Sidebar 13: Lessons from Two Shaker Smoking Pipe Fragments - Kim A. McBride

Shaker landscapes certainly have taught us much about Shaker rural industries, but so have two small, unglazed clay smoking pipe fragments excavated at the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. As David Starbuck notes, the Shakers were one of the most successful Christian utopian societies in nineteenth-century America, and are today known mostly for their craftsmanship and their dancing, which led the outside world to call them “Shakers.” Their song Simple Gifts was made famous by composer Aaron Copeland’s inclusion of it in his Appalachian Spring. This, along with an appreciation of their straight-lined furniture design, has encouraged us to focus on the Shakers as seeking, and representing, “simplicity.” While simplicity was a part of the Shaker lifestyle, too much emphasis on it takes us away from other concepts important to the Shakers, especially those of order and union.

These two smoking pipe fragments excavated at Pleasant Hill are a perfect example. We knew the Shakers used tobacco, even incorporating it into their religious worship in special “Smoking Meetings.” But I found many of the pipe fragments at the Shaker washhouses, where the Sisters (Shakers often referred to women within the Society as Sisters, and men as Brothers) washed the clothing for each communal Shaker family. This suggests that smoking was also common among the women doing hard, tedious laundry work. Our popular image isn’t of Shaker women smoking tobacco pipes!

One of the first things I noticed about the Pleasant Hill pipes was that they were less decorated than those I excavated on non-Shaker sites; ah, there is that simplicity! But as I researched the pipes further, I realized that the problem was more complex. Two specimens included stamped letters, which spelled “Pleasant Hill, Ky”. In the late 1970s archaeologist James Murphy had written about smoking pipes called “Shakers” made by a private company in Akron, Ohio. He hypothesized that these pipes were named Shakers because their form was similar to those the Shakers had made. He had contacted the Pleasant Hill village seeking information on pipe production, but little was available. Pipes with Pleasant Hill stamped on them had yet to be excavated.

The desire to understand these Pleasant Hill smoking pipes led to two avenues of research common in historical archaeology: more documentary research and comparisons with other collections. I had learned that because the Shakers were innovative, and lived lives not typical of the outside world, I often found the best explanations of the things they built and made in their own journals or letters rather than in outside history sources.

Turning to the rich documentary record left by the Shakers, I found an 1810 Pleasant Hill letter that mentioned going “beyond Salt River to get some Pipe Clay.” This helped confirm that pipe manufacture was one industry established at Pleasant Hill. Then, we found two entries in the Pleasant Hill journals recording the sale of pipes, one in 11 March 11 1814, for two dozen pipes for forty cents, and one in September 1814, for six thousand pipes, at two cents each. Numerous entries in the Pleasant Hill journals recorded the purchase of tobacco, usually in pounds or kegs. These entries helped us understand why we excavated so many smoking pipes at Pleasant Hill (over 124 to date), and why some were lettered. Many were intended for sale and carried their own form of advertising right on the bowl.

Even with this greater understanding, the contrast to non-Shaker pipes still intrigued us. Not only are non-Shaker pipes often glazed, and decorated with a variety of borders or molded figures, but their shape is typically shorter and more angular than the Pleasant Hill pipes. Was there a broader Shaker style, as perhaps suggested by the Ohio company’s use of the name “Shaker” for its smoking pipes? We contacted colleagues working at other Shaker villages, and visited several Shaker sites and museums in New England. We learned that this same style of pipe, with some variation in exact dimensions, was made and used at most of the Shaker villages. Archaeologist Kurt Fiegel has documented similar pipes at South Union, Kentucky, and David Starbuck has found similar ones at several New England villages. Archaeologist Leon Cranmer sent me pictures of smoking pipe fragments excavated from Sabbathday Lake, Maine; they look almost identical to those found at Pleasant Hill. We saw more when we visited the Shaker museum and library at Old Chatham, New York. And perhaps most instructive is that brass molds for these pipes have been located at Canterbury Village, New Hampshire, and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. All in all, these pipes speak of the importance of unity and conformity within the Shaker villages, something the Shakers referred to as “Union,” as much as they do about simplicity within Shaker lives.

Yet there is a tension within this unity. Interestingly, I know of no lettered pipes from the other Shaker villages. Perhaps Pleasant Hill was unusually interested in the commercial potential of pipe manufacture. This would not be out of keeping with the documented history of Pleasant Hill within the larger Shaker community, as it was sometimes characterized as overly independent and worldly. And so these two little fragments continue to instruct us!