“This being my anniversary birth I will say that washing has been my employment.”
Eldress Sally Bushnell, October 16, 1848
In their earliest days, Shakers washed their clothes in the same manner as their neighbors – they may have even done their first washes in a nearby stream – but more likely they used a wash tub. In the early 1840s Eldress Cassadana Goodrich recorded the prescribed procedure for washing: “Sort your clothes and put every sort and kind together…And whether you wash with soda or without it, have your clothes washed clean, boiled and rinsed well. This with a little blueing will make them look very well … After the washing is finished, clean the tubs, pails and dippers – Don’t forget to be prudent of soap.” Water is a wonderful solvent. Hot water is better and the addition of a little baking soda to soften the water is better still. Soap, bleach, bluing added to the mix may make clothes look even better. While all of this will do good job, a little agitation will free embedded dirt. In the stream, this was done by beating the clothes on a rock or with a rock. In the wash tub it was done with a punch –also known as a ponche, posser, plunger, stomper, dasher, or a beater – to punch the clothes down into the water, flexing the fibers and freeing the dirt.
Luckily for the sisterhood, Shakers quickly began to make mechanical water-powered wash-mills to relieve some of the hard labor of doing wash. Whatever the design of these mills, they all basically jostled the clothes in water and occasionally whacked them with a protruding “fin” or compressed them against the side of the tub to free the dirt. Stubborn stains still had to be scrubbed by hand. Following a good rinse to remove soap, bleach, and bluing, as much water as possible was removed by wringing or pressing.
Shane Rothe (they/them) joined Shaker Museum in July 2023, working with independent curator Maggie Taft on an exhibition for the new museum space in Chatham. Shane is an artist as well as a curator and continues to create in the mediums of painting, sculpture, writing, and performance. Shane holds a BFA from CalArts and an MA in art history and curatorial studies from the University of Chicago.