Singing and dancing were regular features of Shaker worship services. In 1848 Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, composed a tune, now known as “Simple Gifts.” It was meant to be sung and danced in a lively manner, and was found to be a good addition to the repertoire of Shaker worship tunes.
The song’s one stanza begins, “Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free...”
The ideal of leading a life of simplicity separate from the complex, perilous, and unsatisfactory “World” was a cornerstone of Shaker belief and practice. Another concept that guided the Believers was a dedication to performing honorable work, both as a means of serving God and as a way to serve fellow brothers and sisters in the Shaker faith. This idea was expressed concisely in the words of Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), who brought Shakerism from England to America in 1774: “Put your hands to work and give your hearts to God.”
The founding document of a Shaker village was the Covenant. This served to define the agreements made between that particular Shaker community as a corporate entity and the individuals who chose to join it. In the 1796 Covenant that established the Shaker village at Canterbury the “subscribers” agreed to “...give ourselves and services, with all our temporal property freely and according to our faith, to support one joint union and interest in all things, both spiritual and temporal — for the mutual good support and comfort of each other and for other pious and charitable uses ...” This represented a total commitment to contribute all they possessed that was of value, including their services (work), for the benefit of the greater community.
Producing food for their own consumption through extensive farming operations, constructing their own buildings, and making their own furniture and other goods was a hallmark of the Shaker villages. However, the Shakers could not, in reality, live apart from the world. To survive, they needed to engage in trade with the non-Shakers of the “World.” Because the Shakers were dedicated to producing well-designed items made according to exacting standards, the public soon associated the Shaker name with quality.
It would prove to be a constant balancing act for the Shakers to live simply and to also support themselves financially through their work. The New Hampshire Shakers adapted, and proved to be remarkably adept at business. Among the fine products they produced for market were seed packets; candlesticks; leather products; wooden buckets, pails, and boxes; brooms; spinning wheels; hand cards for preparing wool for spinning; and clothing items. They also made finely crafted furniture of plain and simple design based on traditional American styles. As more ornate Victorian furniture styles became popular later in the 19th century, the Shakers added understated embellishments to suit current tastes.
The Shaker women wove their own cloth, and set up well-ordered and efficient sewing shops to make a variety of items to sell. In December 1847 a newspaper ad for a store in St. Albans, Vt,, read, “Shaker Undershirts & Drawers (underpants), manufactured by the Shakers of Enfield, N.H. – A very fine and desirable article at this season of the year; an assortment just received and for sale.” In 1856 the Canterbury Shakers began producing men’s shirt fronts on contract.
Bottles of Corbett’s Sarsaparilla Syrup were displayed at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. This medicine was developed by Thomas Corbett of the Canterbury Shakers, who was a medical doctor and pharmacist. The concoction combined 10 herbs with extract from the root of the sarsaparilla plant, and also included sugar, Epsom salt, and alcohol. It was advertised as having “efficacious qualities,” and to be effective in curing many conditions, including diseases of the blood, indigestion, jaundice, and soreness of the stomach. Ads for the product proclaimed that it had received the approval of the New Hampshire Medical Society.
At that same world’s fair in 1876 the Shakers were awarded a medal for their patented industrial washing machine, which had been designed by David Parker, a trustee of the Canterbury Shakers, in 1858. The machine was sold to institutions and businesses, including hotels and resorts in New England.