The Shakers’ Purity Extended to Style

Editor’s Note: The Shakers were, unquestionably, a very strange sect, but that didn’t stop them from producing what are now exquisite antiques. Let Robert Reed give you a primer on the Shakers and their beautifully crafted creations.

shakersFor the Shakers, there were always two worlds.

One contained their communities and the carefully crafted objects that were expressions of their faith. The other was the outside world.

“The same inner commitment that prompted the Believers to work hard was also responsible for the exceptional quality of their labor,” observed William Kephart, author of “Extraordinary Groups, The Sociology of Unconventional Lifestyles.” Kephart added, “Whether the product was a chair, a table or a broom, the buyer could be assured of top workmanship.”

In the beginning, the members of the religious sect, officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, planned their own communities to be self-contained and have little to do with the outside world.

During the early 1770s, the group broke with the Quakers in England and led by Ann Lee, settled in America. By 1776, the group formed a communal society based on the principles of equality and divine order in Watervliet, N.Y. Gradually the movement grew, and other communities were established in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Whole lot of shaking going on

In 1793, Peter Whitney wrote of Shakers in Harvard, Mass., “They are neat in apparel and furniture. Their houses, which they have erected in this town, are large and commodious and approaching something like elegance.” Early records show the Shakers, named for the dancing and shaking that was part of their very dedicated religious services—in England they were referred to as “Shaking Queens”—very readily adapted to crafting furniture for their own needs.

Shaker baking cupboard

Shaker baking cupboard

From time to time, especially in the early days, Shaker craftsmen were influenced by worldly styles, but for more than half a century, their furniture was simply beyond comparison. “One factor contributing to the stylistic purity of the furniture (and other objects) made from the 1820s to the 1860s was that many of the cabinet-makers active during this period came into the Shaker families as children or young adults,” noted co-authors Jerry Grant and Douglas Allen in their book, “Shaker Furniture Makers.” The Shakers did not believe in having sexual relations. So as not to die out, they adopted children and looked for converts.

By 1840 the Shaker movement had between 4,000 and 6,000 members in 18 different communities from Maine westward to Ohio and Indiana. Individual communities were made up of 200 to 800 people, who were then divided up into smaller families. Sisters did most of the household work and the sewing and weaving of goods, while Brothers did most of the farming and making of furniture.

(For more information about a pictured item, click on the image.)

While goods were sometimes sold to the outside world, they were mainly still constructed for use within the Shaker community. Their skills and quality crafting knew no bounds. Function and quality was emphasized in their products and designs.

Typically, the makers used available woods that were in plentiful supply. Often this range included birch, butternut, cherry, maple and lots of pine and poplar. Some furniture was stained or painted in subdued hues of blue, green, red and yellow.

The Shakers also fashioned and crafted a vast assortment of household goods including oval boxes of numerous sizes for various uses, baskets, brooms, brushes, pails and wooden buckets. Eventually they even made their own heavy metal wood-burning stoves. Indeed, the Shakers are credited with a number of innovations and inventions.

1840 cabinet

1840 red cabinet

The Shakers reached their peak in membership around the time of another major event in American history, the Civil War. By 1875, the Believers were forced to advertise in area newspapers for members, and it was also during this period that the Shakers began more extensive commercial activity with the “outside world.” Initially, they prospered by selling packaged seeds, herbs, ointments, brooms, baskets and ladder-back chairs to the outsiders. Later, sales were elevated to sometimes include cupboards, desks and other substantial furniture.

Because of the widespread knowledge of the Shaker crafting quality, the chairs, for example, became popular in households throughout the United States.

For various reasons, including industrialization and the expansion of the population, the Shaker movement waned during the early-20th century. Fewer people found any appeal in the Shaker way of life, and many of the sect’s communities dwindled in numbers or disappeared altogether. During the 1920s, the Shakers and their wonderfully crafted wares were largely a forgotten phenomenon. Much of that changed in part due to the research and publishing efforts of Faith and Edward Andrews.

The Skinner Auction Gallery in Boston offered an entire auction of Shaker artifacts. Making the sale stand out was the fact that the material had all been purchased directly from Shakers by a single collector. Many decades ago, this person heard that some surviving Shakers still lived in Canterbury, N.H. Upon going there, the visitor was welcomed at the door by a cheerful Sister. Some items were available in their small “antique” shop located in the Shaker schoolhouse and so began what ultimately became a major holding of Shaker material.

Shaker rocker circa 1900

Shaker rocker circa 1900

1880 New England Sahker rocker

1880 New England Sahker rocker

Experts note that furnishings with the original staining or painting intact are highly valued. Many times, Shaker objects were marked with the name of the particular community and occasionally the name of the user or maker.

It is sometimes difficult to specifically date Shaker furnishings, since many followed the same simple design and traditional construction from the 1830s and 1840s on through to the later part of the 19th century.

Although their religious beliefs and stern lifestyle did not endure much beyond the dawn of the 20th century, the objects of their crafting are known worldwide.

by Robert Reed for PriceMiner

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