Following the Rules

For about one hundred years, the Canterbury Shakers made their own rulers. Fashioned of planed wood and incised with rules—the markings along the edge—a ruler allowed for efficient and accurate recording and transfer of information. The basic unit of length or distance has historically been based on the human body, especially the hand and the foot. In the United States, the standard ruler is 12 inches, or a foot.

“The Shakers’ famous furniture depended on the humble measuring ruler.”

The Shakers’ famous furniture depended on the humble measuring ruler.
To contextualize the Village’s latest exhibition, For Shakers, By Shakers: Canterbury Shaker Furniture from the Collection, curatorial staff created a small exhibition case displaying on measuring rulers. This is an image of the final layout before the rulers were wrapped in tissue, carefully boxed, and then taken to the Carriage House to be placed in a Visitors’ Center vitrine.

Rulers were used in nearly every building in the Village, including the School House. Elder Henry Blinn, who was at one time a student and later a teacher at the Village school, recalled that in 1839, the “larger part of the school had homemade books of unruled paper. We could borrow a rule and pencil, and rule our own books, or write without a line.” What the pupils had to copy was provided by the teacher, either on a slip of paper or written on the top of a page in each student’s book. Elder Henry noted that “these books were so valuable that after we had written the page once over, we turned it in an opposite direction and ruled it again for writing.” Near the end of his life, he wrote that “the book was turned [again] and twice more the pupils wrote diagonally, that no space might be wasted.” (Such cross-hatching of lines of cursive handwriting has vexed researchers ever since!)

The Village’s children learned order and rule in their copybooks as they learned to read and understand the principles of conduct in the sentences they inscribed on the horizontal (and hopefully parallel) lines they had drawn. For Elder Henry, the copybooks were valuable because the paper from which they were made was costly; the “economy in the use of writing paper was one of the essential lessons of the day.” Valuable, too, were the meaningful passages about good behavior and uplifting verse copied within the copybooks’ covers. More uniformly ruled lines held ever more neatly handwritten reminders of goodness and godliness. 

A close-up of this folding ruler reveals initials to the left of the 1” mark. Maker? Owner? More research in our future.
A close-up of this folding ruler reveals initials to the left of the 1” mark. Maker? Owner? More research in our future.

The same schoolhouse ruler could be, and was, used in other of the Canterbury Shakers’ activities. The shoes, spinning wheels, and furniture made in the Brethren’s Shop and Carpenter Shop required various rulers, including a carpenter square and folding rulers (invented in 1851). In the Sisters’ Shop, the North Shop, and the Laundry, rulers were used to measure cloth and clothing. The Canterbury Shakers used a machine to ensure uniformity of all the rulers they made. The youthful hands that worked pen, ruler, and paper became skillful enough to work rulers to making clothing and shoes, poplarware and bonnets, beehives and barns. Keep to rule and follow the rules. Take measure of one’s self, confess, and improve. The perfection the Shakers sought in their earthly work was as progressive as it was power, though: Change or reject rules when unfair and unjust. 

A ruler is a measure. A measure is a standard that provides for comparison and assessment. At this time of year, we all take measure of ourselves. The historical Shakers are lauded for the “perfection” of their design aesthetic, especially in wood. For this utopian sect, though, both earthly and spiritual perfection were intertwined, their material world a reflection of the promise of their belief and a measure of their earthly progress and devotion to God’s rule. Following the rules on a simply made length of wood leads us, as historians, to understand better the Canterbury Shakers.