Out Of This World


While touring the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Shakers at New Lebanon, New York. It was not one of his happier experiences. Dismayed by the strict beliefs of America’s largest communal sect and disgruntied by their simple life-style, he reported, “We walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock.”

The curiosity that led Dickens and thousands of other people to visit the Shakers made this famous Utopian society one of nineteenth-century America’s top tourist attractions—a somewhat ironic status for a religious sect that from the beginning had turned its back on the world.

In 1774, Shaker founder “Mother Ann” Lee had led eight followers from England to America to create a new order based on celibacy, equality of men and women, and communal property. Convinced that separation from “the World” was their only hope of survival, early members established independent communities they regarded as literal heavens on earth.

To most outsiders, their life seemed grim; but it clearly had appeal, and even Dickens had to admit the sect was a remarkable success. By the time of his visit, Shakers, six thousand strong, lived in eighteen communities from New England to Kentucky. Removed from the rest of American society, they would have been content to ignore it altogether, except for one problem—celibacy, which made them dependent on the World for converts.

Faced with the need to replenish their ranks, yet reluctant to tread the World’s wicked paths, Shakers made the only sensible choice: the World could come to them. It proved an excellent idea. Secure on their own ground and busy at work, Shakers remained safe from corruption, and at the same time appeared to their best advantage on their prosperous farms.

The arrangement appealed to the growing wave of tourists in America, too, from local farmers out for a Sunday drive to some of the most distinguished figures of the time. Writers, from both sides of the Atlantic, were particularly curious. James Fenimore Cooper visited in 1828, and his reaction to the Shakers drew other authors interested in the Utopian ideal. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journals about trips to Shaker communities in Harvard and Shirley, Massachusetts. Longtime neighbors of Shakers in the Berkshires, Melville, Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were regular visitors. (Hawthorne’s original enthusiasm for the Shakers soured after his unhappy experience in communal life at Bronson Alcott’s Brook Farm. “The sooner the sect is extinct the better,” he said in 1851, “—a consummation which, I am happy to hear, is thought to be not a great many years distant.”) In 1862, Charles Farrar Browne, better known for his comic character “Artemus Ward,” used a trip to New Lebanon as the theme for a popular dialect essay. Best-selling travel writers, including Bayard Taylor and Mrs. Trollope (who, perversely, liked the Shakers for the most part) provided good publicity.


As their carriages jolted into the communal villages, tucked into sweeping valleys or perched on commanding hills, the first impression sightseers had was of great beauty. The care Shakers lavished on their fields and orchards impressed visitors, who admired the fine crops and blooming gardens.

They were also struck immediately with the size of the communities. Shaker settlements were not just sleepy little country towns but thriving operations with thousands of acres and as many as six hundred inhabitants. Dozens of neatly painted red and ocher mills, workshops, barns, and the huge dwellings, built to accommodate “families” of up to a hundred each, testified to industry and prosperity.

The strongest impression was one of absolute neatness in every part of the village. Observers applauded spotless order in roadways, barnyards, and outhouses. James Fenimore Cooper had never seen villages “so neat, and so perfectly beautiful, as to order and arrangement.” Buildings, fences, and walks were in perfect repair—“even the Ends of their wood-piles look as if they had been Scrubbed,” marveled Hannah Haines in 1810.

But while visitors found much to admire, the effect was spoiled for most of them by the unremitting simplicity of the architecture. The buildings resembled factories or “human hives,” a hostile observer wrote. “Great, staring, red and white, manufacturing-looking things,” Mrs. Basil Hall reported in 1827.

Visitors who wanted to take a tour of a Shaker community stopped first at the office and store, where Shakers conducted business and offered overnight lodging and meals. Here, too, was the shop, which offered a range of small, handy items suitable for souvenirs. Visitors agreed that Shakers deserved their reputation for superior workmanship and honesty. “Your brooms is fine, and your apple sass is honest,” declared Artemus Ward. “When a man buys a kag of apple sass of you he don’t find a grate many shavins under a few layers of sass—a little Game I’m sorry to say sum of my New England ancestors used to practiss.”