Swept Away

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“These people are rich and getting richer. Contrast a Shaker broom with a penitentiary contract-labor broom. One sweeps and the other raises dust…” – “Shaker Socialism Good,” Salt Lake (UT) Herald, June 21, 1896

A flat broom press holds the bound broomcorn in a flattened position so the broom may be tied into its permanent shape.

Over the years, the Shakers and brooms have become somewhat synonymous. In many ways this makes sense: broom making was widespread in Shakerdom, and nearly all Shaker communities made brooms for use within their villages and to sell to the outside world. Just how many were made? At Pleasant Hill, for instance, Brother Francis Monfort reportedly made 25,000 broom handles in 1859 alone!

Beyond the common association of brooms with the Shakers, however, what’s the real story about the importance of brooms to the Shakers and their lifestyle? It might surprise you…

Before we go any further, we should get something out of the way. Despite the enduring legacy of this particular myth, the Shakers did not invent the flat broom. They did, however, create a flat broom press that greatly facilitated the process of making these brooms.

Begun at Watervliet, New York, in 1798, the Shaker broom industry quickly became one of the most important economic lifelines for Shaker communities across America. By the 1840s, Pleasant Hill had planted nearly 60 acres of broomcorn on their property, and they were turning out thousands of brooms each year for sale to towns and cities near and far. For most of the rest of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill found a ready market for their brooms that continued to sell for between $2 and $3 per dozen.

The interior of a broom shop at Pleasant Hill in the late 19th century. This could possibly be inside the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop – today’s Welcome Center! c. 1880-1900

Like many other Shaker-made products, there also developed a fascination with the superior quality of Shaker brooms. The quote that opens this blog post is only one of many testimonials to Shaker quality. Consider this clipping from a New York newspaper in 1842: “The Shakers for a long time almost monopolized the raising of the [broom] corn and the manufacture of brooms which…were always of a superior quality.”

An association with the Shakers, even a lapsed one, could also carry weight with consumers. One Pleasant Hill Shaker who left the community opened a broom store in Richmond, Kentucky, and resorted to a unique marketing approach: “The Shakers do certainly know how to make brooms. Mr. Spencer, being an ex-Shaker, will make you an ‘ex-Shaker broom.’ When you buy a broom, be certain it is an ‘ex-Shaker’ and then you’ll know you have got the best.”

Lars Ericson ran the broom operation at Pleasant Hill in the latter part of the 19th century. The large cylinder to the right of Ericson was used to clean broom corn prior to its use in brooms. c. 1880-1900

Although indelibly linked to Shaker economics, brooms can also be seen as a symbolic of several important Shaker ideals. After all, cleanliness was far from the demands of rogue, overzealous Shaker leaders—it was a spiritual and moral imperative that came from none other than Mother Ann Lee. “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt,” she is supposed to have famously quipped!

As it often turns out with history, what you think you know is only the beginning!

Want to learn even more about the Shaker broom industry? Come out and join our Swept Away: Shaker Innovations program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. Check the daily schedule for tour times!

Want to go a bit more in-depth? Every fall, Shaker Village offers broom making workshops where you make your own hand-tied brooms and take part in this traditional craft! Check our event calendar to learn about these exciting opportunities!

“…to be remembered as a chair…”

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“…I almost expect to be remembered as a chair, or a table…”
Shaker Sister Mildred Barker, Sabbathday Lake, Maine

Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill?

These two questions cut directly to the core of the educational mission of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Deceptively simple upon first glance, they open the door to one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the social, cultural and religious milieu of early 19th century America.

To put the matter simply, the Shakers were a dissenting religious group in 19th century England who migrated to America in 1774. With a devotion to physical, experiential worship and a strict adherence to celibacy, more than a few contemporary observers offered admonishment and predicted the group’s demise over the years. All such predictions, it should be noted, have thus far been wrong—as of this publication, the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is still active!

For over 100 years, Shakers lived in union in Mercer County, Kentucky. In that time, over 2,000 individuals were part of this communal, utopian society.

Founded in 1806, Pleasant Hill was one of roughly two dozen intentional communities the Shakers established in the United States throughout the early 1800s. At Pleasant Hill, all covenant members chose to adopt the practice of celibacy, embrace gender and racial equality, live communally, and follow the leadership of community Ministers, Elders, and Eldresses as they advanced in their particular faith.

Reaching a height of nearly 500 members by the early 1820s, the community built impressive structures, established trade networks, and prospered economically due to the success of their agricultural operations. Although they declined in the later decades of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill Shakers lived in Mercer County, Kentucky until 1923.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Shakerism came to be overshadowed in broader American culture by the rise of the “Shaker” aesthetic—a focus on the simple, elegant designs of Shaker furniture and architecture. It was in the height of this frenzy that Sister Mildred Barker uttered the famous line in the 1980s that she would probably be remembered as nothing more than a piece of furniture.

Although the Shaker “moment” may not be as intense now as it was then, it is undeniable that the general perception of the Shakers and Pleasant Hill has been predominantly shaped by the Shaker aesthetic and an intense focus on craftsmanship and design.

Simple and efficient, yet elegant, the Shaker aesthetic became so popular during the 20th century that a narrow focus on furniture and architecture could, at times, obscure the astonishing stories of the community of Pleasant Hill and those who called it home.

While the attention to all things Shaker is welcome, the myopic focus on the Shaker aesthetic obscures the complex, varied, and ultimately triumphant human story at the heart of the Shaker legacy that is so incredibly relevant to our modern world.

So, again, we come to those two burning questions: Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill? These queries deserve more words than this blog post will permit, but it should be enough to note that any true answer would take us into the themes of family, devotion, religion, diversity, equality, creativity, and more—ideas to which everyone of us can relate.

I should be clear: the Shakers did not always live up to the ideals they strove to attain. At Pleasant Hill the community paid for enslaved labor, individual Shakers quarreled with one another, some stole meat from smokehouses, while one even left the community to become an armed bandit after the Civil War!

The last Shaker at Pleasant Hill, Sister Mary Settles, stands alone in a field. Mary’s life as an educator, community leader and proponent of women’s rights hints at the complex personal stories of individual Shakers that extended well beyond the society’s material culture.

So how do we remember the Shakers? What aspects of their lives, choices, and characters are most worthy of emulation? What can we as individuals and communities learn from the quest for perfect union and harmony? What is there for us to discover in their failures? Ultimately, these questions must be answered by everyone in their own time. It would be a shame, however, if all we remembered was a chair.

To take an in-depth look at Shaker history at Pleasant Hill, join us for an Historic Village Tour, running daily throughout the year. Check the Event Schedule for tour times!