Abstract

When the Shakers established communal farms in the Ohio Valley, they encountered a new agricultural environment that was substantially different from the familiar soils, climates, and markets of New England and the Hudson Valley. The ways in which their response to these new conditions differed by region has not been well documented. We examine patterns of specialization among the Shakers using the manuscript schedules of the federal Agricultural Censuses from 1850 through 1880. For each Shaker unit, we also recorded a random sample of five farms in the same township (or all available farms if there were fewer than five). The sample of neighboring farms included 75 in 1850, 70 in the next two census years, and 66 in 1880. A Herfindahl-type index suggested that, although the level of specialization was less among the Shakers than their neighbors, trends in specialization by the Shakers and their neighbors were remarkably similar when considered by region. Both Eastern and Western Shakers were more heavily committed to dairy and produce than were their neighbors, while Western Shakers produced more grains than did Eastern Shakers, a pattern imitated in nearby family farms. Livestock and related production was far more important to the Eastern Shakers than to the Western Shakers, again similar to patterns in the census returns from other farms. We conclude that, despite the obvious scale and organizational differences, Shaker production decisions were based on the same comparative advantages that determined production decisions of family farms.

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