Shakers and Herbs Part 3 -Marketing and Sales

Although Waterlviet (just outside of Albany) was the Shakers’ first home, the herb business there began after the business in New Lebanon, New York – now known as Mount Lebanon.  The community began with a few farms and later expanded to become the largest, most prosperous and most influential. It was considered the most ordered and became the Central Ministry.

Until 1821 only wild herbs were gathered but they were gathered in such enormous quantities that many disappeared and quite a few are on the endangered list. In January of that year they began selling herbs to the World, i.e. to people outside the community. After that they began planting physic gardens.

Waterlviet began selling in 1827 and by 1830 had produced a printed catalog.

The Mount Lebanon catalog soon followed, along with Sabbathday Lake (established in 1794 and the last of the Eastern communities to be established), and the New Hampshire,  the Connecticut and finally the Western communities in Ohio and Kentucky. By 1840 the catalogs were four pages long.

But how did they market? We know they did so (and very successfully too). The market they were entering was sated with exotic elixers and medicines and wild promises to cure every malady.

First, their herbs were marketed as pure and, as their reputation for purity of medicinal herbs grew, the business expanded. (Competitors began advertising their herbs as ‘Shaker’ seeds and herbs.

The catalogs, as mentioned above, became larger and with more material and information in each new edition. Like marketers today, they began offering discounts. An account book from the late 1830s offers a discount of 25% for 25 dollars purchased.

They direct marketed to physicians and included samples.

Their ‘territory’, if you will, was world-wide. They imported coriander to sell and by the mid-1800’s were shipping to London, England and San Francisco. They had a busy river trade up and down the major rivers, the Red River, the Ohio River and the Mississippi peddling brooms, straw hats, socks and jeans as well as seeds and herbs.

After the Civil War, and especially toward the early 1900s, the Shaker membership declined. The herb business also began slipping and many of the business were closed. The Sabbathday Lake herb industry was closed in 1911. Some of the others hung on a little longer. The Sabbathday Lake community is unique in that the herb industry was reestablished in 1960 and I was able to purchase a packet of lavender, packed in Sabbathday Lake, in a gift shop attached to the ruins of the community in Albany.

And most people know the Shakers only for their furniture!

Goodreads Giveaway

I am excited to announce I am giving away 10 copies of Cradle to Grave. Of all the books I’ve written, this is my favorite. I began working on it just when my first grandson was born and my research into the poor laws and the plight of orphans made me acutely conscious of the vulnerability of children. Go on Goodreads to try for a copy.

The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 Medicinal qualities in common weeds

Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.

Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.

Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.

Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.

Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.

They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.

Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.

Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.

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.

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.

Goodreads Giveaway – The Devil’s Cold Dish

Beginning August 1, I am starting a Goodreads Giveaway for A Devil’s Cold Dish. The publisher had a giveaway for only 5 copies. I thought that was less than generous so I will be offering 20 copies.

Devil’s Cold Dish has revenge, witchcraft and murder. As everyone in Dugard turns against Rees and his family, he takes his family to safety with the Shakers of Zion before returning home to find the truth. The question is, will he find it before he himself is captured and probably hung?

I will publish a link to goodreads before the giveaway.

Malice, resentment – and witchcraft

No doubt there were many causes of the hysteria. The summer was cool and wet, prime growing conditions for a fungus called ergot on the rye.  It releases a toxin similar to LSD. So it is possible that people were suffering hallucinations and genuinely thought they saw the devil and women flying around. If so, the climate that summer had a tremendous effect on history.

Another contributing factor: Tituba, a slave owned by Samuel Parrish.  Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, she told Samuel Parrish’s daughter and a group of girls stories which  drove much of the content of the visions. Her testimony and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates.  (Ironically, Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony. at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil.

Then there are the girls themselves. To modern eyes, the easy belief in the veracity of a group of girls is incredible. Samuel Parrish believed in the truth of the accusations until the end of his life. I suspect there is another explanation. Women, and young girls especially, at this time were supposed to be quiet, meek and submissive. The claims  made by these girls and the charges against others in the village put them on center stage. I do not wonder that they kept ratcheting up their stories; anything to keep that attention.

The hysteria ended in 1693. After 1700 reparations began to be paid to the surviving victims and families of the executed. But belief in witches and the trials did not end.  In the new United States a trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) but accusation and hanging by  mobs could still happen.

In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft: in Denmark – (1800), in Poland( 1836) and even in Britain (1863). Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. Accusations continued in  the United States as well.  In the 1830s a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee.

Even as recently as 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.

There were two incidents of note in New York State. In 1783, Ann Lee, the spiritual heart of the new faith now commonly known as the Shakers, was arrested and charged for blasphemy One hundred years earlier she might have been hanged as a witch or devil worshipper. But she was released. Persecution of the Shakers continued however. And Lydia, my primary female character who is a former Shaker, would have been a target.

The final trial for witchcraft took place in 1816 in Nyack. Jane Kannif, the widow of a Scotch physician, lived in a small house on Germonds Road in West Nyack. An herbalist and widow of an apothecary, she treated neighbors that came to her with herbs and methods she learned from her late husband. But she was eccentric. According to the people at that time she dressed oddly, was unsociable and wandered around talking to herself. She was regarded as insane or worse yet a witch. It was decided to take her to Auert Polhemus’s grist mill and using his great flour scales weigh her against the old Holland Dutch family Bible, iron bound, with wooden covers and iron chain to carry it by. If outweighed by the Bible, she must be a witch and must suffer accordingly. She was taken to the mill, put on the scales, and weighed. Since she weighed more than the Bible, the committee released her.

So what happened in Salem? It seems as though the town lost its collective mind.

Despite the attention paid to the accusations and the trials and hangings, for me the real focus lies with the rest of the village, those who saw family and friends turn on them. Think what it must have been like living there at this time. Salem was a small community. Those accused were friends, family and neighbors of their accusers. How could you forgive the ones who hanged one of your family members as a witch and terrorized the others? Especially since the accounts make is clear that  some of the charges sprang from the worst of human nature: greed, revenge and malice. What kind of amends would be enough?  Would financial reparations ease the grief? I know this is something I could never forgive. And I would guess that, despite the end of the witch hunts, this village remained troubled for years. In fact, many of those whose family members had been accused or hanged moved away to a new village called Salem’s End. After those experiences, how could anyone ever trust again?

Although PTSD is not a term they used, I am certain those who survived their experiences in Danvers suffered from it the rest of their lives. People on both sides: the accused and the accusers, changed their names. One of the hanging judges was a Hathorne; Nathaniel Hawthorne added the w. And the Nurse family, right in the thick of the storm, moved away and became Nourses.
That brings me full circle, back to The Devil’s Cold Dish. Rees has a history with several people in his hometown and Lydia, a former Shaker, would surely be suspect. What if -?