Past “Perfection,” Depth and Breadth

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Hello again! Welcome to the second installment of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant blog series.

Even before I last checked in with you, I had been diving deep into our object records to make progress on phase one of this project.

Pop quiz time!

Q. What does phase one entail, again?

A. If you read last week’s blog you may remember phase one includes, “Sift[ing] through existing digital records with an editorial eye, checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.”

Here’s a breakdown of my progress so far. I’ve edited 940 objects in a little over seven days of work. I’m no math whiz, but my calculator tells me that I’m averaging roughly 120 object records per day. That’s six online catalog “pages” of 20 records each. With 4,624 object entries currently digitized (not including records for photographs, archival documents and research library publications), that means I’m roughly one-fifth of the way through phase one of this project. If all goes well (knock on wood), I’m projected to complete this phase in early September. Thank you, calculator!

I’m going through our records with specialty museum software called PastPerfect. This software has had lots of updates and features added since it first came out in 1998, but honestly it has a user interface that still looks like it survived Y2K.

museum software, computer software, archive software
PastPerfect Museum Software: a blast from the past.

It may not look sleek, but it’s very thorough! I’m a detail-oriented person, so we get along fine. And this is certainly a meticulous job – some might say tedious, even. So far, even maintaining my “productivity averages,” I’ve done many passes over the same records several times a week, developing consistent syntax and record-keeping, along with teaching myself software tools, tricks and shortcuts as I go.

With this “close looking,” I’ve run across items deep in our collection that even I didn’t know we owned, which you can expect to see examples of in later posts in this series.

printing press, handpress, archive, Shaker handpress, Shaker printing press
Surprise item: hand-powered printing press (archival photo).

I’ve also caught lots of oddball errors. For example, one past software update moved object information into a field called “Species,” referring to Natural History. This meant I’d see objects called “Species: Stove” and the like. Other times I’ve found amusing typos, such as one referring to Shaker Pure Extract of Malt as “Pure Extract of Meat,” which sounds awfully unappetizing!

As I’ve been making my passes through our collection records, I’ve also noticed trends in accessioned (which means “to record in the order of acquisition”) [i] objects. As we add items in batches, often as they are donated or purchased, I get a sense of that collector’s interests. There will be waves of rugs, bottles, baskets, or chairs all at once. It’s fun to speculate about the previous owner’s personality and to notice subtle differences between otherwise similar items.

While our digital catalog’s final form will, of course, keep our donor’s personal information private, soon you too will be able to investigate the depth and breadth of our collections.


[i] The Free Dictionary by Farlex, s.v. “accession,” accessed July 23, 2020, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/accessioned.

Sharing the Archives, One Bite at a Time

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

“I visited here in 1993 and remember seeing an interesting clothes press. Where is that now, and can I see it again?”

“These journal excerpts are fascinating! Can we read the whole thing?”

“Do you have any other examples of Pleasant Hill oval boxes I could look at?”

“Can anyone go poke around in your archives, or only researchers?”

“Where’d all the stuff go that used to be in this building?”

Shaker artifacts are housed in protected storage.

As historical interpreters working with the public, my colleagues and I often receive questions about our artifact collections. You may already know that we’ve had to shuffle many of our artifacts due to recent preservation work, including in the Centre Family Dwelling. What you may not know is that our artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in our collections!

So, why don’t we have all of this great Shaker “stuff” out for everyone to see all of the time? It’s not because we don’t love our visitors (we do) or want you to see them (we do). First, space is always at a premium, and a room packed with furniture doesn’t make the best exhibit. Second, and more importantly, many of our artifacts are fragile — for their conservation, we need to limit how often they are handled, exposed to sunlight and taken out of controlled storage.

Large items like furniture are carefully organized and archived.

“How can I see the artifacts if they aren’t on display?” I’m glad you asked! With grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the help of the internet, the team here at Pleasant Hill are developing a means of digital access to our collections. Anyone with an internet connection can search or browse our documents, artifacts and photographs, regardless of who or where they are. This eliminates the risk of damaging any of the objects. Sounds like a win-win, right?

In order for all of the information to be documented someone (…me) has to:

  • Sift through existing digital records with an editorial eye checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.
  • Find, or create, and enter in missing information such as images or dimensions.
  • Start chipping away at creating records for items that have never been digitized.

With approximately 4,700 object records in our database alone, it’s an elephant-sized task! You know what they say about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

From now until the end of the year, this blog series will go behind the scenes of this project, and tell the stories of some of the objects you’ll see in our database. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you along the way!

A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.

“There being a contagious disease…”

Aaron Genton, Collections Manager

Social distancing.
Stay at home orders.
No school.
No worship.
Essential activities only.
Take care of each other.

Sound familiar? While this sounds a lot like things that we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, all those things actually refer to the lives of the Pleasant Hill Shakers from December 1850-February 1851. In mid-December, a few of the folks in the Centre Family came down with a sickness, and within a week it was confirmed to be smallpox. On December 18, the East Family Deaconess recorded this:

There being a contagious disease prevailing at the Centre Family at this time called the varioloid, it was concluded this morning not to take up school any more for the present & discontinued all intercourse between the Families as far as practicable, so as to prevent the spreading any further if possible…and now all business is mainly suspended in that Family except to cook and wash and take care of the sick etc.” (East Family Deaconess Journal, Filson Historical Society Shaker Collection v.4)

While the village leadership moved quickly, they weren’t able to totally contain it – cases later arose in the East and West families.  In the following weeks, the Shakers tried to navigate their daily routines while managing this illness.  School for the boys and girls were both suspended.  Normal routines were disrupted for weeks, and nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly Sunday worship in the Meeting House.  This was an important time for the entire community to meet, and yet week after week journal entries on Sunday read “Meeting at home.”

On January 28, good news finally arrived…but with an exception:  “Tuesday 8 oclock P.M.  We assembled in the meeting room, and the Elders informed us that the varioloid had so far subsided that there but three cases remaining, one in each Family, and they were kept to themselves, so that it was thought to be safe for the Families to resume their usual intercourse and pursuits.  (A separation having been kept since about the 18th Ult., to prevent the disease from spreading.)  But it was not thought to be prudent to assemble at the meeting house next Sabbath &c.”(FHS Shaker Collection v.7)  It would be March 1, almost 3 months in total, until they collectively met at the Meeting House again.  From there, life appeared to return to normal.

Our experience with COVID-19 is not the first time that a disease has shaken life at Pleasant Hill.  While it isn’t exactly the same (a localized smallpox outbreak vs. a worldwide pandemic), there are similarities in our experiences.  So, I’d like to notice a few lessons that the Pleasant Hill Shakers can teach us as we start to transition into a new phase of life at Pleasant Hill.

It’s Okay to Go Slow

As noted above, on January 28, the Ministry felt like it was ok to resume normal activities, except for assembling at the Meeting House. It would be another month until that happened. This makes total sense, considering what we know about Shaker worship – lots of people in close quarters, singing, dancing, shouting, shaking. Participating in this activity would likely be worse than a bunch of modern teenagers spending their spring break together at the beach. Instead, the Ministry chose a course of deliberate, phased reopening, to use terms that we are used to today.

It’s Okay to Modify Your Behavior

One o’clock, P.M. Meeting at home by reason of affliction, the varioloid still prevailing at the Center family.  We had an orderly meeting, attended with considerable life and zeal…We made no donation of clothing for fear of conveying the varioloid or small pox to such as might receive them.” (25 December 1850, FHS.v.7)

Just because they couldn’t meet at the Meeting House, didn’t mean they lost their roles or identities as Shakers.  They met at home for 3 months, still worshiping with those that were able.  They even suspended the donation to the poor on Christmas, an important yearly practice, because of this.  They modified their behavior because the unique circumstances demanded it, and once it was over, they were luckily able to resume their standard routines.

Clean!

This morning the Center Family took their bed clothes & wooling clothing to the fulling mill  to wash & clear out the small pox and the next day they went on washing the walls of their dwelling house and taking up carpets brushing & cleaning them and every thing else until they had cleared off every thing that was tainted with the pox.” (15 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society Collection)

Don’t Forget About Others

I went to the East House to see the sick folks and found them bad- indeed Elizabeth was bedfast, Electa’s life was fast running away with a cancer, Triphena was also confined to the room with a swelling on her thigh, John Badget had been confined to his room for some time with a cut on his foot and was now fast able to walk about a little, Samuel was quite weak & his sense much scattered but still went to the shop.” (3 December 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

Polly Harris lived in the West Family.  She didn’t have to go to East Family (and she probably shouldn’t have), but I imagine she wanted to check on them.  Other times, medications and vaccinations were supplied to those in need.  Others had to chip in and help with jobs that couldn’t be done because of sickness.  And during some of the home meetings, they would send their love to those who were sick in other families.  The point is that they didn’t forget about the others around them who might need assistance.

Remember, There’s a Lot Going On

In consequence of the small pox  The Ministry & the Center Family alone attended the funeral of our Worthy Brother [Abram Wilhite] at 8 o’clock in the morning It being a very pleasant pretty day for the season of the year the Brethren & Sisters all went to the Grave yard that ware able.”  (11 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal)

When she visited the East Family, Polly Harris found a lot of sickness that wasn’t smallpox.  Then on top of this, there were members of the community dying, some from smallpox, but also from other causes, like Abram Wilhite.  Some were unable to attend the funeral for obvious reasons, but according to another journal, some didn’t attend because they were “afraid of the pox.”  Add this to the already difficult disruption of daily lives that were normally very structured.  I can imagine this being extremely overwhelming to many of the Shakers. 

As an extension to the previous point, don’t forget that others around you are living through a lot right now – sickness, death, unemployment, fear.  Then add the growing civil and racial unrest in our country to the mix.  No matter how you experience this, don’t forget about the others around you processing the exact same things, but perhaps in very different ways.  There is a lot going on right now.

Be Thankful

One oclock Meeting to day was held at home…We was called upon in the commencement of the meeting by the elder brother to be mindful to walk thankfully and humbly before God for the great blessing we now enjoy of good health while so many of our worthy brethren and sisters are suffering in the other families from the destestible disease Small pox, bed colds &c.” (12 January 1851, FHS v.6)

When “Normal” Returns – Make it Memorable

Holy Mother Ann’s Birth – This day was kept in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother’s birth  we assembled to the meeting house at the usual hour one, where we met the good ministry and the church at large, there beloved Elder James addressed the assembly thus, “Beloved friends, brethren & sisters, I feel thankful to meet with you again in this most favored and sacred place, after an absence of near three months, and will be well for each one if they have come prepared to commemorate in truth and reality our Mothers birth, mission &c, and do honor to the cause of salvation as made manifest to us, her children through her painful travel and soul sufferings, we therefore combine together to sing dance and give honor, praise and glory to her most sacred and worthy Name…” (1 March 1851, FHS v.6)

We then went forth in the march & circular dance, being informed at the same time that the guardian angels that attended Jesus Christ and Mother Ann while on earth were present, together with a number of our deceased friends who once lived in Pleasant Hill.” (1 March 1851, FHS v.7)

Mother Ann’s birthday was always a notable day for the Shakers.  They sang and danced, and were even “visited” by a host of angels and spirits.  While this might have been a pretty normal occurrence for this time period, I believe that the day as a whole had a memorable quality because of the events of the previous three months.  If you could talk to the Shakers who were there that day, what would they remember?

I don’t pretend to know exactly what the future holds, but we can be encouraged by the experiences of the Pleasant Hill Shakers 170 years ago.  They can give us a lot to think about.  Don’t forget that even though they lived communally, separated from the outside world to a degree, they were people just like us trying to navigate all the challenges that this world threw at them.  I believe, on some level, we can all sympathize with the sentiment expressed by this writer in February 1851:

Our meetings from the last date have been orderly and ordinary up to the first of March.  All seemed to be eager and anxiously waiting for a cessation of the disease, and a restoration to health, a restoration to free intermingling one with another in sociality and friendship and especially to meet again in the sacred worship of God, there to embrace each other in the sweetest enjoyment of gospel love and affection.” (FHS v.6)

Cooking is an Art

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“Indeed, cooking is an art just as much as painting a picture or making a piece of furniture.” – Shaker Eldress Bertha Lindsay, Canterbury, NH. August 1990.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is known today for many wonderful things. From farm animals to hiking trails, guided tours to family-friendly festivals, and Shaker music presentations to bobwhite quail, if you ask ten different people you might get ten different answers of what draws visitors to our property. One item in particular, however, tends to be on everyone’s mind: the food at the Trustees’ Table!

Guests to Shaker Village today are treated with seed-to-table fare in the historic 1839 Trustees’ Office.

Given the Shaker’s penchant for hospitality, it is no wonder that food has been on the minds of visitors, both invited and uninvited, for over two centuries.

Isaac Newton Youngs and Rufus Bishop, two Shakers visiting from New York in 1834, were offered watermelon so many times during their time at Pleasant Hill that it almost became a running joke in their travel account. All told, they mentioned eating watermelon at least 15 times during their visit—sometimes to the point of indulgence: “Today we have had to attend 3 or 4 times to eating watermelons, and these being pretty good hinders us a good deal.”

The dining room of the Centre Family Dwelling set as it would have been in the late 19th century. The postcard beckons readers to “note the quaint furniture.”

A few decades later, thousands of Confederate troops camped-out on the grounds of Pleasant Hill as they traversed central Kentucky in the build-up to the Battle of Perryville in October 1862. The Shakers were moved to pity by the ragged, hungry men, and they gave generously to feed the soldiers. “We nearly emptied our kitchens of their contents and they tore the loaves and pies into fragments and devoured them so eagerly as it they were starving….And then when our stores were exhausted, we were obliged to drive them from our doors while they were begging for food. Heart rending scene!”

In the 1870s, the completion of High Bridge over the Kentucky River brought many tourists to the area near Pleasant Hill. The Shakers offered many of these guests room and board and food service to supplement their declining income in other industries: “Visitors above left early and had to cross the River in Skiffs and walk up to the Towers. Their bill here for entertainment and passage back and forth repeatedly was 50 cents for meals, 40 cents for lodging, and 25 cents passage each way $12.30.”

The “Grey Room” of the Shakertown Inn, early 20th century.

By the late 1800s, some of the buildings at Pleasant Hill had been sold to outsiders who opened hotel and dining establishments. The East Family Dwelling had become the Shakertown Inn by 1897, and the Trustees’ Office had become the Shaker Mary Guest House by the early 1920s.

As the years passed, the Trustees’ Office changed hands several more times until it came to be owned by the Renfrew family in the 1950s. Dick DeCamp, a native of Lexington, recalled the restaurant fondly many years later. “The place had a lot of character. It was like something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner. They just had some tables around and the old shades were on the windows….They just had a few things – a special eggplant casserole and fried chicken and old ham.” According to Decamp, guests would sit out on the front steps and “kill a bottle of whiskey” before the food was finally ready. Then, someone would wind up the Victrola and everyone would get to dancing!

The 1839 Trustees’ Office as the “Shaker Village Guest House.”

Today at Shaker Village we continue this legacy of hospitable service and locally-sourced meals through the Trustees’ Table. The seed-to-table experience at the Trustees’ Table utilizes the best meat and produce from the Shaker Village Farm and other local farms to create our intriguing and delicious seasonal menus. Visit our website to discover all the inspired menu items, beyond our famous lemon pie!