Sister Lizzie Curtis
Mary Elizabeth Curtis, Shaker seamstress, sweater manufacturer, and machinist, was born October 14, 1844 in Hartford, Vermont, the daughter of Raphael and Cynthia (Gould) Curtis.
As a teenager in 1859, she came to live with the Shakers and in her new family she was known as Lizzie. Her brother George came to Enfield about the same time, deciding to be a Shaker farmer instead of staying on the family place in Norwich, Vermont. Probably these young people had some idea of what their new life would be like because their father Raphael had lived with the Shakers for 8 years when he was a boy.
We do not know what educational opportunities Lizzie had in Norwich, but she had only one term of schooling after coming to Enfield. When the girls’ session ended in September 1860, her subsequent learning opportunities were informal, experiential, and practical. At age 26, she was identified as a seamstress in the 1870 U.S. Census.
In 1882 Lizzie, who did not serve in a leadership position, was nonetheless chosen to participate in an important trip: “Elder H.C. Blinn, Elder A. Perkins of Enfield N.H., Eldress Rosetta Cumings & Lizzie Curtis go to Mt. Lebanon N.Y. to confer with Elder Harvey Eads of South Union Ky., concerning the revision of the Church Covenant.”
All Shaker societies had been operating under a covenant that had last been revised in 1830. Since that time many court cases had been brought against the Shakers involving property rights and compensation for labor. Lawyers had warned the Shakers that the language, if not the intent of the covenant, needed to be strengthened to better protect Shaker societies. Among the proposed revisions, the covenant would more clearly define the duties and obligations of trustees, particularly in relation to selling communal property, making commercial investments and taking on debt. Males and females would be given equal voice and privilege in the use of money, sisters would be made trustees with an equal voice in all important matters, and the right of appeal to the ministry would be granted to members.
This trip provided New Hampshire leaders an opportunity to review and comment on proposed revisions. Whether Lizzie was a participant in or only an observer of these important deliberations, the experience of being included in the trip must have been profound for her.
Back at home, most of Lizzie’s attention was given to the community’s textile industries. The Enfield Shakers had been producing knitted products using a combination of hand work and knitting machines since at least the 1840’s. In 1843 on a visit from Mt. Lebanon, Elder Giles Avery was struck by the variety of home manufacture at Enfield’s Second Family. “The sisters particularly have some very profitable trades here. They make hair sieves, clay pipes and knit great quantities of shirts, drawers, footings & mittens for sale, the most of which is done on knitting machines, a curious invention, cost about $60.” By 1854 another Mt. Lebanon visitor, Elder Calvin Reed, would note, “They have done quite a job at making knitting machines in this family.”
At the Church Family an entire building was erected as a knitting factory. Harvard Shaker Brother Thomas Hammond wrote in 1851, “Saw two knitting machines & a twister going by water.” The next year the New Hampshire Journal of Agriculture reported, “They use considerable wool in the form of yarn, knitting mittens, stockings, drawers, and undershirts for the same market. These two last are knit by machines of which they have four in use.” In addition to acquiring the latest knitting technology, the Shakers invested heavily in imported Merino sheep to enhance the quality of their wool. Producing reliably high-quality merchandise allowed the Enfield Shakers not only to sustain, but also to expand, their knitted woolens business over decades.
Lizzie Curtis was an important contributor to that expansion effort. In the late 1880’s she began accompanying Trustee Caroline Whitcher on buying trips to Boston. In 1890 she, Sister Victoria Hewes, and Trustee John Bradford made a business trip to several cities “connected with the knitting machine department.” Lizzie became responsible for the production of an important new product line, Shaker sweaters.
As revenue from sweater sales increased, references to this line of work began to appear in Enfield’s “Home Notes” section of the Shaker’s monthly journal, The Manifesto. In January 1890 issue of The Manifesto (p. 19) it was reported, “Another [Enfield Shaker] company are employed in the manufacture of “Sweaters” (a heavy knit shirt) and of late have been quite busy.” In the January 1891 issue of The Manifesto (p. 18), they reported, “Our Sisters have more orders for heavy knit goods, (sweaters) than they can conveniently fill.” And again, in the February 1892 issue of The Manifesto (p. 43), they advised that the business was holding steady, “Heavy knit goods (better known as sweaters) are at present in great demand.”
The knitting machines were run by waterpower and in February 1893 the Sisters were hampered in fulfilling an order for twenty dozen sweaters because “a cold wave blocked the streams with ice so there was no running water sufficient to run all the machinery.” Despite such setbacks, the sweater industry, headed by Sister Lizzie, maintained its importance as a branch of home manufacture.
It was a point of great pride that revenue generated by sales of Sisters’ work allowed the community to do much needed exterior painting of their large buildings. Sister Ella Briggs wrote in the “Home Notes” section of the August 1892 issue of The Manifesto (p. 186), “We are thrice glad to say that the laundry is receiving a new coat of paint with very appropriate trimmings; whoever has visited us recently, will of course recollect how wretchedly it looked, and be glad with us; if the Brethren “continue on” and paint other buildings we will tell you that also; the paint was purchased with money coming from Sisters’ sale work, so considering both paint and painters, it may truthfully be called Home Industry, which is the better part of the story.”
In addition to filling wholesale orders for their products, the Sisters set up sales booths at many agricultural fairs in Vermont and New Hampshire where their sweaters were a featured item. Some years the sweaters were awarded prize money for outstanding quality. As the Sisters fanned out across the region to sell, Lizzie usually remained at home ensuring a steady supply of merchandise for the fairs. Occasionally, though, she was one of the sellers. In 1898 she, along with Sisters Mary Darling and Henrietta Spooner, took their wares to Blodgett Landing, a wealthy enclave on nearby Lake Sunapee.
Lizzie’s contribution to community life was not limited to textile production. In the July 1898 issue of The Manifesto (p. 110), Enfield’s “Home Notes” report, “Our three strawberry beds, set out and managed by Sisters Isabella Russell and Lizzie Curtis also promise a large crop of our favorite berry.” And though she did not leave a written record of her spiritual life, in 1897 Lizzie was one of four Enfield Shakers who attended the summer spiritualist camp meetings at Lake Sunapee where they preached and sang the Shaker testimony. Their meeting attracted “a good audience.”
In 1919, as the Enfield community was in the process of relocating its members to Canterbury Shaker Village, a photograph was taken of the seven sisters who remained to do the work of closing the village. Five of those pictured did move to Canterbury in 1923, but Lizzie did not live to see that day. She died September 25, 1921 at her Shaker family in Enfield, less than three weeks before her 77th birthday and is buried in the Enfield Shaker Church Family Shaker Cemetery.
Several Canterbury Shakers joined the Enfield community for her funeral. Announcing her death in the local paper the family wrote, “She had been with the Shakers of Enfield for over 60 years giving all the years of active womanhood to the interests and service of her Home, and Church.”
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen