A Peek into History: Shaker Herbs

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


| February/March 1997



02-97-052-shaker-herb-1.jpg

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


Photography by Paul Rocheleau

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.

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