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Out Of This World

July 2024
7min read

The Shakers as a Nineteenth-Century Tourist Attraction

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.”

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.”

“And to work they went with one accord,” Mrs. Hall reported, “singing or rather screaming, tunes of a kind of jig time, at the same time walking round the room with a swinging step somewhat between a walk and a dance and flapping their hands with a penguin kind of motion.”

The music was held in no higher esteem. Used to the refinements of organ accompaniment and harmony (both scorned by Shakers as too worldly) listeners dismissed Shaker hymn singing as croaking, droning, and tuneless caterwauling. Cooper complained of “a most villainous nasal cadency.” Although Shakers composed most of their own hymns, they occasionally adapted secular tunes, to the great amusement of James Buckingham in 1838. Surprised to hear the first dance performed to the familiar air of “Scots wha’ ha’e wi’ Wallace bled,” he was further astonished when they danced next to “the much less respectable old English tune of ‘Nancy Dawson,’ ” which he hadn’t heard for thirty years. “It was a popular song in my boyhood,” he noted, “among sailors especially; and the last place on earth in which I should have expected to hear it revived, would have been among the Shakers in America.”

Between rounds of song and dance, Shakers addressed short sermons to the crowd, urging them to forsake their sinful, carnal natures, and adopt the Shaker way of life—the only path to salvation. “The Sperret, as they called it, then moved a short fat Shaker to say a few remarks,” recalled Artemus Ward. “He sed they was Shakers and all was ekal. They was the purest and seleckest peple on the yearth. Other peple was sinful as they could be, but the Shakers was all right. Shakers was all goin kerslap to the Promist Land, and nobody want goin to stand at the gate to bar ‘em out, if they did, they’d git run over.”

Many visitors found it hard not to laugh, but others were moved to pity instead. “It is scarcely possible to conceive any thing more ludicrous, and yet more lamentable,” Cooper wrote in 1828. “I felt disposed to laugh, and yet I could scarcely restrain my tears. I think, after the surprise of the ludicrous had subsided, that the sight of so much miserable infatuation left a deep and melancholy regret on the mind.”

As America changed in the years after the Civil War, the number of converts to the Shaker faith dwindled until by 1900 only about two thousand members remained, and nearly half the communities had closed. The outside world became more tolerant and less curious as Shaker strength ebbed, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century, those tourists who still visited the Shakers often not only left without sneering but even with expressions of respect. “The people are like their village,” reported British editor William Hepworth Dixon. “Soft in speech, demure in bearing, gentle in face; a people seeming to be at peace not only with themselves, but with nature and heaven.”


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