This framed piece of fabric was given to the Shaker Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr., in 1953 by Sister Marguerite Frost of the Church Family, Canterbury, NH. Williams’s son, Warden, recalled that his father was at Canterbury negotiating for the purchase of a number of objects for the Museum. By this time some of the Shakers had become invested in and committed to helping him establish a museum that they hoped would tell their story. Some had become particularly fond of Williams himself. At the end of the session, Sister Marguerite handed him a paper bag and told him not to open it until he got in his car. “Dad forgot to pick up the bag when he left the room and the Sisters had to come to his car and hand him the bag,” said Warden. When Williams had driven down the road a bit, he stopped the car and opened the bag to discover it contained a piece of fabric from the dress worn by Mother Ann Lee on her voyage from England to America in 1774. Warden remembered that this moment brought his usually stoic father to tears. The fabric is flanked by two pieces of paper with an inscription identifying the fragment on one and its provenance on the other: “Given to Sr. M. E. Hastings when at Mt. Leb., N.Y. in 1846. By her presented to Sister L. A. Shepard 1885.” Marcia E. Hastings (1811-1891) was a Canterbury Church Family Eldress and received this gift during a visit Mount Lebanon. In 1885 she passed it on to Sister Lucy Ann Shepard (1836-1926), best known for her work as a Canterbury Trustee responsible for the cloak business. The fabric was framed by the Shakers and was probably displayed in the community rather than being secreted away. Similar remembrances exist in several collections. The Shakers kept and protected them over the years, treasuring the connection they provided with early pillars of their church.
The fabric has been identified as hand woven of hand-spun linen tread, but has not been definitively dated to the period of the Shakers’ ocean voyage. While there is no reason to think the piece is not legitimate, its authenticity is of little importance. What is important is that the Shakers believed it was real and treated it as if Mother Ann Lee had indeed worn it aboard Mariah sometime between May 10, 1774, when the small group of Shakers left Liverpool, and August 6, 1774, when they disembarked in New York City.
Years later, a poem title, “Last Remains of Mother’s Wardrobe, … Carefully preserved by Jennet Angus,” Watervliet, N. Y., was written about this or one of the other remembrances of Mother Ann. The manuscript poem is preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society Library:
Who come to Mother’s fold,
May feel some satisfaction
This relic to behold;
To know that Mother saw it,
And held it in her hand;
To know it cross’d the Ocean
With her, from Britain’s Land;
Will please her faithful children,
And bring her spirit near,
The Mother of all Zion,
Who lived and suffered here.”
This object is on display at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon this summer in the exhibition Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage. Supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and celebrating the centennial of women winning the right to vote in New York State, the exhibition opens with objects associated with Mother Ann Lee and a discussion of her role in founding the Shaker Church. From the beginning women were afforded a more significant role in every aspect of shaping the sect’s beliefs and practices than in most other churches or in society in general. The Shakers’ belief that God is both male and female and the example of a charismatic female founder and leader afforded Shaker women an advantage over groups believing in a paternalistic God-head.
The exhibition is accessible by guided tour only, Fridays through Mondays at 11:00, 12:00, and 2:00. Learn more by clicking here.