and the rise of the temperance movement) the drinking of spirits (along with coffee and tea – that would have killed me) was forbidden. No cider was made and no liquor was brewed. One of the primary sources I read discussed the struggle among the Family about brewing beer for the hired men. (More about hired men in another post.)
Eventually spirits had to be offered medicinally from the Doctor and then were banned all together. Like other cultural changes, however, this prohibition changed again and later on the Shakers both made and consumed wine with meals.
So the Shakers, like the World around them, changed as prevailing attitudes changed.
Although the simple life is certainly a draw in this hectic over-scheduled modern life, I would find living as a Shaker difficult, if not impossible. For one thing, I am not obedient. But also the shakers do not have pets.
The Milennial Laws of 1821 and then again in 1845 laid out rules governing every aspect of Shaker lives. They were not allowed pets, primarily because their focus was supposed to be upon God.
For me, this is a deal breaker. I have had a dog since I was ten, with only a few years here and there without. Plus a few cats scattered among the dogs.
But I digress. Sandy was my previous dog. She looked similar to Shelby – a little lighter in color. Sandy was my best friend. She went everywhere with me. Although a medium dog (65 pounds) she lived to be 17 1/2. The vet was astonished she lived so long. by then she was blind, deaf, and had hip displasia. I was so heart broken I did not get another dog for a few years.
So, having a dog is one thing I could not surrender.