The Room Where Starch Happened

We recently reopened to visitors to the Canterbury Shaker Village the galvanized iron- and tin-lined room in the Laundry Complex. It is yet another example of the Canterbury Shakers’ labor-saving ingenuity. It also helps us understand how the Shaker Sisters cared for and extended the life of the community’s textiles. And it is a story of everyday science and domestic thrift applied to commercial enterprise, with a timeless lesson about sustainability.

Large laundries are, by definition, humid spaces. This metal-lined room, with its cast-iron stove, provided a dependably arid environment of radiant heat in which to dry textiles—and do so more efficiently. Saving time was good management of labor and the movement of knit goods the Shaker Sisters began to manufacture for commercial sale in 1886. In Brother Irving Greenwood’s (1876-1939) “Buildings Journal” we find this entry, dated 1904: “Fix Small Dry Room in lower hall. Line it with Galvanized iron and tin asbestos to make it fireproof.” 

The Room Where Starch Happened
Small and in some ways unremarkable, this metal-lined room saved Shaker sisters plenty of time and labor.

Fire was ever on the Canterbury Shakers’ minds, given the necessity of wood to fuel their industries and heat their living and work spaces. On August 23, 1880, the newly built Dry House (to dehydrate apples) next to Laundry burned down when the new kiln constructed within its walls caught fire at its first testing. “Providentially however,” the Shakers noted, “the Laundry adjoining was saved as was also one half of the Dry House.” Brother Irving’s addition “to make it fireproof” compels us to imagine that the Brethren’s conversations about construction included fire risk reduction. 

This “Small Dry Room” could be put to multiple purposes. In 1968, Eldress Bertha Lindsay (1897-1990) recalled that this space, designated as Room 4, was “fixed like this for the starching of the ladies’ collars and cuffs and also for the gentlemen’s shirts. And so it was tin lined to give it protection against moisture.” Starch absorbs water from the atmosphere and would become gelatinous if exposed to too much humidity. (See? Even the study of historical everyday life includes science!)

Elder Henry C Blinn
Elder Henry Blinn wearing what he described in his history of Shaker Brethren’s dress: a starched detachable collar and shirt bosom.

According to Elder Henry Blinn (1824-1905), the Canterbury Brothers’ shirts were, at the turn of the twentieth century, “made with a starched bosom…. The collars are of the same patterns as worn by the world, and may be of paper or linen as best suits the pleasure of the wearer. Long and starched cuffs are attached to the shirts or the cuffs may be bought.” And so these items needed starching every time they were laundered. 

The Laundry Sisters made starch in copper pails stored in Room 7. Textiles were dipped in the starch and water mixture, dried in Room 4, and then taken upstairs to the Ironing Room, where the textiles were (you guessed it!) ironed. In the September 1883 number of The Shaker Manifesto, edited at Canterbury, this starch recipe from Scientific American (to which the Canterbury Shakers subscribed) appeared:

To starch collars, cuffs, etc. so that they will be stiff and glossy as those bought at furnishing stores, add to one quart of well boiled (corn) starch three ounces of water gloss, one ounce of gum Arabic, and two ounces of loaf sugar.—Use polishing iron.

Sad and Polishing Irons
Sad (meaning “solid”) and polishing irons in the Laundry’s second-floor Ironing room. One of the polishing irons is turned sideways.

A polishing iron, one of many available to the Laundry Sisters, was a smaller iron with concentrated weight at either or both ends, and rounded on the front, bottom, and heel. The face (bottom) often had a cross-hatched or otherwise incised surface. Lots of pressure while rocking this iron resulted in the desired gloss (or glaze, as it was sometimes called in the nineteenth century). It was hard work, taking the starch out of the ironer while using the iron to put starch in collars, cuffs, and shirt bosoms.

When it came to textiles, the Shakers practiced sustainability. The use of starch eases the ironing process and provides a garment or article of household linen with a clean and crisp look. Starch also provides a cost-effective barrier against dirt. Detachable collars and cuffs were turned when showing signs of wear. These practices extended a garment’s life—or lives, since it could be adapted to new uses. 

Understanding how the Canterbury Shakers made and cared for textiles is critical for caring for and interpreting the Village’s collection. As we continue to inventory the collection (part of a three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services) we are finding textiles that date to the Village’s earliest years. Examining the care with which the Shakers Sisters made and laundered textiles also reminds us how we may extend the lives of our clothing and household textiles.