Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories

By Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

Do you have a favorite Shaker artifact?  When you think of Pleasant Hill, do any special objects come to mind?  If you could pick one word to describe Pleasant Hill or the Shakers, what word would that be? 

Trying to pick one word or one artifact can be challenging, but it is a fun exercise because it can help to clarify what the Shakers mean to you personally.  Every artifact offers visitors an opportunity to connect with the Pleasant Hill story, and our latest exhibit, Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories, helps to establish these relevant connections. 

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories highlights Shaker Village’s artifact and archival collection, and encourages visitors to think critically about what, and why, we collect.  Featuring over 20 artifacts, this exhibit will help visitors piece together the Pleasant Hill story by not only exploring the objects left behind, but by considering why they matter.  The Shakers called Pleasant Hill home for over a century, and their diverse individual experiences left us with a collection that is equally varied and diverse. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was founded in 1961 to “collect, preserve, and display the records, artifacts, tools, and products of the Shaker community.” Today, Shaker Village actively maintains 34 historic structures, 25 miles of rock walls, 3,000 acres of original Shaker land, and over 7,000 objects and documents!  The Pleasant Hill Shakers have a fascinating story to tell, but how do we, as a museum, tell that story? 

Shaker material culture, particularly Shaker furniture, is often the point of entry into the Shaker story for many visitors.  Pieces of Shaker furniture were the first artifacts to be collected and studied by early 20th century Shaker scholars.  Furniture was so heavily studied and written about that it became the focal point for discussions on the Shakers for much of the 20th century, much to the chagrin of Shaker Mildred Barker, who famously stated, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair.”

Shaker chairs featured in the new exhibit.

While furniture and furniture making were important components of the Shaker experience, there is so much more to the story.  This new exhibit features Shaker furniture along with additional artifacts from the collection to emphasize the importance of analyzing objects to understand their significance to the history of the community.  By digging deeper into these artifacts, and uncovering the personal stories behind them, we can explore the dynamic nature of this community.     

The exhibit will lead visitors through a series of questions that address the artifacts themselves and the scope of the collection as a whole.  Guests will also be encouraged to get involved in the research process to uncover the individuals and stories behind our artifacts.  In doing so, we hope that visitors will understand not only how the artifacts fit into the larger Pleasant Hill story, but also how these stories help build meaningful connections with their own lives. 

Every artifact has a story to tell, you just have to know what questions to ask. 

Join us as we examine the importance of artifacts, and the ways in which we can use them to understand more about life in this community!

This project is supported with funding from the Kentucky Local History Trust Fund (KRS 171.325), a program administered by the Kentucky Historical Society.  For more information, see history.ky.gov/local-history-fund

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.

Gender Equality, In Theory: Sister Jane Sutton

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

This blog post is dedicated to Rebekah Roberts who sought the truth in the past, and tried to give voice to the voiceless.

In 1899, visitors from Berea arrived at Pleasant Hill for a meal.  As they began eating, they asked the Shaker “sister in charge” a series of questions to learn more about the history and beliefs of the Shakers. 

“‘How do you deal with such difficult problems as woman’s rights?’

Jane Sutton, the sister in charge, responded:

‘Theoretically the brethren and sisters are equal in all things, but practically,’ with a little laugh, ‘the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.'” (The Berea Reporter,
“Shakertown,” April 3, 1899)

Portrait of Sister Jane Sutton

As a woman in power at Pleasant Hill, Jane Sutton would know!  Pleasant Hill’s first and only active female Trustee, Jane Sutton saw the practical reality of doing business as a woman in the 19th century. 

Gender equality has always been a core belief of the Shaker faith.  Men and women were equal in all things through the Shaker’s belief in the duality of God.  This belief was manifested in the leadership and hierarchical structure of Shaker communities.  Gender equality in practice for the Shakers meant that all received an education, all could aspire to leadership roles, and all had access to the same accommodations and amenities.  Yet, the Shakers were still products of the 19th century. 

During the 19th century, men and women were thought to inhabit separate spheres in society, with women inhabiting the private sphere and men the public sphere.  Often referred to as the ‘Cult of Domesticity,’ it was believed that woman, as traditional caregivers, had control of the home, the children, and domestic affairs.  This gendered role also dictated that women had no place in the business world that existed outside of the home.  Though the Shakers practiced gender equality in their leadership structure, these traditional gender roles were still present in their distribution of labor.  Shaker sisters were responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, and textile production, while Shaker brethren were responsible for broom production, furniture making, tending to the livestock and crops, and other matters of industry. 

Men and women did have equal say in matters of governance at Pleasant Hill, but women did not have access to leadership in business for much of the 19th century.  Throughout the history of Pleasant Hill, there were usually two male Trustees that handled the community’s finances, legal deeds and contracts, and managed commercial partnerships with businesses of the world.  Women did have a role at the Office, but their primary responsibility was to cook and clean, and serve meals to the visiting public. 

As demographics shifted in the second half of the 1800s, however, women began to assume more responsibility based on need. Sister Jane Sutton was one such woman. 

Jane Sutton and Mary Settles standing in front of the East Family Brethren’s Shop, then being used as the
Village’s Office.

Sister Jane Sutton was born in 1832, and arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1834.  By 1868 she went to live and work in the Office.  Journal records indicate that Sutton joined Pleasant Hill Trustees on trading trips throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and oversaw the “public dining room” at the Trustees’ Office.  On Oct. 1, 1894, she was officially appointed a Trustee along with two other Shakers.  In her role as Trustee, she also oversaw the Shaker Hotel after it opened in 1897 to visitors.  By 1910, however, it appears that Sutton no longer served as a Trustee. In the contract that sold the declining community’s lands to a local businessman, Sister Jane was not listed as one of the official Trustees that signed their names to the contract.  Though she and her fellow sisters outnumbered the remaining men of the community, 10 to 2 in fact, the men took charge of this final matter of business.      

Sister Jane Sutton passed away on December 29, 1912.  The following journal entry was written in the weeks before her passing, “Sister Jane is known and loved by everyone.  She has been one of the commanding figures of Shakertown for years and is a natural leader who would command respect and a following no matter in what walk of life she had been placed.  There are many, even outside the Shaker Village, who will grieve that her firm hand is beginning to tremble with the weakness of age.”    

While gender equality was a staple of Shaker ideology, it appears in practice that such equity was often hard to obtain. Jane Sutton provides us with a glimpse into the world of nineteenth century business from the female point of view, and as she says, with a little laugh, “the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.”

Pages of a letter sent to George Bohon by Jane Sutton and Mary Settles in 1911.