Out Of This World

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After leaving the office, visitors toured the workshops—forges, woodshops, carding mills, saw and grist mills, dairies, infirmaries, kitchens—where they saw the Shakers busily at work. Barns, models of efficiency and often the largest in the state, were a major attraction, particularly the stately round stone barn at Hancock, Massachusetts. Farmers and city people alike gaped at its innovative design (and cost—ten thousand dollars when it was built in 1826).

Visitors were usually especially curious to see where the Shakers lived, and the dwelling was another popular stop. Tourists peered eagerly into private “retiring rooms,” or sleeping quarters, and into the large common dining hall and spacious meeting room for weekday services. The combination of communalism and strict separation of the sexes puzzled some outsiders (Brothers and Sisters shared the building, but occupied opposite wings and dined at separate tables). “Their vow is celibacy; and they have every thing in common,” Archibald Maxwell observed in 1841. “How they manage with their combs and tooth-brushes, I did not presume to ask them.”

Observers found the buildings as immaculate inside as they were without, and commented favorably on gleaming windows and floors that shone like glass. “There is no dirt in heaven,” Mother Ann had warned, “and good spirits will not dwell where there is dust.” The neat brick dwelling at Hancock elicited approval of sorts from Nathaniel Hawthorne. “It was a large brick edifice, with admirably convenient arrangements,” he reported, “and floors and walls of polished wood, and plaster as smooth as marble, and everything so neat it was a pain and constraint to look at it.”

Visitors who found Shaker homes odd thought the people who lived in them odder still. More than one outsider, finding it hard to believe that anyone would voluntarily give up all worldly vanities, riches, and carnal pleasures for a simple life of work and worship, concluded that Shakers were harmless but crazy, a suspicion upheld by several authorities. Somewhat hampered but by no means deterred by the caps and hats that obscured his view, the eminent phrenologist Dr. George Combe in 1838 noted that some of the subjects he examined had “oddly formed brains” (the type usually found in lunatic asylums, he explained) that indicated “bizarre minds” and “strange actions.”

 

Other visitors, more moderate, nevertheless were convinced that Shakers were misguided or slow-witted at best. “Peasants,” Emerson felt; “deluded fanatics,” Cooper said. “Between a wagon loaded with Shaker females and a wagon loaded with sacks of flour an onlooker would find no difference,” pronounced the Polish diplomat Julian Niemcewicz in 1798. “In each there is silence and no movement.” Many claimed to detect physical malaise as well, especially pallor and listlessness. Such a “cadaverous yellow tinge” prevailed among the women, judged Captain Marryat in 1839, that it almost led him to think they had been taken out of their coffins a few hours after death.

As if Shakers didn’t look bad enough as it was, most visitors felt they deliberately made themselves even more unattractive with clothing that was shapeless and hopelessly out of fashion. Many criticized the Sisters’ long homespun gowns: “a solum female, lookin sumwhat like a last year’s bean-pole stuck into a long meal bag,” was Artemus Ward’s verdict. “If God made woman beautiful, He made her so to be looked at … and she has no business to dress herself as if she were a hitching post,” argued Timothy Titcomb.

In the process of their scrutiny, a few gentlemen always found (or thought they did) a Sister or two who looked as if they might be open to question about the virtues of the celibate life. Artemus Ward was fascinated with a pair of pretty young Sisters. “Direcly thar cum in two young Shakeresses, as putty and slick lookin gals as I ever met,” he remarked with exceptional attention to particulars. “It is troo they was drest in meal bags like the old one I’d met previsly, and their shiny, silky har was hid from sight by long white caps … but their eyes sparkled like diminds, their cheeks was like roses, and they was charmin enuf f to make a man throw stuns at his granmother, if they axed him to.”

Still, the consensus was that Shakers were above reproach in their vows, willingly or otherwise. Apart from one young Sister, Archibald Maxwell continued, the rest were “nearly all old, wizened, ascetic-looking animals, full of disappointment and spleen, and perfect specimens of old maids.”

The main attraction for tourists was Sunday public worship meeting, when hundreds of spectators crowded into the meetinghouse to watch the Shakers perform the dances that gave them their name. The effect on the audience was electric. Outsiders who could tolerate celibacy and communalism, and even shrug their shoulders at the notion that men and women were equal, were scandalized by the idea of dancing in church. Amazed, amused, or aghast, shocked observers likened Shakers at worship to kangaroos, dancing bears, and overgrown antelopes bounding around the room. “Senseless jumping,” Emerson wrote, “this shaking of their hands, like the paws of dogs.”