From the Department of Future Antiquities: The Shaker Simplicity of the Single-Use Plastic Bag

By Joe Fodor

This is the first installment of THE BROOKLYN ALMANAC, a weekly supplement to I Can’t Believe I Did This. It will feature stories by writers and photographers riffing off the borough of Brooklyn. Enjoy!

My heart was heavy on March 1, the day when the ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect in New York State.

I’ll miss those bags, and the convenient way they multiplied into the hundreds. But I will also miss the chance to use my Shaker bag caddie– a two-foot-long tube of fabric with a loop at the end that, when hung up on something and stuffed with plastic bags, provided an inexhaustible supply of free garbage bags.

I call it a “Shaker” plastic bag caddie because I bought it in the gift shop at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker settlement in Maine, the last remaining Shaker settlement, populated by the last remaining Shakers in the United States. Taking it home, it wasn’t hard to see the Shaker influence in its design simplicity and ingenuity, a representative of the sect’s way of adapting to technological change while remaining ineffably part of a spiritual world. Whenever I pull a plastic bag from it I’m reminded of the genius of the wooden clothespin and the straw broom, both Shaker inventions.

The leader of the Shakers, Mother Ann Lee, came to America in 1776 and spent time in Gravesend, Brooklyn, with the religious non-conformists there, before heading up to Albany, where she died in 1786.

Mother Ann Lee Rec’v’d May 19, 1839

• • • • • • • (communicated via planchette)

“one day i shall return to yee as a sack made of stickyness hardened in shape of yonder feed bag, and i shall float through the air like ghostly garbage until i snag a branch, and flap Flap-flap flappity-flap”

Her spirit continued to visit the congregation for decades in the form of cryptic messages, ecstatic visions and occasional outbreaks of uncontrolled shaking during services that would enervate the entire congregation. That characteristic shaking is what gave the sect, officially called the United Society of Believers, its Shaker name, but it’s been nearly 75 years since that spirit whooshed through any Shaker meetinghouse.

At the sect’s peak in the 1840, there were more than 6,000 members scattered in settlements as far west as Ohio and Kentucky. The Shakers were probably the only utopian community in the country that ever thrived. So much so that they became quite wealthy, even after forgoing religious exemption status and paying all their local and federal taxes. Besides farming, they also made beautiful, simply designed furniture, cabinets, and household items such as storage boxes and peg boards. These are now some of the most valuable American antiques ever created.

In considering that my Shaker plastic bag caddie is one of the finer examples of their work, and big-shot celebrities like Oprah collected this kind of stuff, I thought I would go back up to Sabbathday Lake and buy up their entire stock. If I could somehow document their provenance (i.e. save the receipts) and then wait a few years, they would undoubtably serve as fine early-21st-Century examples of Shaker ingenuity and fetch a very handsome price.

The next time my family was in Maine, we visited the Sabbathday Lake settlement during a statewide agricultural open house, and spent time touring the barns with Brother Arnold, the sole-remaining male Shaker, who joined in 1978. Now 60 years old, he spoke slowly and seriously in a cadence and manner from two centuries ago. As an eager student of Shaker history, I was able to tell from his pained expressions that I asked too many questions, and probably made him rethink the next year’s participation in the agricultural open house.

Later that afternoon I returned to the gift shop, ready to execute my plan, but didn’t see the fabric plastic bag caddies. I wandered around, and finally asked the tall woman sitting at the cash register if they had any more of them.

“No, we ran out of them.”

“Do you make them here?”

“A woman in town makes them for us.”

Ahah! I thought. How typical. The Shakers were a practical sect, and their operations were often run by worldly people. Only after we left and returned to “town” (Portland) did I realize that the formidable woman who was uninterested in small talk was Frances Carr, the oldest surviving Shaker, one of only two women, and the only one left to have been raised in the faith since childhood.

Was it the spirit of Mother Ann Lee that kept me from pestering her? Carr died in 2017 at the age of 89, herself the last surviving witness to the final manifestation of Mother Ann Lee’s spirit — the once-familiar “shaking” that swept through the thinning flock at the meetinghouse at Sabbathday, shortly after the end of the Second World War, never to return.

My plastic bag caddie is still in use, though somewhat herniated, its lower region a ragged mess from birthing so many plastic bags. The plastic bags it holds will be going away, never to be dispensed again from most places, but will still wrap newspapers, and will be legal for medicine, carry-out food, and who knows what. You can’t kill a brilliant idea that quickly, but the remaining single-use plastic bags will all die out one day, just like the Shakers. Those bags are marvels of simplicity and efficiency, and because of that have littered the planet — true and lasting evidence of the success of our species.

How fitting that the single use plastic bag law went into effect on March 1, a date sacred to the Shakers. Mother Ann’s birthday fell on February 29, but was usually celebrated on March 1. And, like Mother Ann, the humble single-use plastic bag now belongs to another time.

My plastic bag caddie, a legitimate Shaker antique, will likely be conserved and on display in a museum, hanging limply beside some Shaker furniture, or maybe a wooden clothespin or straw broom. But the single-use plastic bags that once animated it and gave it purpose, those filmy, spectral conveniences, will have departed from this world, like the spirit of Mother Ann Lee, never to return.

From NPR Music News, listen to several Shaker songs.

Joe Fodor is a longtime Flatbush resident and former Senior Editor of the
award-winning Brooklyn Bridge Magazine, who has been engrossed with
Brooklyn oddities and peculiarities for 33 years. As Woody Allen once
said about him, “Just ignore him and keep walking.”

2 thoughts on “From the Department of Future Antiquities: The Shaker Simplicity of the Single-Use Plastic Bag

  1. “Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free …” of plastic bags, but not of the beautiful handiwork of the Shakers or their gentle, inventive lifestyle. A lovely tribute.