New Perspectives on Shaker Life

An Archaeologist Discovers 'Hog Heaven' at Canterbury Shaker Village

By: David R. Starbuck

Originally Published in 1998

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I had concluded a conversation. But informal conversations could often be very revealing about the behavior that was (or was not) acceptable within Shaker society. One day, when I asked Eldress Gertrude why a Sister never smiled in photographs taken of her, the instant—and fierce—response was “because she’s so vain.” On another occasion, when I asked her why a particular Sister liked to tell stories about Brothers and Sisters “running away together,” the response was “she does it to get attention.” In each case, the disapproval was immediate and intense.

With the passing of EIdress Gertrude Soule in 1988, Eldress Bertha Lindsay in 1990, and then Sister Ethel Hudson (Fig. 3), more of our efforts have been directed at unearthing the very considerable archaeolog­ical remains that lie scattered throughout the Canter­bury settlement. While foundations, dumps, and material culture are no match for helpful informants, they nevertheless have revealed aspects of Shaker life that we were quite unaware of. This was especially true in the summer of 1996 when we uncovered the remains of a vast dump inside what was once part of the Shaker Hog House. The evidence we found for Shaker con­sumption patterns at the end of the 19th century has raised profound questions about what it means to he a Shaker and whether there is really anything “plain and simple” about the products that the Shakers acquired from the world’s people. Above all, it has prompted us to ask whether the material possessions of Shakers from one hundred years ago were different in any way from those of their neighbors and contemporaries.


Canterbury became one of the most long-lived and ultimately one of the most influential Shaker vil­lages of the 20th century. Its origins date to 1782, when Shaker missionaries preached in the nearby town of Loudon. Afterward, Benjamin Whither invited believ­ers to join him in communal living on his 100-acre farm. Ten years later, in February of 1792, Whither “gath­ered” his followers into a Shaker community, and a “Church Family” for senior members was established in his farm buildings. Other Shaker Families subsequently took root, consisting of a Second (or Middle) Family for those who had never been married, a North Family for novitiates, and a short-lived West Family.

The Canterbury Shakers promptly added a Meeting House for worship services in the summer of 1792 and a large Dwelling House in 1793. As the needs of their communal society grew, they added workshops, farm buildings, a School House (1823), and a Trustees’ Office (1830-1832) that managed external business affairs. Ultimately, the village expanded to about 4,000 acres, with an economy based on agriculture, extensive orchards, dairy cattle, and light manufactures, including  the production of washing machines, cast iron stoves, brass clocks, and hats. The processing of raw materials was also important, and a highly efficient but low-head mill system was developed, consisting of eight artificial ponds and eighteen mill buildings, all linked by ditch­ing. All together, the Canterbury Shakers constructed over I00 dwellings, craft shops, and farm buildings, of which only 26 stand today. Twenty-four of these are at the Church Family.

  The Shaker Faith in America

Shakers began in Manchester, England, in the mid-1700s under the tutelage of James and Jane Wardley. Later, in 1774, it was their prophet­ess, Mother Ann Lee, who brought the fledgling group to America. As converts established vil­lages in the United States, members came from various urban and rural settings, reflecting a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Their name, “Shakers,” is said to be a contrac­tion of “Shaking Quakers,” reflecting their ecsta­tic dancing during worship, but their proper title is “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.”

At their peak in the early and mid-I9th century, the Shakers never had more than 5-6,000 believers spread among 19 villages in the eastern United States. As decline set in after about 1850, villages began to close and it became harder to maintain the religious zeal that had marked the early years. While only one small community of believers continues to exist, at Sabbathday Lake in Maine, the Shakers have nevertheless often been described as the most successful communal society to take root in America. Unlike the Amish, the Mennonites, or many other communal societies, the Shakers have been extremely pro­gressive in their attitudes toward technology. Given their music, crafts, literature, beliefs, and inventions, the impact of the Shakers upon American life has been considerable, even though one of their goals was to separate themselves as much as possible from the mainstream of indus­trialized America.

Shakerism is very much a Christian com­munal society, but the requirement of celibacy necessitated that new members had to be received from the outside world and then educated in appropriate Shaker behavior. After the initial years of village formation in the late 18th centu­ry, most potential Shakers were accepted as orphans and eventually chose to become members when they reached adulthood. Not all decided to remain, however, and the Shakers were remarkably flexible in allowing individuals to leave if they decided that the Shaker life was not for them.

As the Shakers organized themselves into relatively self-sufficient villages, each of these, in turn, was subdivided into “Families” that consisted of a well-defined hierarchy of Brothers and Sisters (Fig. 4), more powerful Deacons and Deaconesses, Trustees (responsible for business dealings with the outside world), and Elders and Egresses, who were the ultimate religious and secular authorities. While Brothers and Sisters were the most common and performed most of the work in a Shaker community, they were assisted by dozens of boys and girls who had not yet chosen whether to become Shakers.

Orderly behavior was ensured when Millennial Laws were received by divine revelation in 1821 and again telling the Shakers how to live many aspects of their lives.

The community grew from 43 converts in 1792 up to a peak of 233 members in 1843. Many of them had been Freewill Baptists prior to joining the Shakers. After the Civil War, there was a long period of decline, and a great many of the children who had been left as orphans with the Shakers chose to return to the outside world. (The West Family closed in 1818, while the North Family lasted until 1894, and the buildings of the Second Family remained standing until 1915-1916.) Also, by the 20th century fewer men were joining the Canterbury Society, and the village was increasingly dominated by women. Shakerism had always attempted an equality between men and women, but the tasks per­formed by Sisters or Brothers were not defined as interchangeable. Consequently, the death knell for the community was sounded in 1938 and 1939 with the passing of the last Shaker Brothers, Arthur Bruce and Irving Greenwood. Even so, in 1957 the village saw a resur­gence in importance when the Lead Ministry of the entire Shaker Society moved to Canterbury. However, this did not prevent the Ministry from voting in 1965 to close the Society to any additional members, and steps were initiated to allow Canterbury to become a museum village.

Since that time, the village has been transform­ed into a non-profit educational corporation; a wide range of exhibits interpret Shaker life to about 65,000 visitors each year. Much of this transition was guided by Bertha Lindsay and Gertrude Soule, ensuring that the beliefs of the 20th-century Shakers are well represented in what is now a very modern museum setting.

Our early work at Canterbury Shaker Village was focused upon developing a “big picture” of every­ thing that had occurred across 4,000 acres. We deliber­ately resisted the urge to excavate Shaker dumps or foundations because we wanted first to understand how the total landscape had been utilized and to identify which sites had the most research potential after 200 years of continuous occupation. Ultimately, our research design required mapping all of the core areas of the Church (Fig. 5), Second, North, and West Families, along with adjacent fields and the mill system. Sixty-one separate base maps and hundreds of written site reports were prepared, and digging was used only when necessary to confirm a detail on one of the maps. The only time we deviated from this strategy was in 1979 and 1980 when we teamed that some of the foundations at the West Family would perhaps be destroyed by modern farming and bulldozing. Our small salvage effort required digging in and around a number of cellar holes.

We also did a great deal of clearing of ditches and wheel pits in the heavily overgrown mill system in order to facilitate surface mapping. But even here we dug no more than necessary to reveal how the system had operated. True, there were many times when archaeolo­gy was employed to salvage stone drains and small dumps during modern renovations at the museum. Moderately extensive excavations also occurred at the sites of a Garden Barn and a Bee House in 1994, as a prelude to reconstruction. But even this work was not intended to reveal new information about the Shakers.

However, our list of unanswered questions about the Shakers kept growing, and we increasingly wanted to determine whether below-ground archaeolo­gy really could contribute anything new to the field of Shaker studies. Could archaeology demonstrate that some Shakers were “more equal” than others, and could we find evidence for how closely Shaker millennial laws were being followed? Alternatively, could deviations from proscribed behavior be discovered throughout the Canterbury dumps and cellar holes? Most of all, we wanted to examine consumption practices because the widely held attitude that everything about the Shakers was “plain and simple” was seemingly at variance with the equally popular notion that if the Shakers could obtain something more cheaply from the outside world, then they felt it was better to buy it than to keep making the item themselves. Admittedly, we were dubious from the start that there was anything “plain” or “simple” about the Shakers, and we expected that Shaker dumps would bear this out.

Our opportunity to put archaeology (and the Shakers) to the test finally came in 1996, thanks to the awarding of an lntermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA) grant to Canterbury Shaker Village. This allowed an archaeological team from Plymouth State College to conduct extensive excava­tions at several sites in the Second and North Families, permitting comparisons between Shakers in the less powerful families and those in the ruling Church Family. But perhaps more importantly, it allowed us to expose and study an unusually rich dump in the Church Family, containing the refuse from a host of poorly known activities that were significant at the end of the 19th century.


During the spring of 1996, a crew that was installing a culvert behind the Trustees’ Office building in the Church Family discovered a deep, trash-filled cel­lar. Their backhoe had just torn into the center of a foundation, and literally hundreds of bottles, shoes, roof slates, and bricks now lay scattered on the adjacent piles of backdirt. An interior wall of brick could be seen with­in the foundation, and at the bottom of the backhoe trench, a well-built brick floor was exposed at a depth of approximately 89 inches. Not disturbed was the base of a brick chimney that was positioned in the southeastern corner of the foundation.

Recognizing that this dump site might provide a windfall of information about Shaker life and material culture, the cellar was left open so that it could be exca­vated during the summer. Historical sources were reviewed, and it became apparent that several buildings had formerly stood behind the Trustees’ Office. The earliest of these was the very first of the Shaker mills (built in 1797), a combination saw, grist, and turning mill powered by horses pulling in a circular sweep. This probably ceased to be used soon after 1800 as the village’s horse-powered mill system was created at that time.

Next to the horse-powered mill had been the village’s Swine or Hog House, constructed in 1817. This had initially measured 32 by 15 feet and was probably used until the Shaker prohibition upon pork in the 1840s. A contemporary historical source describes this as “a one-story building eighty feet long by forty feet in width” (Hill 1840:113).

We know that at the north end of the Hog House there was a root cellar, also built ca. 1817, because descriptions of the Hog House indicate that “at one end is a well and pump, a chimney with kettle and apparatus for boiling potatoes and other roots, a machine for mashing them when boiled, a meal room with lock and key, and a cellar underneath in which potatoes and other articles that will not bear frost shall be preserved” (Hill 1840:113). This description appeared to match the foundation discovered in 1996, and we concluded that installation of the culvert had just torn up the root cellar for the Hog House. Given the function of the Hog House and its associated cellar, and acknowledg­ing the richness of cultural deposits, we naturally con­cluded that we were “digging in Hog Heaven!” and this name stuck for the remainder of our project.

We also learned from historical sources that the area behind the Trustees’ Office had once contained a small brick Bacon House, built in 1828 for the curing of ham. North of this there was formerly a Workmen’s Lodge (built in 1813) that housed the village’s hired men, a shoemaker’s shop, a workshop for Trustees, and storage. It was destroyed by fire in 1901 and later replaced by a Hired Men’s Shop which stood here until 1959.

During the early years at Canterbury Shaker Village, the raising of hogs was a major industry. ‘While pork production was quite successful, Shaker millennial laws passed in 1845 banned the consumption of pork, at which time the several hog-related buildings fell into disuse, probably including the root cellar. (In the 1840s the Shakers also banned coffee, alcohol, and tobacco. Interestingly, though, small numbers of pigs were again being raised at the village later in the century.) It was during the week that ended on April 5, 1902, that the Hog House was finally torn down, with the records attesting to “the demolition of the old slaughter house, NEW. of Office—an eyesore for years” (Canterbury Shaker Village n.d. [19021:77).


After erecting a pulley system to hoist dirt out of the root cellar, we proceeded to remove the layers of fill from Hog Heaven and to expose the floor and walls for mapping. We discovered that the Shakers had deposited pockets of trash inside a matrix of building materials: bricks, stones, charcoal, plaster, and, everywhere, dense clusters of gray roof slates. The foundation or cellar measured 89 inches deep by 30.5 feet east-west by just over 14 feet north-south. Bisecting the foundation was an interior brick wall that ran north-south across the cellar (Fig. 6); this was poorly constructed of old, reused bricks and was clearly a later (ca. 1880s) addition. Curiously, much of the dirt west of this wall positively stank, rather like a privy, suggesting that this interior wall had been installed in order to create a short-lived privy at the western end of the root cellar.

Lining the bottom of the foundation was a brick floor (Figs. 7, 8) that was slightly uneven because  of frost heaves or tree roots, but nevertheless was unusual­ly well constructed for a cellar floor. A stone-and-brick­lined drain was discovered in the floor, running along the edge of the northern foundation wall.

In the southeastern corner of the cellar, flush against the face of the southern foundation wall, was the brick base from a chimney, probably the same one used in preparing mash for the hogs. It may also have been part of a heating system for keeping the hogs warm. Inside the chimney was loose sand and gravel fill containing bricks and roof slate fragments. There were also artifacts, including bottle fragments and a hand-blown incandes­cent light bulb with a patent date of Nov. 8,1904 (Fig. 9).

The Artifacts in Hog Heaven

The backhoe left a few thousand artifacts lying scattered on the surface of Hog Heaven. Most of these were common 19th-century types, including sherds of whiteware and yellowware, wine and medicine bottles, fragments of pressed glass, tin cans, enamelware, and even the bowls from two tobacco pipes. (These last may have been saved as novelties or heirlooms, for no stem fragments were found in the cellar. After all, by the time Hog I leaven was filled, tobacco smoking had already been prohibited for fifty years or more.) From within the root cellar we recovered literally hundreds of glass bottles; dozens of stoneware bottles, jars, and crocks; over fifty ivory toothbrushes; and dozens of Shaker shoes (probably discarded from the Shaker shoemaker’s operation that once existed next door). Most of these small, personal objects have heretofore been only margin­ally represented within the collections of Canterbury Shaker Village. Some of the more interesting artifact types found within Flog Heaven are the many small brick-sized pieces of soapstone that were probably used as bed-warmers; beauty aids, specifically containers for shoe blacking and hair medication (the Shakers clearly were concerned about their appearance); stays from foundation garments; clay marbles; many combs; bath­room fixtures; dozens of buttons; dry cell batteries; a metal pin shaped like two intertwined hearts; a tooth­brush holder of whiteware (Fig. 10); and several ivory napkin rings.

The ceramic artifacts from Hog Heaven are among the most interesting because ceramics-ocher than stoneware storage vessels—are poorly represented in Canterbury Shaker Village’s collections. These include several intact stoneware jars, jugs, and crocks, as well as several beer or ginger-beer bottles (Fig. 12). Most common, though, are sherds from dozens of trans­fer-printed earthenware plates, saucers, cups, and pitch­ers, chiefly manufactured of whiteware (ironstone; Fig. 11). There also are very small quantities of the ceramic types known as yellowware, Rockingham, porcelain, semi-porcelain, and redware; and there are several sherds of Delft tiles (Fig. 13), probably from a fireplace sur­round that dated to the early 19th century No ceramics have been recovered that definitively date from the 18th century, and none have been found that post-date 1910.

The cellar also contained an extraordinarily broad representation of glass bottles, but only a small number of whiskey bottles, beer bottles, or pictorial flasks. Ordinarily, American household dumps from the 19th century yield large numbers of whiskey bottles, yet here they were extremely rare. However, the presence of several 19th-century wine bottles suggests the Shakers were most likely drinking wine despite the prohibition on alcohol consumption. There also are dozens of fragments of pressed glass from small glass pitchers, relish, and candy dishes.

Most impressive are the great numbers of glass medicine bottles. This is to be expected at any American community of this time period and size, for medicine bottles are abundant in (and behind) every 19th-century building. Essentially everyone in the 19th century used patent medicines to excess, and the Shakers were no exception. However, as many as two-thirds of the bottles discarded into Hog Heaven were medicine bottles, and this is an unusually high proportion. They may have been brought here from the Shakers’ Infirmary building, located about 500 feet away, but we cannot be sure. Most of the medicines found in Hog Heaven derive from the outside world, purchased by the Shakers for their own consumption, so it would appear that this trash derives from buildings where large quantities of patent medicines were being consumed rather than bot­tled for sale (see list of medicines).

The only well-represented Shaker medicine— bottled by and presumably sold by the Shakers—is “Shaker Cherry Pectoral Syrup. Canterbury, N.H. No. I” (Fig. 14). Eleven bottles that once contained cherry pectoral syrup and fragments of 5 to 6 more were unearthed in the backhoe trench in 1996. But the trench also contained bottles embossed with “Doctor Corbett’s Renovating Bitters,” “Shakers, Enfield New Hampshire, Whitcher Anodyne,” and “Shaker Syrup #I.”

The bottles in the root cellar also included many food containers, flavoring extracts, ink bottles, Hood’s Tooth Powder bottles (Fig. 15), glass vials of all sizes, Atlas and Mason canning jars, and mucilage (glue) bottles. In smaller quantities, there are specialty bottles such as piccalilli (relish) bottles, “liquid food” bottles, vanilla extract (“Grand Union Tea Co.”), sewing machine oil, Armour’s food bottles of milk glass, “Listerine” bottles, “Vick’s” bottles, a musterole jar, a bottle of “Humph Homeopath” (a horse liniment), and glass bases of oil lamps.

Metal artifacts were just as common, including thousands of nails, a great deal of tinware (Fig. 16) and enamelware, barrel hoops, sections of metal stovepipe, a coal shovel, a metal ash grate from a stove, a large pitchfork, hundreds of tin cans, tin roofing, and much more. Oftentimes, the smallest metal artifacts were the most inter­esting: pins, a tiny lead pestle, thimbles, cuff links, hundreds of brass grommets employed in shoemaking, and a small sterling silver spoon, probably used for sugar or salt.

Food remains were less well represented in the root cellar, but renewed excavations in 1998 revealed a large cache of butchered cow and pig bones mixed in with the fill on the western side of the cellar. Since the pork industry had ended as much as sixty years before the root cellar was filled in, this is solid evidence that the 1845 ban placed on pork consumption was no longer being observed. There also were many implements made from bone and ivory, notably the dozens of ivory tooth­brushes (Fig. 17).

Because the Hog House was demolished in 1902, we can probably assume that the root cellar was filled in at about the same time. In using the artifacts to establish a chronology for the deposits in Hog Heaven, it appears that most of the trash was thrown inside the stone foundation soon after the turn of the 20th century. However, the artifacts range in date from a few late 18th-century bottles to early 19th-century Delft tiles to great quantities of ceramics and glass from the last quar­ter of the 19th century up through early 20th-century fuses and light bulbs. Thus, trash may have been deposited there any time after the 1840s, and the process of filling may have continued well after 1902.


What is most apparent about this wealth of mate­rial culture is that this Shaker dump is not significantly dif­ferent from anyone else’s dump during that time period, except for a lessened number of liquor bottles and a dearth of tobacco pipe fragments. There is little that is distinctively Shaker-like in appearance, little that was actually produced here. The tinware in the dump was probably made here, as were the shoes, but the Canter­bury Shakers were not making their own pottery, glass containers, combs, or tin cans, and most of their medi­cines were bottled elsewhere. This village was clearly dependent upon the outside world for any number of manufactured products. The Canterbury Shakers consumed the same highly alcoholic patent medicines that the world’s people enjoyed, and were quite attentive to their own personal appearance. They had vast sets of dishes, just like other Americans of their day, and their dumps reveal material culture that is at times gaudy, color­ful, attractive, and attention-getting. In fact, sonic of the artifacts appear quite unlike what might be expected at a Shaker site. The presence of remarkably ornate objects (including the pin with intertwined hearts, the small ster­ling silver spoon, and miniature brass scallop shells), sever­al perfume bottles, stays from foundation garments, butchered pig hones, and several gin and whiskey bottles was quite surprising. Given the location of this cellar alongside the Hired Men’s House, it is possible that some of the artifacts were used and discarded here by hired men and not by the Shakers. But regardless of who actually used these products, the point is that some very worldly goods were being consumed within this Shaker community, and mass-produced wares were everywhere.

There were many things that the Canterbury Shakers never wrote about, and many of their diaries were deliberately destroyed because the contents were consid­ered too personal by those who out-lived them. Most of their buildings are now gone as well, so archaeology may increasingly help to define Shaker life at the turn of the century, when outside influences were pervasive and when dumps like Hog Heaven were created to contain the flood of objects arriving from the world’s people.

Cite This Article

Starbuck, David R.. "New Perspectives on Shaker Life." Expedition Magazine 40, no. 3 (November, 1998): -. Accessed July 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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