Shakers: Co-ed Nerd Monks

Kate, Lydia, Barb and I are in the Berkshires right now, staying at a nice hotel for Thanksgiving where someone else cooked the turkey. It’s really tranquil and relaxing; I got a chance to read all 955 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which features cloistered, technology-loving ascetics living in a community separated from the outside secular world. And, given that it’s a Neal Stephenson book, they are for the most part asexual technology-loving ascetics.

So how do you do after reading a thousand pages about asexual technology-loving ascetics? Why, you visit Hancock Shaker Village, naturally!

Hancock Shaker Village

That’s a pretty labored intro, but the parallels between Stephenson’s “co-ed nerd monks” and the 19th-century Shakers goes beyond striking. Shakers started as an offshoot of Quakerism, but they placed heavy emphasis on end-times millennialism and charismatic worship. Unlike Quakers, they embraced music and dancing. They were celibate, but unlike “conventional” monasteries and convents, they didn’t wall off men from women — men and women had bedrooms on facing sides of the same halls, and carried their chairs across for nightly singalongs. They loved technology, and their community is packed with all kinds of sensible, clever, and carefully-planned labor-saving devices.

The kitchen in the ground floor of their big brick community house could have been a modern commercial food-service kitchen, except rendered in brick, marble, and iron instead of stainless steel. I am so not kidding about this: from the steam pressure cookers, to the ventilation hoods over the deep fryer, their early-1800s kitchen might as well have been a modern food-service layout.

Hancock Shaker Village kitchen

What’s most striking about this, to me, is that all this cutting-edge 1826 ingenuity was deployed by and for the women who worked in the kitchen. This is at a time when most women were cooking by kneeling at a hearth, not at high-tech ovens that are still up-to-date a hundred years later.

Shakers believed in, and practiced, total equality of the sexes — two male and two female ministers, two male and two female day-to-day work bosses — even two Christs: Jesus, and Mother Ann Lee. (Record scratch!) It’s totally obvious, looking at care and attention that the Shakers paid to both women’s and men’s work, that you don’t have to use some carefully-depreciated definition of “equal” to describe how they lived. As far as I can tell, they really and truly were capital-“E” Equal.

Hell, the Shakers invented the washing machine, which any watcher of historical-reenactment documentaries will tell you was the third messiah, at least for domestic women.

Hancock Shaker Village Sewing Room

Walking through the house is tiring, because your preconceptions about Shakers are getting smashed one after the other. I thought I knew the Shaker “austere” aesthetic, but it turns out all the floors in the building were painted bright yellow; likewise, the copious amounts of woodwork were all cheerful reds, yellows, and blues. The work rooms are set up so that folks can work in small groups, talking to each other. Everyone shared the work; just as the men’s and women’s technology was equal, so also there’s no separate, shabby “servant’s quarters”. The same care, attention, and planning has gone into space for every activity.

Hancock Shaker Village Basket Room

I had thought of Shaker lives as “ascetic”, but you have to stretch the garden-variety definition of “ascetic” pretty far when these folks are working in clean, well-lit, comfortable, and carefully-planned spaces, using excellent tools, and encouraged to use their creativity to improve those tools. Shakers improved the circular saw, and invented a vise to press round brooms (think of a witch’s broom) flat, then sew it that way in a more efficient shape (think of every other broom you’ve ever used.) The seven-hole privy had double-hung glass windows, and was neat, clean, snug, and well-lit.

The goddamn barn is practically a cathedral, with a very clever layout: centrally-ventilated haystack in the middle, cows around the perimeter. That’s more efficient than Sears mail-order barns being built a hundred years later. That doesn’t fit any definition of “ascetic” that means “uncomfortable” or “inconvenient”. It’s more… I guess, focused. Certainly not deprived.

Hancock Shaker Village Round Barn

So all in all I feel like I was disabused of a whole bunch of bad preconceptions about Shakers, including the old saw that “they died out because they banned sex HAW HAW HAW.” Shakers adopted kids, treated them pretty decently (as the kid-height furniture and the clever, humane, rhyming table-manners lessons attest), and had great commercial success selling seeds, capes, and furniture to the outside world. With just 6,000 members at their peak (and no “deep bench” of lay practitioners), maybe they never reached a sustainable mass. The whole “two Jesus” thing, which put them out in the cold as far as Christian orthodoxy goes, couldn’t have helped there. Regardless, it was a really thought-provoking visit, and piqued my interest. I’ve ordered a book containing the Shaker’s day-to-day rules, the “Millennial Laws”, and look forward to seeing what’s in there!

There are some more pictures that I took up on Flickr.

Update: I’ve been Googling around, trying to find the text of the Millenial Laws, which was the day-to-day book of practice that the Shakers used. I’m surprised that it’s not available on Gutenberg, or anything. There lots of opinions about the Shakers online, but very little primary material. Which, I suppose, stands to reason. I ordered a book that has the Millenial Laws in it. I also found Adam Gopnik’s 2006 piece in the New Yorker, which struck me as pretty flip; he explains Shaker organization with a casual “crowded poor people learn to hate disorder with a passion that for the wealthy is only a pastime”, and goes on to point out how Groucho Marx couldn’t let his peas touch his applesauce. Because of THE TENEMENTS, you know. Huh? It seems like the Shakers are everyone’s football. I’ll be interested to read some more.


2 responses to “Shakers: Co-ed Nerd Monks”

  1. Interesting that the floors were yellow (!) and all that lovely woodwork was painted in bright colors! Did the interpretive material explain why they’ve stripped it? (I’m so glad they did, but it must present rather a different look than the original. And I wonder if it is a bone of contention among Board Members and various committees, LOL!)


  2. According to the materials, there was an early (mellower) period, and a later (harsher) period. The bright colors were from the earlier period. Shakers also drank (in moderation) during the earlier period, too!
    Apparently, the colors were stripped later on, after the Big No-Fun Conference, or something.


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