Much of Shaker life was devoted to the production of food through agriculture. The Shakers honored gardening as a religious ritual.
During the summer months, I can see the results of those tiny seed envelopes that I excitedly purchased in March from ambitiously dog-eared catalogs. A quick inventory of the garden reveals my successes and failures — summer squash overrunning the garden path and tomato seedlings that just stopped trying between my June vacation and Independence Day.
Garden seed envelopes and catalogs are staples of modern gardeners. These conveniences are so much a part of home gardening that one would think they are the product of 20th-century companies. Yet, the beginnings of these indispensable elements of today’s garden are much older, originating not from the corporate boardroom, but from the simple, functional ingenuity of the 19th-century religious group known as the Shakers.
In 1774, the leader of the Shakers, Ann Lee, and eight of her followers arrived in New York from Manchester, England. The Shakers believed that religious ecstasy could be experienced by leading a pure, celibate life. Dancing, shouting and indeed, “shaking,” were all a part of Shaker worship, which stood in stark contrast to most of the sober Protestant church services of the day.
Their revivals attracted much attention following the American Revolution, and many Americans joined the Believers. The Shakers established communes throughout New England, Kentucky and Ohio, where they lived separately from the outside world and shared all material possessions with one another.
Today, the Shakers are remembered for their down-to-earth, practical innovations. Despite their desire to live outside of the material world, Shaker communes required income to provide for their members. Beyond the need to provide for their own survival, Shakers also believed that hard work was itself a way to please God. Ann Lee taught her followers to “put their hands to work and their hearts to God.”
The Shakers’ heavenly desires guided their earthly economic pursuits. In their many industries, the Shakers emphasized cleanliness, order, hard work, ingenuity and quality. The outside world soon began to recognize the superiority of Shaker fruits, vegetables, herbal medicines, brooms, cheese, candies, hand-crafted boxes, woven cloth, straw bonnets, buttons, buckles, leather, barrels, bricks, lead pipes and furniture. Although they never intended to make large profits, Shaker goods and services became an economic boon for the communes.
In many ways, the Shakers’ most successful industry was their garden seed enterprise. In the 1790s, the Shakers of New Lebanon in New York began putting up their own garden seed. Over a 25-year period, 37,242 pounds of seeds were raised at a value of $33,901. Soon, other communes took up the practice of selling seeds. The Enfield, CT, community dedicated 100 acres of their land to seed production alone. For many years, the sale of seeds provided substantial income to many Shaker communities, and the Shakers’ techniques and marketing were considered pioneering for the time. “Shaker Seed” became synonymous with high quality and fair prices.
Much of the early success of the Shaker seed industry occurred because they were among the first to offer garden seed for sale. Previously, farmers had obtained seed from their own crops from year to year and traded excess seed with their neighbors. The Shakers began their seed business when America’s frontier was still rapidly expanding, and as more people obtained their own plots of land, the demand for garden seed increased. The Shakers’ penchant for providing useful things eagerly met this demand.
Producing seed for sale fit in with the other agricultural pursuits of the Shakers. The Shakers’ agricultural practices stood out from the neighboring farmers of the day. Travelers could distinguish Shaker gardens by their neat tillage and sturdy stone fences. Men and women held equal status in Shaker communities and both worked at garden tasks. Shakers rotated agricultural duties often, so that each member of the community could better learn his or her own talents. Shakers also looked to gardening as a religious ritual. As contemporary observer Hepworth Dixon noted, Shakers believed that “if you would have a lovely garden, you should have a lovely life.”
With such importance placed on gardening, it comes as no surprise that Shaker seeds were of a high quality. The Shakers were quite aware that the reputation of their seeds was a reflection of their community. If they were to sell poor-quality seed, the outside world might ridicule not only their product, but also their beliefs. Early on, the Shakers bought seed from outside sources and mixed it with their own. After considering what might occur if they obtained poor seed, they made a sincere covenant in 1819 to only sell seed raised by their community, “lest there should come loss upon the joint interest and dishonor upon the gospel.” Curiously, their covenant applied to all seeds except melons.
Shaker ingenuity ensured the success of the garden seed industry. Many of their innovations influenced how later seed companies would raise, store and market seeds. Several of their inventions are recognizable to today’s gardener, such as the seed envelope. Shakers are believed to be the first to employ envelopes for seed storage. The women of the community took on the tasks of cutting, folding, pasting and labeling seed envelopes and bags. Shaker Ebenezer Alden invented a “printing box” to print planting instructions on the outside of seed envelopes. In 1836, 150,000 bags were printed.
The Shakers also issued garden manuals, a precursor to today’s garden catalogs and magazines. In 1836, Charles F. Crossman printed the first Shaker “gardener’s manual,” which today provides a glimpse at the range of seeds the Shakers produced, with six varieties each of beans and beets, five varieties of cabbage, six varieties of lettuce, four varieties of squash and many others. Exotic offerings, such as saffron, were also included. In addition to serving as a catalog, the Shaker garden manuals featured advice for selecting a garden site, preparing the ground, constructing a hot bed, dealing with pests, preserving vegetables for winter and cooking tips.
Seed distribution depended upon the Shaker seed peddler, a commune member who traveled to small communities and outlying areas in a horse-drawn wagon selling seed. Shaker seed was sent throughout the United States, reaching into the Deep South, and some seed was even sent to Europe and Canada. Following strict Shaker guidelines for quality, any seed that went unsold was promptly discarded.
Many elements of gardening have changed since the era of Shaker seed peddlers on country roads, yet there are still many of us who feel the way one Shaker did when asked why his community took such pains to care for the garden, “Ah… thee sees we love our garden.”
(From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2006. Photos by John McWilliams.)