- Visiting the Shakers: 1850–1899 ed. by Glendyne Wergland
During the second half of the nineteenth century, visitors to Shaker villages were numerous and various, quite various. In 1865, a New York Times reporter offered these observations: "Not a smile illumines the hard, wrinkled features of male or female Shaker. The youngsters … must enjoy the gymnastics [the Shakers' dancing], but their enjoyment has little opportunity for display. Solemn old heads frown down the slightest demonstration of nature, (wicked human nature), and so the boys' faces are almost as expressionless as their own" (216–17). Just two years later, another observer visiting the same New Lebanon community, with presumably most of the same inhabitants, perceived something quite different: "The people are like their village; soft in speech, demure in bearing, gentle in face. … Life appears to move on Mount Lebanon in an easy [End Page 673] kind of rhythm. Order, temperance, frugality, worship—these are the Shaker things which strike upon your senses first; the peace and innocence of Eden, when contrasted with the wrack and riot of New York." Likewise, the New Lebanon children that this second visitor observed showed no resemblance to the ones described by the Times reporter: "Look at these cheery urchins, in their broad straw hats and with their drooping sash, as they leap and gambol on the turf, laughing, pulling each other, filling this green hill-road with the melodies only to be heard when happy children are at play" (231–32).
Those hoping to discover details about the Shaker life and beliefs will find much to satisfy their curiosity in Glendyne Wergland's Visiting the Shakers: 1850–1899, but they will have to gather their information circumspectly. As Wergland cautions in her introduction, "Visitors … were not authorities on the Shakers, so we have to separate fact from opinion" (1). Although visitors' accounts make up 95 percent of Wergland's compilation, a companion piece to her earlier volume, Visiting the Shakers: 1778–1849, Wergland does indeed in her general introduction and her prologues to each visitor's account assist readers with that separation of "fact" from "opinion."
Considering the drastically different descriptions presented above, readers of Wergland's Visiting the Shakers might expect to encounter opinion more often than fact. However, both the skeptical interlopers and the enthusiastic guests of the Shakers agree in many of their observations, thus assuring readers that beneath the starkly contrasting opinions lie some underlying certainties about Shaker life. Visitors who wrote positive accounts and those who responded negatively offer many similar observations, in particular about three aspects of Shaker life: their prosperity, their plentiful and hearty fare, and the orderliness of their buildings and lands.
Most authors concur that the communities displayed affluence, a result of their inhabitants' industry, thrift, and honesty. A group visiting Hancock village in 1864 recorded the following: "We are struck by the evident wealth of the people" (92). A Scottish minister touring the same village five years later wrote that "if you buy a Shaker brush or cart or chair … or preserved fruit, you may rely on it being the best. Hence Shaker goods are everywhere in demand" (101). Twenty-five years hence, another visitor amplified that same view: "The honesty of the Shakers is proverbial" (111). In the early 1860s a man shown New Lebanon's agriculture remarked on the amazing fecundity of the community's pear orchard. All the trees "exhibited such a burden of fruit as we had never seen before," because, he concluded, the Shakers were [End Page 674] extremely "thorough in whatever they undertake" (207). The well-known observer of communal societies in the second half of the nineteenth century Charles Nordhoff wrote in 1874 after visiting New Lebanon that "a farmer who is in the employ of the Shakers is considered a fortunate man, as they are kind and liberal in their dealing … and have the reputation of being strictly honest and fair in all their transactions with the world's people" (268).
Sojourners who stayed...