Aaron Genton, Collections Manager
The Pleasant Hill Shakers were known for their production of silk products. We have another set of unique items in the collection at Shaker Village that utilize silk to a degree, but not exclusively. These are a group of perforated paper needlework bookmarks, in my opinion some of the most visually appealing items that we have. The silk is used as a backing to the stitched paper patterns.
These bookmarks were popular in the nineteenth century, especially during the Victorian era. This appears to be another way that the Shakers adopted practices that were also popular in the outside world. They were ways to produce mottos, sentiments, messages and feelings, and were often given as gifts. This appears to be the function they served at Pleasant Hill as well.
Below are images of the bookmarks from our collection. Seven of them share common features, one does not. They all come from a common source – In 1963, there was an auction of items that all had a history related to the West Family Dwelling and the last Shakers that lived there. These were part of that auction.
The “William” in the first row of bookmarks is probably William Pennebaker (WFP definitely is). He would have been in his later teenage years at the time these were created. The circumstances around the creation of these are shrouded in mystery, and I’ve never seen anything in the written record that sheds any light on it. I’ve always wondered if this was something that the kids in the community created for each other, namely the girls making for the boys. If so, what kind of messages were being sent and how did they determine who they gave these to?
Admittedly, this is a very incomplete picture of what was probably a widespread practice. It would be easy to draw a lot of conclusions from this, but until we gather more info, we will have to be stumped and be careful about making reckless speculations. But it’s definitely tempting, isn’t it?