While Quakers themselves may not have been much involved in music until relatively recently, the portrayal of Quakers in music goes back quite some time. The earliest years of the religious movement were marked by many incidents of persecution, and anti-Quaker publications from this time are numerous. As Friends maintained and even emphasized their separateness it was inevitable that their way of life would become parodied in many ways, including through music. The materials of popular culture have always relied on the emphasis of extremes (good vs. bad, simple vs. ornate) and in this way musical portrayals of Quakers have served as social commentary on Quakers and non-Quakers alike. Of course, when the characteristics of Quakerly life could help to sell a product, the same qualities deemed strange in one song became something to celebrate in another.


The Quakers’ Fear, written in 1656, is an example of anti-quakeriana in word and format. Not only do the words incite anti-Quaker sentiments, the form, being a ballad to be sung, is further objectionable to early Quakers. The ballad presents the events surrounding the death of James Parnell, a young and righteous Quaker, and says his stubborn hunger strike in Colchester prison caused his death. In reality, Parnell was kept in a deep hole where he was provided a rope to reach his food above. After a serious fall he could no longer make the climb and died of his injuries in 1653.

The comic opera The Quaker by Charles Dibdin was premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1775, but received only a single performance. Yet it was revived two years later and became a success, eventually showing in Philadelphia in 1794. The plot concerns a young woman named Gillian who has been promised by her parents to marry a rich old Quaker named Mr. Steady. Gillian, however, is in love with a young man her own age, and the young lovers must find a way to have Mr. Steady relinquish his claim on her. Before giving in though, Mr. Steady (portrayed on the London stage by a Mr. Bannister) modestly offers his devotion to the young woman. (Score courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia Music Division).


Lionel Monkton’s operetta The Quaker Girl opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1910 and ran for 536 performances. It showed at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Opera House in 1913. The plot concerns a British Quaker girl named Prudence whose life as a Quaker is characterized as dull and boring. Through a series of events Prudence finds herself accompanying an exiled French Princess to Paris where her simple Quaker dress becomes all the rage in Parisian fashion circles.

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In this recording from Lionel Monkton’s operetta The Quaker Girl, Prudence the Quaker girl complains that “Life is very dull for a Quaker.”

I Like Your Apron and Your Bonnet and Your Little Quaker Gown (1911)
There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Town (1916)
All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town) (1919)
An Armstrong Quaker Rug in Every Home (1930)
The Quaker Army Marching Song (1930)

Used as a marketing tool for early 20th-century products from An Armstrong Quaker Rug to puffed wheat in The Quaker Army Marching Song, the stereotypic image of the Quaker also figured into some popular sheet music of the time. Songs such as I Like Your Apron and Your Bonnet and Your Little Quaker Gown exploited Quakers’ plain clothing, while others turned the image of the prim and proper Quaker on its head by claiming that All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town).


As further evidence of the popular nature of Quaker portrayals, All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers (Down in Quaker Town) appeared in sheet music, on both cylinder and recorded disc, and even as a player piano roll. Considered both a form of sound recording, as well as an instrument that could be played by those with no musical ability, the mechanical instrument reached its peak by the mid 1920s when player pianos outnumbered regular pianos in American and British homes.

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This recording of All the Quakers are Shoulder Shakers sung by cabaret singer Bert Harvey was produced in order to help promote the sheet music of the same title. Yet by the time the recording was released in the early 1920s, the Tin Pan Alley style of the piece was already out of fashion and the new Jazz style had taken its place. Consequently the recording, unlike the sheet music that preceded it, did not sell well.

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