Hancock Shaker Village is a living museum depicting what Shaker life was like at its height in the 1840's. The Shaker religion is an offshoot from the Quakers, but is characterized by a much more lively worship service. The Shakers would sing and dance and shake their hands as they shook off the devil and gathered in the spirit of God. What is most commonly known about Shakers is that they advocated celibacy and died out due to dwindling membership. You might think this was a "duh," but the reality of their demise is less obvious.
A number of the Shaker settlements in New England were started by followers of Ann Lee, a woman who fled England, Quakerism, and an oppressive husband. In the late 1700's a woman could not live alone. She either had to be married or stay with her parents. Ann's family made her marry a man who impregnated her eight times. Four of the children were still born and none lived past the age of six. This turned her away from sex and many widowers whose wives died in childbirth found that being celibate was preferable to the agony of watching someone they loved die a traumatic death.
Life was so difficult at the beginning of our country's history. Outside the small cities people lived in isolation and had to create and prepare everything themselves from scratch. The Shaker approach was a communal one. Men and women lived separately and worked hard at tasks suited to them. They rotated among the work that needed to be done for the good of the community which gave them a broad skill base and prevented them from being bored doing the same thing every day. The work of men and women was equally respected and the women had an equal voice in community decisions. A loose network of central authority bound the Shaker communities together, and the leaders within each community were both men and women. The Shakers really believed that all people are created equal and sometimes bought Negro slaves so they could live in freedom within the community and not have to fear that they would be snatched back by their previous owners. Shakers allowed potential converts to live in the community for a while to try it out. They found that many of these potential recruits tended to move in during harsh winters and move back out again come spring. Orphans and homeless children were taken in and educated. When they came of age they were free to stay or go out into the world.
At various times, the Shakers had eighteen major communities in eight states and six smaller communities in Florida and Indiana. The Shaker approach to life was pragmatic. Unlike the Amish, as various innovations and labor saving devices were invented, the Shakers were quick to adopt them. Hancock Village, which we visited today, was built over an underground water supply and used hydraulic power to run machinery in the woodshop. The kitchen had running water long before it was commonly available in homes. The round barn was built into a hill so all three floors could be entered from the outside without climbing up or down. Hay was put in the top floor and thrown down to the cows below. Gravity did the work. A man could walk in a circle in the center and feed all the cattle quickly and efficiently. When cars were invented, Hancock Village built a garage and bought the largest vehicles they could find. The leadership installed telephones in the office so they could conduct business with the rest of the world. The quality work that the Shakers did at their height is still being imitated today. Furniture and other items of wood are still being built in simple, yet elegant style. The perfectionist Shakers worked hard and smart and became quite affluent. But the Industrial Revolution was what did them in.
As machines did more and more manual labor, people found that it was no longer necessary to work as hard physically. They could leave the community and make a decent living on their own. Even women could live independently with the wages they earned in factories. By 1960 only a handful of old people remained at Hancock. The property was sold to a non profit organization who runs the site as a museum. Many of the buildings had volunteers demonstrating the various tasks that had been done in those same places 150 years ago.
After spending the day touring the property, we left impressed with many aspects of Shaker life. Their goals of equality and hard work are appealing. Modern life has left many people feeling isolated and alone, but with their communal life style, they labored in the knowledge that they would be safe and secure living amidst their brethren. Their flexibility and ability to change with the times are skills that could hold anyone in good stead. But then there's that celibacy thing....