Guest Post: Eleanor Kuhns

Welcome back Eleanor Kuhns, talking about how viewing a group’s past through the lens of how they are is not necessarily accurate.

Shakers, alcohol and tobacco

With a group, particularly a religious group, that has had such a long history, I think there is a tendency to see them as they are and extrapolate backwards. Attitudes toward smoking and drinking alcohol, even among the Shakers, have changed so dramatically in the intervening few centuries that that approach is impossible.

Take tobacco, for example. The Shakers made pipes, long white clay pipes. For a time, pipes were one of the goods the Shakers produced to earn money. The remains of kilns for the firing of these pipes have been found during excavations at now extinct Shaker communities. So smoking was part of the Shaker culture and all the Shakers smoked. (We have to remember that the health risks of smoking were not known then. In fact, doctors prescribed smoking as a cure for lung diseases. It makes my hair stand on end to think of it.)

These same changes occurred with drinking alcohol.

Rees’s period, the Federalist period in American History, was a hard drinking age. Ale was used almost like water and was consumed by women and children as well as by men. Rum was used as part of sailors’ wages. Cider, which was usually hard cider (it could hardly be anything else without refrigeration) was a common breakfast drink. Many of our founding fathers took a glass of cider first thing in the morning in the same manner we drink our orange juice. Shaker cider, another of the goods produced for sale as well as community consumption, was prized.

The Shakers not only brewed cider but, like the society around them, drank “spirits.” It was the custom for every Brother and Sister who wished to take a glass in the morning before breakfast and then throughout the day. For dinner the Brothers were permitted two gills and the Sisters two thirds of a gill. (Does anyone but me wonder about the livers of all those drinkers?)

But with the Millennial Laws, especially from 1845 (and the rise of the temperance movement) the drinking of spirits (along with coffee and tea – that would have killed me) was forbidden. No cider was made and no liquor was brewed. One of the primary sources I read discussed the struggle among the Family about brewing beer for the hired men.

For a time spirits were only permitted medicinally and had to be offered from the Doctor.  Eventually they were banned all together. Like other cultural changes, however, this prohibition changed again and later on the Shakers both made and consumed wine with meals.

So the Shakers, like the World around them, adapted as prevailing cultural attitudes changed.


Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.




Twitter: #EleanorKuhns



9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Eleanor Kuhns”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.