Every year in the fall at the Folk School, we have a special week celebrating the Shakers contributions to American crafts and culture. This year, Shaker Week took place during November 3–9. In the studios, students took inspiration from the Shakers to craft brooms, baskets, pots, boxes, bowls, culinary delicacies, herbal beverages and more. We had a special visitor, Becky Soules, Interpretation Manager from Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, who spent the week with us to provide a better context about the Shakers, answering questions and sharing knowledge. I sat down with her one evening to get to know her and learn more about the Shakers. Enjoy our interview!
Becky Soules giving a presentation on the Shakers in the Keith House Community Room.
Cory: What brings you to the Folk School for Shaker Week?
Becky: Every year, the Folk School arranges to have an expert on campus to provide the Shaker context to all the students. After official studio class time, I will be presenting talks about various topics related to Shakerism. I’m qualified to do that because I work at Canterbury Shaker Village, a Shaker Village in New Hampshire. I am also circulating to studios and around campus, answering people’s questions, and chatting with people one-on-one. People have had lots of really interesting comments or questions about the Shakers.
Cory: What do you think of Shaker Week so far?
Becky: What I like about Shaker Week is the concept that it is a week inspired by the Shakers. Classes are looking to what the Shaker’s did for inspiration, but not necessarily trying to replicate or reenact the exact Shaker experience.
For example, the painting class this week is looking at Shaker gift drawings. Shaker gift drawings are a particular spiritual occurrence that happened for 15 years in Shaker communities. Obviously, the students are not drawing Shaker gift drawings, but taking the inspiration from the original gift drawings.
Many of the classes are loosely tied to the Shakers, drawing on the philosophy or tenets of Shaker life. I think it’s really appealing. It’s an interesting way of framing the classes, rather than trying to be rigidly accurate.
Cory: Can you talk more about the gift drawings?
Becky: They are specific drawings that the Shakers did during what they called the Era of Manifestations (a period from 1837 to the mid-1850s). They Shakers received spiritual gifts (like a spiritual vision) and then they drew them as pictures. They might be like the Shaker Tree of Life on the Canterbury Village logo, which is actually from a Shaker gift drawing.
Examples of Shaker gift drawings created during the Era on Manifestations. (Top:) Hannah Cohoon, The Tree of Life, 1854. (Below, L-R:) Polly Collins, Wreath Brought by Mother’s Little Dove, 1884. Polly Ann Reed, A present from Mother Lucy to Eliza Ann Taylor, 1851. Unknown artist, Shaker gift drawing, mid-19th century.
Cory: If you were going to teach a class during Shaker Week at the Folk School, what would you teach?
Becky: My interests run toward textiles. Do you have sewing classes?
Cory: Yes, we do!
Becky: I love the Shaker Dorothy cloak. At Canterbury Village, one of our demonstrators is in the process of putting together a child’s one and she does adult ones as well. Sewing the Dorothy cloak would be a good class topic for Shaker Week.
Cory: Why was that called the Dorothy cloak?
Becky: There’s an apocryphal story about this Shaker eldress who wears her raincoat into town one day. Someone sees it and is enamored of this lovely cloak-style raincoat and says, “Oh, can you buy it?” She says, “It’s not for sale,” but being a good thrifty Shaker, she goes home and draws them a pattern and they start selling them. We don’t have any actual documentary evidence about that, but it’s a fancy cloak that the sisters started manufacturing. Dorothy was sort of their mentor in the middle of community industries and was a spiritual leader as well, so it makes sense that they would call it after her.
Cory: Speaking of women in the Shaker community, there was a quote from your first presentation that resonated with me: “I don’t want to be remembered as a chair.” Can you talk about what that means and who said that?
Becky: That quote gets paraphrased a lot, but it was said by sister Mildred Barker from Sabbath Day Lake, Maine, the community that still has active Shakers today. She died in the 1980s, but she was, in her lifetime, one of their very public figures and did a lot of speaking. She shows up in the Ken Burns documentary about the Shakers, and she says something similar to that in that documentary. In the late 20th century, Shaker furniture had really taken off and Shaker items were selling at these auctions for astronomical sums. There was a real concern among the remaining Shakers that their religious principles had gotten forgotten. People just looked at them and saw dollar signs and beautiful furniture and things like that. She was concerned that the religious tenets of the faith were going to get lost and wanted people to respect the Shakers as Shakers, rather than makers of furniture.
The Sabbathday Lake Shakers, a book by Mildred Barker (pictured above)
Cory: How did you personally become interested in the Shakers?
Becky: When I was in college, I had a professor who studied the Shakers and I took a class with him. I knew I wanted to do museums and I was looking for a summer internship and an internship popped up at Canterbury Village. I went there for the summer, had a great time, and really liked it. Ultimately, I ended up writing my undergraduate honors thesis about the Shakers. Then I went off and, worked other places, went to grad school, and then I was looking for a job and this opening popped up at Canterbury. I applied and got it. It’s funny the way the world comes in a circle and you end up back places you don’t think you’ll end up.
Cory: What can a visitor expect then they visit a Shaker village?
Becky: We’re a 501c3 non-profit museum that’s open primarily seasonally. If you come to Canterbury, there’s about 700 acres of land and 25 historic buildings. If you come during our open season, you can walk the trails and take a guided tour of some of our buildings. Many of our buildings are open with exhibits and staffed by our museum interpreters so you can walk through them and learn about the Shakers. We do some special events throughout the year. When I get back on Sunday, we have an organ concert with our 1887 organ. We also have special Christmas programming. Our mission as a museum is to broaden our perspectives and horizons.
Illustration of Shakers during worship
Meeting house at Canterbury Shaker Village
Cory: Are the grounds open year-round for walking?
Becky: We are. There’s a little town of Canterbury and we are about three miles outside of that town. A lot of local people come and do walk the grounds and they help us maintain our trails and there’s people who come snowshoeing and skiing. All of our property is preserved under conservation easement so it’s there for everyone to enjoy.
Cory: Is there any question about Shakers that you always wish people would ask you, but they never do?
Becky: It’s understandable, but I get weary of folks asking me often if I’m a Shaker, and so do all of the staff at the village. I think that idea of the Shakers as curiosities might be what prompts that idea. There’s only three Shakers in Maine. They are a living religious society and it’s just not polite or understanding to think of them as attractions or curiosities. Thinking about them as more than just a dying sect is probably appropriate.
Cory: In our Dining Hall we have a handful of songs or blessings and we pick one to recite before every meal. One of the more beloved ones is “Simple Gifts” which we know has Shaker roots. Can you talk about that?
Becky: “Simple Gifts” is one of about 10,000 songs that the Shakers wrote, so they were very prolific and wrote a lot of music. Many of these were gift songs that they wrote during the Era of Manifestations, a religious era outpouring during the mid-nineteenth century I mentioned earlier in relation to gift drawings.
“Simple Gifts” was written in 1848 by a Shaker brother named Joseph Brackett who lived in Maine. The story is that he had been mentoring a number of young Shaker brothers and they left the community. He was heartbroken. This was the song that came to him during that moment to restore his faith that everything would be alright.
The Shakers have struggled with this concept of people leaving the community, especially children who were raised in the community by the Shakers, who then have that choice of going out into the world. It was always hard if you’d raised the children hoping they would stay and then they chose to leave.
“Simple Gifts” is a beautiful song, but it’s overused because the Shakers wrote 10,000 pieces of music. I blame a lot of that on Aaron Copeland who popularized it for “Appalachian Spring” in the 1940s, and that’s why everyone knows it today.
Postcard featuring an illustration of Shakers gathering herbs.
Cory: Are there many other Shaker-themed weeks outside of the official communities that are similar to this week at the Folk School?
Becky: Individual Shaker communities that are preserved as museums do various workshops. In Canterbury we have a broom-making workshop and box making workshops but they’re often one, or two-day classes, they’re not this immersive week. Generally speaking, the Folk School has a lot of similarities with the Shakers with the concept of family style meals and living and working together for the week. It makes something Shaker themed particularly resonate here in a way that it wouldn’t be in another place.
Cory: Do you think there is anything we could add to this week that would make it even better?
Becky: I might add a little more Shaker music for MorningSong, just to shake it up!
Cory: If you could let the world know any one thing about the Shakers, what would it be?
Becky: It goes back to sister Mildred saying, “I don’t want to be remembered as a chair.” That’s important. A sister at Canterbury, eldress Bertha Lindsay said, “the furniture will not endure as long as the philosophy” and I think that’s a nice idea. It seems counter-intuitive here where we’re all doing Shaker inspired crafts, but all the people I’ve talked to have an actual interest in the philosophy and the various concepts that underpin it. I think that’s a good lesson.
A variety of the delicious pies from the Cooking class: “How to Shaker Your Plate” with Nanette Davidson
Cory: Do you have any favorite moments from this week that you care to share?
Becky: I’ve enjoyed walking around, I’ve had some really good Shaker pie from the cooking class. It’s just been really lovely to walk and see what everyone is working on and how there are students with a whole range of abilities. Everyone is so invested in what they have chosen to do for the week.
Cory: Do you think that you would have been a Shaker?
Becky: That’s a question of many factors and circumstances. A lot of women ended up in the Shakers because they didn’t want to marry, or because they were widowed, and they had five kids to support. The Shakers provided a useful service or refuge in a way that we don’t need, or we don’t think we need today. So, who knows? If there had been a circumstance to lead me to the Shakers, maybe? But, religiously, it’s a big commitment. There’s still an active Shaker village still in Maine that accepts converts, so people who are interested in that can pursue that option. For me, with my background as an historian, I really like looking at the Shakers form a more analytical or historic perspective.