People tend to assume the Shakers were boring, rigid and would reject new technology. In fact, the very opposite was true; they came up with so many ideas to improve their lives that their impact on American material culture is still visible today.
Yes, DigVentures is a bit preoccupied with the Shakers, and rightly so: we’ve just launched a crowdfunding campaign to excavate a well-preserved part of the biggest Shaker settlement in America.
Once home to hundreds of people, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was continuously occupied for over 150 years. In 1966, the site was named a National Historic Landmark, and in 2004 and 2006 it was recognized by the World Monuments Fund in as one of the top 100 most significant endangered historic sites in the world.
We already know that it’s packed with archaeological evidence – tools, utensils, boxes, glasses, bottles, cookware – all the artefacts of daily life, and more! With careful scientific excavation, we can improve our understanding of the people who once lived here, and the impressive site they left behind. But what makes us think the Shakers are so fascinating?
When the Shakers left England in the 1700s, they were just a small group. Once they arrived in America, their numbers swelled rapidly, and so did the number of things they invented. The Shakers often refused to patent their designs precisely so that other people could benefit, and many of them were so good they remain icons of American material culture today. Here’s 11 of their best inventions to convince you that the Shakers were creative and tech-loving folk whose lives are DEFINITELY worth learning more about.
1. Mail Order Seed Packets
Mail order business is still big business, and the idea of selling and distributing seeds in paper envelopes is one of the most famous of Shaker inventions. Established 1794, the Shaker Seed Company began selling seeds in paper envelopes in New York. They sold everything from vegetables to flowers and herbs. In 1795, Shaker Artemas Markham recorded over 200 lbs of onion seeds sales!
2. Shaker Chairs
Not that Shakers invented chairs, but they did create their own distinctive style. Everyone in the village, regardless of their own age, was made their own custom fit chair – a sign that everyone was equal. The Shakers strove to make the perfectly useful item, and seem to have viewed the process of making things as an act of prayer. Rather than being fancy and decorative, their designs were sleek, functional and incredibly well made. They were so good, and so desirable, that the public began buying them – and from Shaker chairs to Shaker kitchens, people continue to buy Shaker-style furniture today.
3. The Circular Saw
Sarah “Tabitha” Babbitt (1779-1853) was an early American Shaker tool maker and inventor, credited with inventions for the circular saw, spinning wheel head, and false teeth. Fed up with watching the Shaker men waste so much energy using a two-man whipsaw, she realised a round, rotating blade would be much more efficient and is credited with inventing the first circular saw used in a saw mill in 1813. She even hooked it up to a water-powered machine to reduce the effort required to cut wood even further! The first one she made is now in Albany, New York, and although some people have quibbled over whether what she came up with was the first circular saw, or merely an improvement, it certainly wasn’t the two French men who patented her design after they saw it in a Shaker newspaper three years later!
4. Flat Brooms
Another common household item whose design is overlooked is the ordinary “Flat Broom”. Before the Shaker invention of the Flat Broom Vice, brooms were gathered and tied creating a rounded sweeping edge. The Shaker-invented vice held the broom’s shape until the bristles could be gathered and tied into the flat shape, which is more effective and what we are familiar with today.
5. Wheel-driven Washing Machine
There were actually several patents issued to Shakers between 1829 and 1858 with several improvements on a washing machine. In fact, Nicholas Bennett, a Shaker from Mt Lebanon, NY, had a patent on a “Wash-Mill”, but he later transferred the patent to another Shaker who registered it as “Improved Washing Machine”.
6. Condensed Milk
Invented by Gail Borden Jr, Condensed Milk is still a staple in kitchens today. Though not invented by a Shaker, Borden was inspired to invent a ‘condensed’ milk after seeing the Shakers use a vacuum pan to boil down fruit. The Borden brand condensed milk is still one of the top brands today, (it’s the one with the cow on it)!
7. More Farm Tools Than You Can Shake A Stick At
The Shakers invented many farm tools to make their day to day work a bit easier. Some of the more well-known Shaker invented machine-tools include the Rotary Harrow, which uses revolving motion and is dragged across a field to break up the soil, and a Threshing Machine which separates the grain from the stalk.
8. Metal Pens
In 1878 the editor of Scientific American wrote a letter attributing the invention of metal pens to the Shakers. He wrote that he was writing with a silver Shaker pen bought in 1819, for 25 cents! Also in 1819, an unnamed Shaker invented homemade tools designed for rolling and cutting pens. He even wrote down that he was able to cut 292 pens in 14 minutes! The New Lebanon Church Family records name Freegift Wells of Watervliet and Issac Youngs of New Lebanon as having produced and sold pens there for a short time.
9. Shaker Peg
Many architectural features are unique to Shaker buildings, but one that embodies the sense of simple living heralded by the Shakers would be the Shaker Peg. Rooms inside Shaker dwellings and workshops are lined with wooden Shaker Pegs to easily hang anything from clothing to brooms. They’d even hang their chairs from them when it was time to clear the room for one of their famous dances!
10. Shaker Tilting Chair
The Shakers invented a chair so that you can lean back without sliding or scuffing the floor. The invention comprises a ball and socket fitting at the bottom of the back two legs of the chair. Who doesn’t like to put their feet up once in a while?
11. Shaker Lemon Pie
Not all inventions have to be useful – some can simply be delicious. The Shakers gained a reputation for good cooking – they had plenty of homegrown dairy and used lots of herbs. Unlike your usual lemon meringue, Shaker Lemon Pie (aka Ohio Lemon Pie) uses whole lemons, peel and all. You can find a great recipe here, and will be looking forward to enjoying a slice after a good day’s digging at Mount Lebanon. We hope you’ll join us!
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