Shaker Ephemera
by M. Stephen Miller

The Shakers--or the United Society of Believers--are a celibate, Christian society which has been living communally in America for some two hundred and twenty years. By the early nineteenth century they were living in eighteen relatively self-sufficient villages in New England, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. Almost from the beginning, the Shakers developed industries to help support their communities; garden seeds in individual packages being the first of these. Soon the raising and processing of medicinal herbs became a major enterprise followed by the production of brooms and brushes, chairs and stools, dairy products, storage boxes, preserved foods, women's cloaks, and "fancy goods"--usually sewing items. Each of these industries required ephemera to support it--both in packaging and advertising. The seed industry, for example, needed small paper envelopes, boxes with labels to display them, receipts, billheads, invoices, catalogs, and broadsides for accounting and promotional purposes. In the 1860s, at just the New Lebanon, NY, community, as an example, more than two and a half million seed envelopes were printed. Today only a few hundred of these survive. The Shakers are a singular phenomenon in American culture; the longest lived of the many communitarian groups which once dotted the landscape. For anyone interested in their history, ephemera--even the minute fraction which has survived--provides a unique window through which to study their economic life. In most instances the products themselves have long since vanished and the ledgers, journals, and shop records are incomplete. Ephemera, alone, is the most tangible remnant of the various and invaluable Shaker industries.

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America