Shakers first came to America from England in 1774. Led by the prophet Ann Lee, this small and radical group of English Quakers believed that the millennium—the thousand years of peace with Christ before the end of the world—was at hand. Known as the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, because of their penchant for ecstatic movement and dancing during worship (a physical response to their sense of being infused with the spirit of God), these religious dissidents surrendered themselves to God and emulated Christ’s pure and humble life on earth.
Shaker communities were largely self-sufficient: in their attempt to separate themselves from the outside world and to create a heaven-on-earth, members grew their own food, constructed their own buildings, and manufactured their own tools and household furnishings. Believers abided by a strict set of rules governing their behavior, dress, and domestic environment. These rules were codified in the Millennial Laws of 1821, which was revised and greatly expanded in 1845. Although they lived under rigid statutes and ordinances, the Shakers were socially progressive and believed in racial and sexual equality, pacifism, and common property. Celibacy was also part of Shaker orthodoxy, and as a result Believers had to recruit people from the outside world to prevent their communities from dying out.
The guiding Shaker principles of honesty, utility, and simplicity found expression in various crafts: furniture, boxes, and textiles made by the Shakers are renowned for their minimalist design and unstinting quality. Rejecting excessive ornament because it ostensibly encouraged the sin of pride, Shaker furniture makers focused on overall form and proportions, developing creative solutions such as asymmetrical drawer arrangements and multipurpose forms to add visual interest without resorting to pure decoration. Most Shaker pieces were originally painted or stained, both to protect the wood and to make it more attractive. Colors were strictly regulated by the Millennial Laws, with blues, greens, reds, and yellows the most popular and monochromatic treatments preferred. Many pieces that now have clear finishes were repainted or refinished by subsequent owners.
The first generation of Shaker furniture makers were converts who had previously worked in the outside world before joining the Shakers. Already familiar with the prevailing Neoclassical fashion for rectilinear and attenuated forms and restrained ornamentation, they took these impulses even further, eliminating veneers, inlays, and carving. Shaker tenets held that manufactured goods should be honest in construction and appearance; therefore “deceitful” practices such as veneering and applied ornamentation were incompatible with Shaker beliefs. While other furniture makers used imported woods such as mahogany and rosewood, Shakers used local American woods such as pine, maple, and cherry. In place of imported brass drawer pulls, Shakers substituted simple turned-wood knob.
To support their communities, Shakers sold surplus food and goods to outsiders. By the 1860s, chairmaking had became a staple industry of the New Lebanon community in New York. With their turned posts, slat or “ladder” backs, and woven seats, Shaker chairs were simplified versions of a centuries-old design that remained popular in part because the component parts were comparatively quick and easy to produce. When marketing their furniture, Shakers trumpeted their attention to detail and quality in an era when mass-produced furniture was synonymous with shoddy construction.
Shakers were constantly experimenting with labor-saving devices and much of their furniture was made with the aid of circular saws, mortising machines, and steam-powered lathes. Using these power tools, Shaker furniture makers reinterpreted traditional forms with an emphasis on utility and simplicity. For instance, they modified the standard “trestle” table by moving the medial stretcher up from just above the floor to directly underneath the top. On a functional level, this created more leg room and avoided damage to the stretcher, while aesthetically, the open base made the table appear lighter and less cumbersome. Similarly, the Shakers developed distinctive chairs with a low, single-slat back, which could slide under the dining table or hang on wall pegs when not in use. To maximize space, Shaker case furniture was either “built in” to the room itself or, if freestanding, designed to fit specific areas.
Membership in Shaker communities declined steadily after the Civil War. The Believers’ ascetic lifestyle and fervent spirituality proved no match for the pull of modern life, and by the early twentieth century, many Shaker communities had closed for want of new members. In the 1930s, Faith and Edward Deming Andrews recognized that the Shaker movement was disappearing from the historical record and began to document remaining communities. Largely through their efforts, Shaker culture and design became the subject of scholarly inquiry and museum exhibitions. Shaker furniture made for the outside world or rescued from newly closed communities became highly coveted by collectors.
The Andrewses amassed a large collection of Shaker furniture and domestic items, much of which now resides in museums throughout the country, including the Metropolitan. By the 1960s, the Museum was actively collecting Shaker furniture and, in the 1970s, acquired a room from the Shaker community of New Lebanon, New York. Today, the objects displayed in the Shaker Retiring Room and in The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, in tandem with the Shaker textiles in the Antonio Ratti Textile Center (which are light-sensitive and can be viewed by appointment), form one of the finest public collections of Shaker material in the world. The simple, timeless aesthetic of Shaker design is preserved here for future generations to study and admire.
Nicholas C. Vincent
Department of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art