Shakers and Herbs, Part One

The Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774. Like most of the new colonists, they brought some herbal knowledge with them. Yarrow, boneset, dandelion (which is not native to North America) are some of the plants brought over from Britain. Although there were doctors, most of a family’s medical needs were served by a wife or mother, midwife – not the doctor. But I digress.

Again like many of the new colonists, the Shakers drew upon the knowledge of the local tribes to learn about the herbs in the woods. At first, the Shakers wanted the herbs to treat the illnesses in their own community. Later, they planted physic gardens to meet their needs. As farmers everywhere do, if they grew a surplus, they sold it. This was the beginning of a thriving  and very profitable business.

Although Watervliet was the first Shaker community, (just outside of Albany several of the old fields now lie under the Albany airport), the Central Ministry was located at New Lebanon in New York (west of Albany.) The herbal trade began here and soon spread to several other communities, Canterbury, NH and Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio among them. AS we all know, the health business is rife with quackery, The snake oil salesman is a caricature of reality for our early history. The Shakers, despite the fact they were considered religious oddities (almost cultists) brought herbal medicines to respectability.

It was also incredibly lucrative. At its height, the business grossed $150,000 annually. This in a time when an experienced carpenter might make four shillings a week. In today’s money, that $150,000 a year would be worth upwards of 2 million.

The Shakers, by the way, kept meticulous records. Besides commercial transactions , they carefully documented what herb was shipped where and what it cost, they kept records of every aspect of Shaker life. The health of every individual was of prime importance. In fact, the Millennial Laws decreed that “As the natural body is prone to sickness and disease, it is proper that there should be suitable persons appointed to attend to necessary duties in administering aid to those in need.” In health care, as in so many other practices, the Shakers were well in advance of the society that surrounded them.

A quick review of the records pertaining to the deaths of these community members and in an age when the life span was between 40 and fifty, it is not surprising to find Shakers passing away at 87, 88 and even 101.

I based my primary Shaker community Zion on Sabbathday Lake which is located in Alfred, Maine. It is still home to the last remaining Shakers. (Three at last count. When I first began my research several years ago there were ten.) A visit to any of the gift shops in what were once thriving Shaker communities reveals packets of herbs for purchase, all packed at Sabbathday Lake. The remaining Shakers continue to labor exactly as they always have done.

Next: a review of some of the less common herbs used and sold by the Shakers.

Dental Health in the late 18th century

First of all, there were no dentists perse. There were surgeon dentists since the people who practiced did both. (Most were men but in 1797 the Columbian Centinel lists an ad from Mrs. Dodge, newly arrived in Boston from New York and claiming expertise in “Art Dental”.) Most of these so-called dentists were itinerants (like my traveling weaver Will Rees.) Not only service people like Rees and the dentists traveled but also ministers, magistrates and other professions. The routes began to settle into regular circuits by about 1800.

But I digress.

Many of these surgeon-dentists were quacks, promising all manner of cures. Some were reputable, however, promoting dentrifice (that’s toothpaste to us) and genuinely possessing some kind of medical training.

So what did these early dentists do?

Well, without novacaine and the drills we take for granted, dentistry was a painful affair. Some reputable surgeon dentists ‘plumbed’ the teeth, scraping out the decay and filling the tooth with gold or lead. (I can only imagine how awful this must have been.) Most decayed teeth were simply extracted with a tool that resembles a corkscrew with a hook on one end. Teeth, by the way, were not pulled but drawn. Interestingly, in light of current knowledge on how dental health affects the entire body, doctors of that time already predicted one’s health would improve with good teeth. No less a personage than Dr. Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, predicted cures for several diseases once a rotten tooth was pulled. It was a case of overreach, however, since not only rheumatism would be relieved but also such ailments as epilepsy,

What about George Washington’s wooden teeth? First of all they weren’t wooden. They were ivory (carved at various times from elephant and hippo teeth,) Washington’s first set were carved of ivory with human teeth inserted and with a hole for his one remaining molar. Sounds awkward and painful both.

And while we are on teeth, Napoleon’s Josephine learned to smile with one hand shielding her mouth since several of her front teeth were decayed. As a child she had a great fondness for sugar cane.

Housekeeping circa 1798 – food preparation

Without refrigeration or canned goods, food was prepared from scratch, usually three times a day. Breakfast might consist of mush, pancakes, eggs – familiar food. Supper was a usually a light meal of leftovers from the noon dinner or mush and milk.

 

So cooking was all day, every day. Churning butter and making cheese, smoking meat (men did the butchering but women took care of the meat afterward) and all the food preservation had to be fitted in around the basic cooking. Churning butter, for example, was a time consuming process. It was usually handed off to a child but since it took skill to pat the butter into crocks this was a task reserved for Mother.

 

Cheese making was another skill. Everything had to be spotless and the temperatures just so.

 

Women prepared meals over an open fire or on the hearth of a fireplace.  (The average household used between 30 and 40 cords of wood a year – equal to about one acre of timber). Stoves had been invented by then. Immigrants who came from countries with wood shortages brought tile stoves. Ben Franklin invented a stove in 1741 – but that were not designed for cooking. The 1800s saw the development of stoves – heavy cast iron devices that h led eventually to the large ranges – but they did not take off until after 1815 or so, until then women cooked over an open fire. If the fire went out during the night, a child might be dispatched to a neighbor for a coal. Otherwise a tinderbox might be used. I’ve seen people demonstrate cooking over an open fire. One woman, who is very experienced at these demonstrations, took three hours to get the fire started.

 

As we all know an even temperature is not possible with an open fire. Some of the early fireplaces had ovens for bread and other baked goods built into the brick surround. It must have been quite an art to determine the right temperature for bread or other food. It also explains the boiled desserts and breads: i.e. Boston brown bread or the boiled puddings. So much easier to boil something in a mold without worrying about the temperature. Think about A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit house. The turkey had to be roasted elsewhere and the Christmas pudding was boiled.

 

Baked goods, while I’m on the subject, were stored in crocks but without plastic wrap, went stale pretty quickly. Baking therefore had to be undertaken several times every week.

 

Most women used the hearth as a cook surface and a variety of pans to cook on it near the fire. The spider, a three-legged pan, was one such piece of equipment used to bake food. The Dutch over was another. Placed on the hearth, they baked the food slowly in the heat from the fire. Women could then turn their attention to other chores.

 

Fireplaces had look swinging handles that could be pushed over the fire to heat water or cook stew. Some of the big pots that women were lifting from floor level, however, weighed 60 pounds. Yes, sixty, and that’s empty. Now add water and meat.  Add that to the likelihood of burning, not only the food, but you as well and cooking was certainly a challenge. So much for the weaker sex.

 

A final note: The stoves and ranges, although an advance over cooking over an open fire, were known to be temperamental. Contemporary accounts from that period talk about the necessary training a girl had to have before she could really use one of the stoves.

American Politics – 1798

After George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with England, France was furious. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the US would not pay back the loans France had extended during the American Revolution. They argued that the loans were from the King and now that France was a Republic the loans were null and void.

In 1798 France began engaging in ‘hostile’ actions: i.e. rejecting American envoys and capturing American ships. These actions unleashed a wave of anti-French sentiment. It was feared there would be a war with France, “Millions for defense and not one cent for tribute” became the rallying cry.

This leads me to the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the summer of 1798 by the Congress dominated Federalist (like our current Republicans). It became harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed the President (Adams at this point who was also a Federalist) to imprison or deport non-citizens who were considered dangerous, and criminalized making critical statements about the federal government (this was the Sedition Act). The Federalists claimed this was to prevent anarchy.

The Republican-Democrats rose up in opposition, particularly the Republican-Democrat run newspapers. Under the new law many of the editors were imprisoned and fined.

James Thomas Callender called the Adams administration “a continual tempest of malignant passions” and the President a ‘repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor”. He was sentenced to nine months in jail and fined $200.00.

Benjamin Franklin Bache called the President “the blind, bald, crippled, toothless querulous Adams” of nepotism and monarchial ambition.

Many aliens fled the country. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, hoping to prevent the worst effects of the new laws, prepared a resolution declaring them null and void and giving the States the right to refuse to follow these laws. (This was done in secret and seems somewhat treasonous to me. Anyway, the resolution prepared by Jefferson and Madison ended up being important during the Civil War when the argument of States Rights gave the South a legal reason for secession – and also showing the importance of consequences. But I digress.)

There was tremendous opposition to the laws. Jefferson repealed some of them during his presidency and pardoned all who had been jailed under the law. Congress paid their fines. In fact, there was so much opposition, there were more Republican-Democratic editors afterward than before, in a kind of referendum on repression.
The law against seditious libel (calling a President blind and ambitious) was repealed and the during the following years the Supreme Court decided the it was in direct opposition to the First Amendment.

Several parts of the law, however, such as the sections relating to Alien Enemies, were NOT repealed. During WWII, FDR used the law to send Japanese descendants (62% who were citizens) to the internment camps. As late as 1947 Ellis Island continued to hold ethnic Germans.

These laws have not been repealed even now and Trump could use them, as he promised to do in 2015, to expel or imprison Muslims.

I don’t know why people think History is boring. Discouraging, maybe, because we fight the same battles over and over, but to me history always has lessons that reflect upon the present.

 

 

 

Goodreads Giveaway

I have begun a giveaway of ten copies of A Simple Murder, the first in the Will Rees history.

A traveling weaver, Rees goes home after some time spent on the road. He find his son. David, has run away. Rees tracks him to a nearby Shaker community but he has no sooner arrived than the body of one of the Sisters is discovered. Rees is accused but quickly finds the friendly farmer in whose barn he had spent the night.

From being the suspect, Rees goes to being the detective. What he finds in the Shaker community will change his life forever.

Next month we will move on to Death of a Dyer.

Speaking Engagements

I had a great talk at the Newburgh Library last Wednesday. I have two more coming up. On Sunday, October 23, I will be talking at the Orangeburg Library – in Rockland County, New York. The talk begins at 2.

The following Sunday, I will be speaking about witchcraft at my own library – the Goshen Public Library in Goshen, New York. Hard to believe but I have never spoken there. I felt shy pushing myself into a slot where I work.

Come and ask questions.