Shaker Seed Co. Labels, Collection New York State Museum

Shaker Seed Co. Labels, Collection New York State Museum


From the Collections: Shakers and the New York State Museum 

2024 marks the 250th anniversary of the Shakers coming to colonial America. The Shakers were a small sect of Quakers that started in Manchester, England in 1747. They were formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s First and Second Appearing. Because of the zealous fervor associated with their ritual dance, they were known as the “Shaking Quakers” or “Shakers.”

After migrating to New York in 1774, the Shakers became a communal Christian religious society that flourished in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Principles of their faith included celibacy, equality of the sexes, oral confessions of sins, pacifism, and withdrawal into their communities from the outside world.

The first American Shaker settlement was in Niskayuna (later called Watervliet), Albany County, NY. The second settlement was established in New Lebanon, Columbia County, where the first meeting house was constructed in 1784. Other Shaker communities were founded in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. At the movement’s height, its total population reached about 6,000 in 19 separate communities.

To mark this anniversary, the New York State Museum will post an artifact from its Shaker Collection each month.


Shaker bonnet mold, Mount Lebanon, 1850-1900, NYSM H-1931.2.41 
Shaker bonnet mold, Mount Lebanon, 1850-1900, NYSM H-1931.2.41 


Shaker women were active in many aspects of community life that were not open to women in other communities—they were able to preach, were valued in community decision-making, and participated in a variety of work and industries. Shaker women were also vital in preserving their communities’ history, donating many items to the museum’s collections. 

A new addition to the exhibition “From the Collections: Women Who Lead,” this mold was used for shaping bonnets worn by Shaker women. It was donated to the NYSM by Eldress Emma Neale, of Mount Lebanon. Shaker women's active role in the production of products for use by the Shakers and for sale to the secular world made them adept at choosing important tools, raw materials, and finished goods to donate to the museum, allowing us to tell the story of these industries.  


Shaker Stone

Fountain Stone, 1843
Groveland, Livingston County
NYSM Collection


The Era of Manifestations
In the mid-19th century, the Shakers experienced a religious revival called the Era of Manifestations, or "Mother’s Work." With the gradual decline of Believers who had known Mother Ann Lee personally, new Believers sought to reconnect with the original messages of Shakerism. 

From 1837 to the mid-1850s, this period saw a great deal of excitement and religious fervor in the communities. Meetings were closed to the “World’s People” as Shakers had visions, spoke in tongues, and communicated with spirits. Believers in each community were divinely inspired to consecrate the highest piece of land as a “feast ground” and install a “fountain stone.” The feast was a spiritual one, and the “fountain” offered the water of life for the Believers.

This fountain stone is the only surviving example of a fountain stone from a Shaker feast ground. It was installed in 1847 at the community at Groveland in Western New York. The carved inscription states in part, “Here have I opened a living fountain of holy and eternal waters.”


Shaker Women's Legacy: Preserving History in New York State
The NYSM’s extensive collection of artifacts documenting Shaker communities in New York State would not exist without the foresight of Shaker women. Facing a shrinking population and closure of some Shaker communities in the early 20th century, Shaker women reached out and worked closely with the director and curatorial staff of the NYSM from 1927 through the 1940s. These women included Eldress Ella Winship, Eldress Rosetta Stephens, Sister Lillian Barlow, Eldress Emma Neal, and Sister Sadie Neale of Mt. Lebanon, NY, Eldress Anna Case and Sister Jennie Wells of Watervliet, NY, Sister Alice Smith of Hancock, MA, and Sister Aida Elam of Canterbury, NH. They were forced to make careful decisions, balancing the importance of preserving Shaker history through donations, while also keeping in mind the financial health of the remaining communities by offering some artifacts for sale. Thanks to their work, we can continue to study the influence and contributions of the Shakers throughout New York and beyond! 

Sister Jennie Wells weaving at a loom
Sister Jennie Wells weaving at a loom (NYSM H-xx.9.1823)
Sister Sarah Collins weaving a chair seat
Sister Sarah Collins weaving a chair seat (NYSM H-xx.9.1824)
Chest of Drawers, 1830-1870
Chest of Drawers, 1830-1870, Gift of Sister Lilian Barlow (H-1940.1.646)
Oval box carrier
Oval box carrier, Purchase from Sister Aida Elam (H-1940.9.2)
Fanning Mill, 1840
Fanning Mill, 1840, Gift of Sister Emma Neale (H-1931.2.49)
Basket, Purchase from Eldress Rosetta Stephens (H-1940.4.9)
Electrotherapy Machine, 1822
Electrotherapy Machine, 1822, Gift of Eldress Ella Winship (H-1919.2.1)
Clothing hangers, 1850-1900
Clothing hangers, 1850-1900, Gift of Sisters Emma Neale & Sadie Neale, and Purchase from Sister Alice M. Smith (NYSM H-1930.9.19 & H-1932.1.296)


Sister Phoebe Lane
Sister Phoebe Lane (Credit: Western Reserve Historical Society)


How the Shakers Championed Equality in Early America
The Shakers were revolutionary in their attitudes toward equality. To the Shakers, all are equal in the eyes of God, and therefore all are to be treated with respect. The Shakers accepted converts of any race or ethnicity to their communities as equal members. African Americans joined and held equal status with their white brethren inside the confines of the village.

Sister Phoebe Lane was born in Cornwall, NY, in 1785. Her father, Prime, joined the Shakers at Watervliet in 1802 accompanied by his daughters, Phoebe and Betty. When Prime rejected the Shakers, his daughters decided to remain. Because slavery was still legal in New York State, Prime sued the Society claiming his daughters as property. The New York State Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the women were free to act for themselves. Phoebe remained with the Watervliet Community for 74 years until she died in 1881.


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    The Shakers near Lebanon, published by Currier & Ives, New York, c.1870

    The Shakers near Lebanon, published by Currier & Ives, New York, c.1870
    Collection New York State Museum 

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    Candlestand, cherry, c.1830, New Lebanon

    Candlestand, cherry, c.1830, New Lebanon
    Collection New York State Museum 

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    Carrier with handle, maple, 1851, Canterbury, New Hampshire 

    Carrier with handle, maple, 1851, Canterbury, New Hampshire 
    Collection of the New York State Museum  

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    Vegetable seed box, c.1875, New Lebanon 

    Vegetable seed box, c.1875, New Lebanon 
    Collection New York State Museum

Shakers Online

For more information about the Shaker Collection at the New York State Museum, view the online exhibition, The Shakers: America's Quiet Revolutionaries: