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Close in view of illustrated buildings, trees, fences, and orchards in pictorial scene of Alfred, Maine.
Detail of A plan of Alfred, Maine, Bussell, Joshua H., 1845. Geography and Map Division.

The Cartography of the Shakers

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The Christian religious group known as the Shakers developed rich cultural traditions known well outside of their communities, from Shaker hymns and music, to architecture and furniture styles. A tradition that may be less well known, however, is Shaker cartography and the pictorial maps they produced to document and memorialize their communities.

Stereograph of group of Shaker men and women wearing traditional clothing and standing by the porch of a building.
Group of Shakers, Irving, James E., [between 1870 and 1880]. Prints and Photographs Division.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known predominantly as the Shakers, are a Christian sect with origins in England in the 1740s, becoming more formally organized in colonial America in the 1770s and 1780s. The Shakers practice a simple, rural, and communal way of life, believing in pacifism, celibacy, hard work, self-sufficiency, and gender equality, among other values. The movement reached its zenith in the early to mid-19th century, counting as many as 5,000 members spread across 19 communities, largely in the Northeast and Midwest. Following the Civil War, however, new religious movements and a rapidly industrializing economy made it difficult for Shakers to find new members and sustain their communities over the years to come. As of 2021, only three Shakers remain in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the last active Shaker community in the country.

In 1834, Rufus Bishop and Isaac N. Youngs set out from the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in New Lebanon, New York to tour Shaker communities in Ohio and Kentucky. Youngs was a lifelong Shaker and prolific diarist whose writings have contributed greatly to current understandings of Shaker history, theology, and way of life. On this 1834 tour, Youngs sketched maps in his journal of the communities they visited. The following year, these sketches were copied by George Kendall and compiled into Sketches of the various Societies of Belivers [i.e. Believers]…. Aside from an interesting regional map showing the journey path of Bishop and Youngs, the maps in this set, as do other Shaker maps from the time, most prominently feature illustrations of buildings in the community, with labels indicating homes, barns, workshops and churches. One of these maps, shown below, renders the central portion of Union Village, Ohio, which was one of the largest Shaker communities in the early 1800s.

Map showing arrangement of buildings in central Union Village, including two inset maps of buildings in outlying areas, with building types, pastures, and meadows labeled.
Union Village: Center of Union Village…, part of Sketches of the various Societies of Belivers [i.e. Believers]…, Youngs, Isaac N. and George Kendall, 1835. Geography and Map Division.
This map set documenting Bishop and Youngs’ travels isn’t the only example of 19th century Shaker cartography we have today. Artist Joshua H. Bussell’s 1845 map of his Shaker community in Alfred, Maine is richly illustrated with vibrant watercolor and an eye for detail, from building labels that often include building footprint dimensions, to expertly rendered architectural forms and wispy trees. Accompanying large scale architectural drawings are further testament to Bussell’s skill.

Map showing Alfred Maine, with pictorial renderings of local buildings and trees, and outlines of farm plots.
A plan of Alfred, Maine. Bussell, Joshua H., 1845. Geography and Map Division.

Artist Peter Foster’s 1849 Diagram of the south part of Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH is another important contribution to this tradition, featuring a lengthy numbered key for defining village buildings. The mapmaker’s humility is expressed in a prominent note in the map’s top-left corner:

“The artist who drew this diagram, not being acquainted with any rules of drawing, hopes it will be sufficient apology for the imperfections which may be found. It is not drawed from any measurement or scale, but the buildings are placed nearly in their natural situation.”

Diagrams of Shaker village with buildings oriented to a network of paths with a numbered key at right.
Diagram of the south part of Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH, Peter Foster, 1849. Geography and Map Division.

To alleviate Foster’s concerns, geographic accuracy is, of course, less important in these maps than their rich documentation of small but vibrant villages. As with music and architecture, mapmaking is another expression of Shaker pride in their communities and traditions.

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  1. Tim, fantastic work. This is a great topic. Well done.

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