M. Stephen Miller is a retired dental specialist whose collecting, researching, and writing activities have focused on the Shakers and their industries for about thirty years. Recently, we spoke about his new book, From Shaker Lands and Shaker Hands.
ephemera: What inspired you to create From Shaker Lands and Shaker Hands?
Miller: The last and only good study of this important but almost forgotten subject--the Shaker industries--was published in 1933. These commercial activities are what allowed the Shaker communities to even exist--let alone to thrive at times--for 220 years! I have studied the Shaker industries for the past 25 plus years and have amassed a collection of some 16,000 items related to both the products of these many enterprises and the materials needed to bring them to the marketplace--ephemera. It seemed to me that it was time for a new and more comprehensive look of this subject; it also seemed to me that I was the logical one to do it.
ephemera: It is an amazing accomplishment. What does the book tell us about the history of Shakers in the United States?
Miller: The Shaker communities, right from the beginning, lived apart from what they called "the World," yet they were never isolated from it. In fact, within ten years of their founding (in the 1780s) they found that they had to develop commercial enterprises in order to secure materials that their relatively self-sufficient communities could not produce--sugar, salt, glassware, metals, etc. Thereafter, the history of the Shakers and the history of the United States became intertwined on at least the level of trade and commerce. The Shakers also gave the World innovations such as garden seeds in individual packages for planting small "kitchen gardens," a wide variety of medicinal herbs to meet the demands of a new and expanding interest in alternative medicine, and both dried and vacuum-packed foodstuffs for home use.
ephemera: It's such a rich and fascinating history. Talk about the obstacles you encounter while putting this book together. How did you overcome these challenges?
Miller: My main challenge was an organizational one--so many industries, so many objects--so little space. At first, the publisher gave me a limit of 240 full color images. Gradually, I was able to get them to agree to 300--and even this number presented challenges. In the final selection process of what objects to illustrate, I had to keep in mind the thought that the higher purpose of my book was to honor the Shakers, past and present, rather than to "showcase" my own collection. Therefore, I tried to use the smallest number of the best examples I could find to illustrate my points, rather than dazzling my readers with the depth of my own collection. I also incorporated objects from the collections of each of the institutions in the Northeast that have important holdings of Shaker ephemera, as this added a dimension that my collection was lacking.
Miller: I really have no favorite images. As a beginning collector, I was very much attracted to the bold and the colorful. Later, as my goals came into sharper focus--to form the most comprehensive collection of everything that I could find of the products and the supporting ephemera of the Shaker industries--many small and simply-printed objects appealed to me as much as the big and colorful ones, as long as they had something meaningful to say. Having said this, I would point to the photograph on p. 166, my grandson wearing a historically important Shaker-knit sweater set, as my most favorite! I was also very honored that the present-day Shakers agreed to contribute a statement of their faith to the book, the first time that they have done this in more than a generation.
ephemara: What surprised you--or maybe I should say delighted you--the most as you compiled the book?
Miller: My greatest delights were: 1) learning what my collection actually consisted of in ways that I had not really considered and, 2) uncovering more of the stories behind many of the Shaker grown or manufactured products as my research became much more intensive than it had ever been. I was able to learn a great deal from many disparate sources, both in manuscript and in print, that I had never had the time to study previously.
ephemera: Who is your target audience for the book? What will they learn from it?
Miller: My target audience is students of the Shakers and students of ephemera. The value to the former should be obvious. The value to the latter, I believe, will be a fuller appreciation of the importance of ephemera in a very narrow context. There were never more than 5,000 Shakers, among the tens of millions of Americans in the 19th century, yet their influence--by means of the wide distribution of their products and the variety of ephemera needed to support them--was enormous. The influence and importance of Shaker furniture and design, by contrast, is a 20th century phenomenon. Ephemerists can see and learn how one tiny sect has had an impact on our larger American commercial culture in important and surprising ways.
ephemera: Thanks, Steve. This is just the sort of book that a lot of ephemera collectors will find fascinating and entertaining. I appreciate your time in sharing your thoughts about the book.
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