The Shaker “Culture of Cleanliness”

Posted on December 21, 2018 by

Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

As the Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774, New England left behind a century of good health—the product of a dispersed population, a cold climate, and its relative commercial isolation—and entered a new century of epidemic disease including smallpox, typhus, and cholera. The latter killed thousands of Americans in the years between 1832-1834 and returned to claim additional lives in 1849 and 1866.

Cholera resulted from the growth of cities, the absence of sanitation infrastructure, and the closer integration of Americans in the trans-Atlantic economy. That the Shakers largely escaped these afflictions, despite having a number of communities with hundreds of members, is a testament to their commitment to a culture of personal and community cleanliness.

In 1874, the Shaker leader Frederick Evans claimed that “the cholera has never yet touched a Shaker village.” This statement was not entirely accurate. In fact, the Harvard community’s North Family suffered an outbreak in 1835. According to the physicians’ journal, there were four cases. Given the fragmentary surviving records of the 19 Shaker villages, it is impossible to say definitively that these were the only instances of the spread of the epidemic among the Believers. Nevertheless, existing community journals, letters, and health records uniformly suggest that the Shakers were in fact largely spared the ravages of this frightening disease that claimed the lives of so many of their fellow Americans. In an age before the advent of germ theory, it is remarkable to see the extent to which the Shaker preoccupation with cleanliness, and their ingenuity in insuring clean water in their villages, shielded them from an infectious disease that created so much suffering and death in the communities around them.

Practices that initially grew out of their religious beliefs and their efforts as a millennialist sect to create “Heaven on Earth” in time became inextricably linked with progressive secular prescriptions concerning cleanliness. A review of Shaker publications including journals, letters, daybooks, and manifestos clearly shows that the Believers came to embrace what contemporary historians call “medical environmentalism,” the idea that a clean, well-ventilated environment free of filth and vermin and having access to clean water could contribute to good health.

Explanations of the Shaker culture of cleanliness begin with the life and character of the sect’s founder, Ann Lee, who was born in Manchester, England in 1736. The illiterate daughter of a blacksmith, she was the second of eight children who resided in a crowded house on Toad Lane, an address that itself evokes images of the stagnant water, artificial ponds of raw sewage, and foul air that came to characterize Britain’s cities as the nascent industrial age gained momentum. Although details of Ann Lee’s early life are sparse, we know that she worked first in a cotton factory, then as a fur cutter, and later as a cook in an infirmary, occupations that likely exposed her to the cesspools, dung heaps, and offal that increasingly dotted the Manchester landscape. Thus, it is likely that the circumstances in which she was raised help to explain her preoccupation with cleanliness and order, exhortations that were repeated by her followers long after her death. By her own account, Ann Lee was a “serious” child preoccupied with “the things of God.” As a young woman she developed a strong aversion to sexual intercourse and came to equate it with sinfulness and filth. Forced to marry, Ann bore four children, all of whom died. She saw this as punishment for her “depravity” and came to preach against what she called “the filthy works of the flesh.” Thus, celibacy was to become a central tenet of the Shaker faith.

A large body of scholarship has explored the complex relationship between “sinfulness,” sexuality (including bodily secretions), and fears of defilement in a variety of religious traditions, and the rites of purification that are used to address such contamination. The cleansing, “purifying” effects of water often play a central role in such efforts, a belief illustrated most clearly in the Christian rite of baptism. The followers of Ann Lee embraced her rigorous ethic of purity, a virtue closely associated with their commitment to celibacy but having profound implications for personal and community hygiene as well. Ann Lee is purported to have said, “There is no dirt in heaven!,” and the cleanliness and order that so characterized the Shaker communities undoubtedly reflected the intersection of the physical and spiritual realms that marked her life and teachings and that came to define Shaker culture at its core. To be clean outside, both personally and in one’s physical habitat, was a metaphor for inner, spiritual purity.

That the Shaker villages stood apart from the population centers of the “World’s People,” the Shaker term for non-Believers, in their cleanliness and order is indisputable. Many were attracted to the Shakers precisely because of these qualities. Daniel Moseley, who visited the first settlement at Niskeyuna in the early 1780s, wrote: “I was brought up in New England among good farmers, but such neatness and economy as was here displayed in the wilderness I never before saw.” Jacques Milbrand, a French naturalist and artist who visited a number of Shaker communities in the 1820s, remarked that “everything looked so spotless as if the walls and even the floor had been varnished.” Countless visitors, some of whom were harsh critics of the Shaker faith, commented on the “serene beauty” and “neatness” of Shaker buildings and the “pleasing,” “ethereal” character of their villages with their well kept roads, fields, orchards, barns, workshops, and enclosures.

Such cleanliness depended on access to water and the Shakers were careful to establish communities only in locations where clean, plentiful supplies of water could be found. Water of course was necessary to run the Shaker mills and industries, but just as importantly, it was vital for food preparation, cleaning, bathing, and the laundering of clothes and bed linens, practices that did much to prevent the onset and spread of disease. The waterworks at the Mt. Lebanon Village in New York were especially ingenious. A series of man-made lakes captured the natural spring water from the nearby mountains. Using a system of aquaducts lined with massive rocks, the water was channeled into pipes that led to dwellings, kitchens, and workshops providing cold, clean, disease-free water for refrigeration, drinking, bathing, fire protection, water closets, mill races, and industrial power. One lake provided the Mt. Lebanon Shakers with ice—considered a luxury for the few in the urban centers of 19th century America. The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill had the first system of running water in the entire state of Kentucky. Using a horse-powered pump to draw fresh water from a nearby spring into an elevated tank, it was then gravity-fed through a series of pipes into every kitchen, cellar, and washhouse. According to community records, the Shakers at Groveland, New York bought additional land in order to have access to several springs that would insure “copious amounts of clean water” when they saw that the creek that flowed through parts of the property was tainted with effluence from nearby settlements.

It is important to emphasize that such waterworks provided the Shakers with benefits not found in the homes of much of the “World’s People.” This was especially true of the poor who lived in the worst houses in the most crowded portions of America’s cities. American cities were dirty. In New York, thousands of swine roamed the streets and decaying garbage and stagnant pools of sewage were commonplace. An early 19th century New England physician remarked that only one in five patients bathed or washed their bodies with water in an entire year. The poor lived in tiny, unventilated apartments, often with entire families occupying the same room, while the most miserable and degraded lived in unfinished cellars, their walls a mat of slime, sewage, and moisture after every rain. Rotting garbage, dead animals, and excrement were simply thrown in nearby rivers, the very rivers that most city dwellers depended on for their water supply.

The crisis of waste management that befouled the water in so many population centers in 19th century America provided an ideal environment for the bacterium that causes cholera and led to the frightening epidemic that swept the United States in 1832-1834 and returned episodically throughout the remainder of the century. Despite 19th century theories that attributed the disease to “miasma,” cholera cannot be transmitted through the air or even through the exchange of most bodily fluids. The ultimate route of transmission is almost invariably the same: an infected person emits the bacteria during one of the violent bouts of diarrhea that are the hallmark of the disease and another person ingests some of this bacteria from hand to mouth or by drinking contaminated water.

Although especially deadly in places of concentrated populations, it is important to note that cholera visited its suffering and death across a wide swath of the United States in the early 1830s. As Charles Rosenberg noted in his seminal work, The Cholera Years: “Americans prided themselves on their railroads, canals, and steamboats. Before the end of 1832, cholera was to travel them all. Few communities, however remote, escaped its visits. Hastily dug graves in every state bore witness to the extent of cholera’s wanderings.”

The Shaker “culture of cleanliness” that did so much to spare them the ravages of cholera was clearly delineated in the Millennial Laws, the highly specific guidelines that governed the daily lives of the Believers and brought a degree of uniformity to villages separated by long distances. Created by the Lead Ministry at Mt. Lebanon, New York, the Millennial Laws were periodically revised and updated throughout the Shakers’ long history. Together with the less formalized “best practices” that evolved in their communities through years of experience as builders, farmers, and inventors, the Millennial Laws provided explicit instructions concerning the preparation of food, personal hygiene, the washing, ironing, bluing, and starching of members’ clothes and bed linens, the proper management of drainage, waste, and debris, as well as the disposal of animal carcasses and human excrement. Guided by a theology that blended the physical and the spiritual, the “order of nature” and the “order of grace” into a total vision of purity and order, the Shakers anticipated the broad contours of the public health initiatives that were to be undertaken by their fellow Americans many decades later.

In 1832, Matthew Houston of the North Union community in Ohio wrote that the Shakers there had heard “much alarm about cholera…in Cleveland.” Elder Matthew went on to note that within the North Union community by contrast, “we have enjoyed unusual good health.” He also wrote that he wondered if “right faithfull Believers can ever be overtaken by such plagues.” As a faithful Shaker it is perhaps not surprising that Elder Matthew attributed the good health of the Believers to their religious steadfastness and fervor. In retrospect it seems clear that he might have also have thanked their “culture of cleanliness.” Of course for Shakers like Elder Matthew, the two were inseparable.

Susan Matarese is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville where she teaches courses in political theory including American Utopias: The Quest for Community.

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The Shakers

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the “Shakers,” is one of America’s most important and enduring communal societies spanning almost 250 years of American history. The Shakers lived in 19 communal villages ranging from New York and New England to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. They are an example of America’s “religious” utopians, a category that includes groups like the Moravians, the Harmonists, the Zoarites, and the Perfectionists at Oneida among others.

The Shakers sought to achieve “heaven on earth” and attempted to create a kind of Edenic perfection in their communities. This led to some of the most distinctive practices of the group including celibacy, pacifism, communal ownership of property, ecstatic worship, and withdrawal from worldly society.

The Shakers drew their converts from white, working class farmers, artisans, and mechanics. Villages ranged in size from 300-500 Believers at their peak. Each community was composed of multiple “families.” Families varied in size, but generally had from 50-150 male and female members. Grouped according to spiritual maturity, each “family” was an autonomous unit with its own leaders, dwellings, workshops, barns, orchards, and gardens. Each Shaker family provided food, clothing, shelter, education, recreation, and religious training for its members.

Leadership of each family rested with two Elders and two Eldresses who heard confessions and meted out discipline for infractions of Shaker rules. A Central Ministry at the Mount Lebanon Community in New York watched over all of the societies. It crafted The Millennial Laws that codified the Shaker way of life in minute detail and achieved a remarkable degree of uniformity in societies separated by long distances. Furthermore, an elaborate system of visitation helped to ensure standardized practices throughout the far-flung Shaker federation.

Daily Life

The Shakers lived in large communal dwellings. Brothers and Sisters shared rooms with members of the same sex. Meals were taken communally in spacious dining rooms within each dwelling and all followed a daily regimen that included prayer as well as labor.

Each Shaker had his or her own “lot” or calling. The sisters prepared meals, did the community washing, ironing, sewing, and weaving, tended to poultry, and produced goods for sale including cloth, chair tapes, canned fruits and vegetables, medicinal herbs, and seed packets. Work was generally done in groups and was rotated on a monthly basis.

The Brothers worked about the farm, tending crops and herds of cattle, hogs, and sheep. Some worked in the tannery, others in the mills and shops where they made brooms, buckets, baskets, chairs, tables, cabinets, leather goods, and their famous oval boxes. As in the early monastic communities, the work of the Shakers was consecrated labor, a part of their worship and commitment to God.

Each family kept daily accounts of their activities, recording the cycle of farm chores, animal husbandry, and work in the craft shops that constituted life in a rural Shaker village. Extensive membership lists recorded admissions, defections, deaths, age at death, as well as the cause of death. Artisans and Farm Deacons kept journals recording in minute detail the rhythm of the workday, listing the goods produced, crops picked, and tasks completed. Cooks compiled journals with detailed rules concerning kitchen hygiene, recipes, and lists of the family’s “daily fare.” Community physicians and nurses carefully recorded accidents and illnesses among members and the ingredients and effectiveness of the herbal remedies they administered.

The Shakers reached their peak population (estimated at close to 4,000) in the 1840s. Although all of the villages survived the Civil War, the Shakers found it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain their membership as the 19th century progressed. In the early 20th century, entire villages closed. Many have been restored and are open to the public. With the death of Frances Carr in January of 2017, there are two remaining Shakers at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in New Gloucester, Maine.


Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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