How the Amish Work

Fashion, Finance and Commerce

Perhaps more than any other creation, "clothes make the man." This fact is why the Amish dress simply. It is how they acquired the nickname "The Plain People."

Men wear black suits without lapels or buttons, shirts in white or blue mostly, black suspenders, black shoes or boots and broad-brimmed hats in black felt or natural straw. Women wear a frock type dress of mid-calf to ankle length with black stockings, an apron, black shoes or boots, black cape, and either a white "prayer cap" (if baptized) or a black hood. Solid colors only are worn, never prints, and darker colors are favored. One cannot give hard and fast rules on dress since there are numerous subtle variations from one community to the next. The idea is that the limited wardrobe eliminates the pride and envy that come with fashion one-upmanship, as well as wasted time (What will I wear today?) and wasted money (My clothes are so out of style!). Men wear cropped hair, and beards (if married), but no mustaches, as they associate mustaches with military officers. Women do not cut their hair, but keep it wound on the head and always covered once baptized.


The Amish make their own clothes, but they normally purchase fabric and thread from a dry goods store. Items such as hats, shoes and suspenders can be purchased ready-made.


The Amish, particularly those of Lancaster County, are often perceived to be wealthy. If this perception is true, it is not because of income, for income in hard cash is low. Most of a family's net worth is in real estate, and a lot of that wealth has been created by rising real estate values. If you also consider that an Amish family does not spend as much on food, clothing, entertainment, transportation and gadgets, a small income goes a long way. The Amish do not borrow, and therefore pay no interest. They also farm with less equipment. Cash and barter are used as much as possible.

How does an Amish family buy a farm, handle loss or cover unexpected expenses? Family and community are the bank and the insurance company. All community members are expected to contribute a share of their income to the "community pot." Likewise, it is the duty of all to lend assistance to those in need. A young couple is not expected to be able to buy a farm. It will be purchased for them with assistance from family and community.

A growing population and escalating real estate prices have put a strain on Amish finances, yet they have managed to cope and continue to prosper.


Although the Amish wish to be cut off from the non-Amish world, they do have a need to trade. In commerce, they prefer to deal with a few trusted individuals. "Mom and pop" shops are more to their liking than big chain stores. Mennonites are ideally suited to this role since they share many of the same values, but do not share the need for separation. It makes a lot of sense. A modern supermarket or department store is a mighty marketing machine -- just what the Amish wish to avoid.

"Mom and pop" or general stores with buggies out front are natural magnets for tourists. Sometimes, these stores end up catering more to tourists than to the Amish. A small business person who wishes to do business with the Amish does well to set up on a back road and to depend on a small, hand-lettered sign or word-of-mouth. Tourists will not usually stop at these places, but the Amish will find them.

If a member of the Amish community has something to sell, he can always sell to a middleman for cash. The middleman can then sell the items from his shop. A more recent Amish product is the utility shed. A shed dealer will have some model sheds on his lot; a customer picks one out and places an order. The dealer contacts his Amish builders, and when the sheds are ready, he comes by in the truck, pays the builder, picks up the sheds and delivers them to the customers. How do the Amish get the materials? They place an order with a lumber yard, which delivers the materials and accepts payment.

A few Amish sell directly to tourists. They can make more profit selling this way, but they are not trained salespeople and do not take credit cards, so most Amish go the middleman route.