A Peek into History: Shaker Herbs

If you would have a lovely garden, you should live a lovely life. —Shaker saying


This room at the Hancock Shaker Village re-creates the environment where the Shakers prepared herbs for pharmaceuticals.

Photography by Paul Rocheleau

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To many Americans today, the name “Shaker” refers to a style of furniture, but actually the Shakers made contributions in many fields as religious thinkers, social pioneers, inventors and builders. They were especially successful as gardeners.

In addition to producing their own food, they developed major businesses—the largest and most advanced of their time—selling vegetable seeds and medicinal herbs, which they grew, processed and packaged themselves.

The medicine of the time

To put the Shaker herb business in perspective, it helps to look at the big picture. Americans in the nineteenth century had, for the most part, different health problems from those we have today. Burns, falls and accidental injuries were often crippling. Birth defects were lifelong handicaps. Many women died in childbirth, and many children died in infancy.

Those who survived were vulnerable to colds and flu, which could lead to pneumonia and to contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, yellow fever and cholera. Eating rancid or spoiled food caused both acute and chronic digestive disorders. Children and adults often harbored intestinal parasites, and ma­laria was a problem in swampy regions where mosquitoes swarmed. Simple cuts, punctures and other wounds easily became critically infected. Boils and sores could develop into persistent cankers. There were ailments with names you never hear now, like gleet, phthisis, quinsy and tetter.

Facing problems like these, what could doctors do? At first they couldn’t do much. In 1800, physicians had virtually no understanding of what caused diseases or how to prevent them. They had no awareness of bacteria, no understanding of how contagious diseases were transmitted, scant appreciation for sanitation or hygiene, no knowledge of nutrition and no explanation for congenital disorders. They had no antiseptics, no antibiotics, no anesthetics and only a few painkillers. They mostly used drastic procedures such as bloodletting and purges.

This situation changed over the next few decades. Many patients started avoiding conventional doctors, fearful of the treatment they might receive, and turned to local “root and herb” doctors who had studied with Native American healers and learned to use native medicinal plants in their practices along with traditional European herbs. Several major books about native medicinal plants were published and some became best-sellers. This was very important to the Shakers and to the growth of their medicinal herb industry. The Shakers themselves weren’t responsible for prescribing or dispensing herbs. Their business was to produce what the doctor ordered, and by the mid-1800s doctors were ordering hundreds of different herbs.

The Shaker approach

The earliest Shakers relied on faith healing and the laying on of hands to relieve all but the most drastic illnesses and injuries and called in worldly doctors only as a last resort. In general, they emphasized prevention rather than treatment and they often maintained excellent health into old age. They followed a regular routine with scheduled times for exercise and rest, diligently pursued good hygiene, ate three meals a day, breathed fresh air, drank pure water and used little if any alcohol or tobacco. When preventive measures failed, they turned to their gardens and the surrounding woods.

Shaker gardens in the nineteenth century contained a variety of vegetables and many herbs. Shaker cooks, however, made little use of culinary herbs, relying on salt and pepper for seasoning main dishes and cinnamon, cloves, ginger and other imported spices for desserts. The few herbs they did use were thyme in soups and stuffings, sweet marjoram in turkeys, summer savory in turkey, sausage, beef, and pork, sage in cheese and parsley in soups and as a garnish.

If they had a surplus, the Shakers could find a market for any of their products and often sold small amounts of this or that to neighbors. But for their major source of income most societies specialized in growing a few ­garden products in large quantities. This combination of growing a wide ­diversity of crops for their own use and a limited number of special crops to sell was typical of nineteenth-century farming. It was particularly successful for the Shakers, who ate well, lived comfortably and had money left over.

The Shakers’ success was due partly to their gardening techniques, but mainly to their attitudes and values. For them, gardening was a spiritual exercise, a way of putting belief into practice and taking responsibility for cre­ating a heaven on earth. The ideas ­expressed repeatedly in their sayings, journals, and publications illustrate basic tenets of gardening that are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago. Work faithfully. Don’t rush. Be attentive. Know your plants. Keep learning. Nurture the soil. Take care of your tools.

The herb industry

The Shakers sold tins of dried culinary herbs such as sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, and thyme and the seeds of caraway, cayenne pepper, clary sage, coriander, dill, fennel, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, pot marigold, rosemary, rue, sweet basil and others. They were most famous, however, not for their culinary herbs nor for their herb seeds but for their extensive line of medical herb products.

In the early years of the nineteenth century all Shaker communities collected herbs for their own use and may have sold a few from time to time. It wasn’t until 1820 that the herb business took off, continuing through the century. Shakers sold hundreds of kinds of dried herbs, herb extracts, herb oils and herbal patent medicines, earning an income that rivaled or exceeded that of their horticultural specialty, vegetable seeds. In both businesses they were pioneers who developed a desirable product and soon achieved a reputation for quality, purity, neatness, honesty and fairness. Both businesses required careful knowledge of plants, hard labor in the fields, plenty of hands for sorting and packaging and willingness to invent or adopt laborsaving devices to facilitate the process.

By 1850 the herb business was peaking as a result of the Shakers’ inventiveness and hard work. The community at New Lebanon, New York, was producing as much as 100,000 pounds of dried herbs and several thousand pounds of extracts annually. Its catalog from 1851 listed 356 medicinal herbs, 4 common culinary herbs, 181 fluid extracts and much more. The catalog’s title alone hints at its depth: "A Catalogue of Medicinal Plants, Barks, Roots, Seeds, Flowers and Select Powders with their Therapeutic Qualities and Botanical names; also Pure Vegetable Extracts, prepared in vacuo; Ointments, Inspissated Juices, Essential Oils, Double Distilled and Fragrant waters, etc."

Inspissated juices were condensed extracts made from poisonous plants. The fragrant waters were distilled from roses, peach leaves, sassafras bark, peppermint and spearmint, elder flowers and other plants, and used as flavorings and perfumes. The extracts and ointments were sold in small glass or ceramic bottles or jars. Most dried herbs and roots were pressed into blocks, then wrapped in pastel papers and given simple labels.

Another source lists a total of eighty proprietary medicines and herb products developed and sold at different Shaker communities in the late nineteenth century. Some products bore simple names and basic claims, such as Shaker Hair Restorer (“Gray hair may be honorable, but the natural color is preferable!”), Pain King (“Orders pain out of doors and sees that the command is obeyed!”), and Shaker Vegetable Family Pills (“Operate so gently and surely, yet without straining or distressing the bowels, that no family can afford to be without them. They break up colds and fevers and do away with bilious disorders”). Others had more impressive names and made more impressive claims—such as Corbett’s ­Compound Concentrated Syrup of ­Sarsaparilla, promoted as a cure for a number of ills including consumption, exhaustion and liver, kidney, blood and bladder diseases. Whether or not all products could live up to their claims, the Shakers always emphasized accurate identification, freshness, pur­ity, quality, neatness and respect for the customer. Few manufacturers of patent medicines were as conscientious as the Shakers and, as a result, their herbs and products were shipped throughout the United States and overseas.

Day to day

In the business’s golden days, the decades from 1820 to 1860, the Shakers were growing and gathering hundreds of herbs and selling them simply dried or as liquid extracts. It was seasonal work, peaking between July and September when most of the herbs were gathered. It was varied work because there were so many kinds of herbs and several ways of processing them. It was relatively light work, perhaps tedious but requiring little strength or exertion. It was sociable work, occupying groups of children, sisters and brethren and the elderly.

The outdoor work started in spring, when the gardeners spread manure and compost and plowed the soil, divided perennials, sowed annuals, and engaged neighboring farmers to grow crops that were in high demand. Throughout the summer the gardeners had to keep up with hoeing and weeding the herb fields, but their main challenge was processing all the fresh herbs—hauling them in, spreading them out to dry, then gathering them for grinding or pressing or into barrels for storage. In the fall they cleaned up the garden, made compost piles and sowed those few kinds of seeds that had to winter outdoors.

Most of the herbs—among them spearmint, peppermint, pennyroyal, belladonna, dandelion, witch hazel, sage, chamomile, yellow dock and lov­age—were harvested between June and September by picking or cutting whole stems or stalks, or just plucking off the tops and piling them onto linen sheets 15 feet square. They were picked from the garden and the wild. Back at the ­village, the sheets of herbs were carried indoors and suspended in the attics or lofts to dry or were spread to dry on the attic floors, dried in kilns heated by coal or wood fires, or put into the still kettle for distillation.

Barks were gathered from the ­Shaker woodlands, usually in late May or June just as the trees were leafing out. Roots were usually dug after a few frosts in fall. From late fall through the winter the work was done indoors; the summer’s crops of dried herbs were pressed into compact blocks, wrapped and labeled, and orders were filled.

Today, the Shaker gardens, along with their way of life, have largely ­disappeared. The Shaker movement lasted more than two centuries and included nearly 17,000 people in several states. There are only seven Shakers left—in one small community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Rita Buchanan, who lives in Winsted, Connecticut, has written numerous articles for The Herb Companion and is the author of several gardening and craft books, including A Dyer’s Garden (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996). 

This article is adapted from The Shaker Herb and Garden Book by Rita Buchanan; photography by Paul Rocheleau; design by David Larkin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996). Reprinted by permission.