Hands to Work, Hearts to God: The Story of the Shaker Seed Industry

in HortTechnology

The Shakers were a celibate, communistic religious group, active primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. Well-known for their craftsmanship in making furniture and other household items, their expertise extended far beyond these areas into a broad range of industries, including many agricultural enterprises. Seeds of vegetable varieties were produced and marketed independently by several of the Shaker communities starting in the late 18th century. During the first part of the 19th century, Shaker peddlers were one of a very few sources of vegetable seed for American gardeners, and seed sales comprised a major portion of the Shaker communities' income. Shaker doctrine encouraged excellence and integrity in all their business practices. These characteristics were largely responsible for the Shakers' success in the seed industry, as well as for their ultimate decline. Their enterprise sprang from their rural, agricultural roots and their markets were the small villages and farming communities across the eastern United States. The Shaker seed industry thus developed independent of the market forces governing “the World.” The commercial seed industry, based in Philadelphia (beginning in the first decades of the 1800s), and the Shaker seed industry had little effect on one another until mid-century, when improved transportation and mail service opened rural markets to the mainly city-based commercial seed dealerships. Unwilling to compete with commercial dealers, the Shaker seed industry gradually declined until the turn of the century, when it ceased to exist.

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