by Caitlin MacBride
On a recent morning on WNYC, New Yorkers were calling in to say which song they were washing their hands to. I had turned the radio on as I was waking up and lay there listening to a guy in Queens hum the Star Wars theme song for 20 seconds—the allotted hand washing time. Next up was a mom with four young kids at home—one kid sang a song about chicken nuggets and one sang “the song that never ends.” It was day one of schools being closed for the Covid-19 pandemic and the mom already sounded exhausted.
Listening to all these people talking about washing, I kept thinking about my recent exhibition at Fisher Parrish Gallery, NY—a two-person show with Sam Stewart inspired by the Shakers and their precise craftsmanship and utopian lifestyle. The Shakers, a celibate Christian sect founded in the 1700s, were big believers in cleanliness. They obsessively washed everything and, believing cleanliness was next to godliness, became innovators and inventors of new ways to clean. This was an unusual way of living at the time since germ theory and basic hygiene were still, for the most part, undiscovered. The first and leading Shaker settlement was in Mt. Lebanon, NY, where the Shakers built a series of aqueducts with massive rocks and pipes that led water from the town’s natural springs to Shaker village’s homes, kitchens, and workshops. Each Shaker village had a washhouse building—a large building entirely devoted to washing, drying, and pressing laundry. Water was also used to fuel the industrial power used in the mills and woodshops.
The Shakers weren’t alone in their appreciation of the Mt. Lebanon water. When Captain Hitchcock, the first white man to visit the area, arrived, he found that the Mohicans had designed a small clearing with a spring for bathing built from logs and backed with clay. The Mohicans eventually taught the Shakers how to cultivate and use the medicinal herbs grown in the Mt. Lebanon swamps, otherwise known as the Medicinal Wetlands. In the 1840s, the Water Cure Baths at Lebanon Springs were built by non-Shakers, an elaborate system of pipes and baths that became a destination Manhattanites and others would travel to, believing the fresh spring water could cure to all sorts of ailments, especially skin and immune system problems.
I haven’t managed to find the old New Lebanon Springs yet; but I have swum in a little pond amid the five small Shaker villages in Mt. Lebanon and I imagine it feels just as cleansing. When I first visited, I was instructed which was the nude side and which was the side for bathing suits, which was hilariously exciting since both are fully visible to one another on the small pond.
The Mt. Lebanon Shakers weren’t the only ones to invest in their water systems. The Kentucky Shaker settlement of Pleasant Hill had the first system of running water in all of Kentucky. While the Shakers were known for their hatred of the dehumanizing factory labor of the industrial revolution, they were far from being Luddites. They thrived as inventors and were often ahead of the time in agricultural, mechanical, and medicinal knowledge. The gendered division of labor in Shaker villages usually stayed along predictable lines; most believers joined as adults and were already trained in traditionally gendered skills. Women ran the washhouses but also controlled the economics of all their labor, keeping fastidious records of the sales of clothing, textiles, medicinal herbs, brooms, baskets, and bonnets they produced. Among the Shaker inventors, though, there was a good deal of knowledge sharing. Sister Sarah “Tabatha” Babbitt, a famed inventor of many early American tools, designed the circular saw, which she then figured out how to power with water, to help the men in the Shaker woodshop. Brother Nicholas Bennett invented the wheel powered “improved washing machine,” which helped cut down on wear and tear on clothing and saved valuable resources like soap.
The obsessive need to wash everything came from Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee and it ended up protecting most of the Shakers through the Cholera epidemic of the mid-1800s. Cholera is believed to have claimed 150,000 lives in the United States during two waves that swept the country during this era. There are only four reported cases of Shaker deaths by cholera despite their practices of communal living with hundreds of fellow believers. Shakers embraced what historians call “medical environmentalism,” the belief, radical at the time, that good ventilation and clean water would keep people healthy. While most houses in this period were stuffy and dark, Shaker homes had adjustable ventilation door transoms that allowed for free airflow between rooms. Shaker clothing was washed, dried, and pressed on a regular weekly schedule so that believers wouldn’t be wearing soiled unhygienic clothing around, as was customary for people in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When I think of Mother Ann Lee, I think about how her pain, life experience, and what I’d guess would be today diagnosed as PTSD, led to her obsession with cleanliness. She was born in Manchester, England, the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith in a time when cities were claustrophobic and full of horse dung and factory smog. Mother Ann Lee worked in a cotton factory, as a fur trimmer, and as a cook in an infirmary. She lost all four of her children in infancy. She began having religious visions and fled to the U.S. in 1774, after being jailed repeatedly for blasphemy.
I can understand Mother Ann Lee’s compulsive obsession with cleanliness. Her life experience had clearly taught her that washing and water could dispel the possibility of death. What had probably begun as a practical necessity became part of her spiritual teachings. So many different religions have water as a part of their rituals—the Ganges River for the Hindu, the Zamzam Well in Islam, the Shinto ritual of washing in Japan, and, of course, the sprinkling of Catholic Holy Water. People bless their babies with water and wash their dead before burial—in order to make those who can’t wash themselves right with a higher power or with the earth.
I, myself, was raised Baptist and at 14 waded in a white robe into a local lake and was dunked by our pastor, while the community of adults I’d grown up with sang hymns on the shore. While I’ve left many aspects of that belief system, I still have some sort of faith in the water and the land around it. One of Mother Ann Lee’s most famous quotes is, “There is no dirt in Heaven!” Despite my baptism, I was also raised with a father whose mantra was “You gotta eat a pound of dirt before you die.” He’d say this as he brushed the sand off a hot dog I dropped or scooped up one of my little siblings when they face-planted in the garden. It’s hard to imagine a heaven that would be worth having without dirt. My dad, an obsessive swimmer, loves water, but he doesn’t mind dirt. For me, dirt has never been something to be afraid of, just something to keep in check—maybe so you don’t eat more than a pound of it. Luckily, I wasn’t raised in Mother Ann Lee’s time but, rather, in a time where we are all practicing extreme handwashing rituals to protect one another.
I read a short story by Audre Lorde in a publication from CUNY a few years ago. Lorde had elaborate bath rituals—incense, sweet-smelling soap, books to read, and oils. She wrote about setting up her children with their homework or a project so she could have her ritual bath time; this was also a radical act for an exhausted black female intellectual in a time way before any of us had “hashtag self care.” There seems to be an act of caring not just for oneself but for one’s community in the act of washing. The motions and traditions of washing become like a prayer for safety—both in our personal lives and in our cultural belief systems, religious and scientific.
One of the last assignments a drawing student of mine handed in, before the virus upgraded to a pandemic and the university I’m teaching at in Knoxville moved everything online, was a drawing of a pair of hands washing another pair of hands. The word was already spreading that we needed to do a better job of hand washing. Though I don’t have children, the drawing reminded me of the sensation of washing a child’s hands for them. When I taught at an after school program years ago my co-teacher would ask me to do this because she found it exhausting. I’d line up the class and lather and rinse their little hands with my larger hands on top—like some mini system of Shaker laundry washing—both care work and a sort of communal labor line.
As we critiqued the drawing in this college class, we talked about handwashing. Since, at the moment, I’m teaching at a college in Appalachia, I told them that I’d seen a meme that said 20 seconds of handwashing was supposedly the length of four “Jolene’s” in the chorus to the song by Dolly Parton. “Take some drawing supplies home,” I told them, sensing the impending school closure, “remember to use good ventilation and not paint in your bedrooms, and please remember to wash your hands.”
Mt. Lebanon Shaker Museum –Wash: There Is No Dirt In Heaven
Also thank you to the Museum and its staff for their generous help and resources!
“The Shaker “Culture of Cleanliness” – on Shakers and Cholera https://gen-us.net/the-shaker-culture-of-cleanliness/
New Lebanon Town History
CUNY Publication – The Center for the Humanities Lost & Found
Audre Lorde: “I teach myself in outline,”
Check out the Shaker Heritage Society in Albany on Instagram for some recent posts on the Shakers’ relationship to infectious disease @shakerheritagesociety
“Useless Flowers” has been extended and is open by appointment. The exhibition is viewable online here.