Strange but true: Some of the most enduringly popular American antique furniture, known as Shaker style, was made not by a single designer, but by a group of people who believed in communal living - and no sex.
Who Were They?
They were the Shakers, a religious sect flourishing for most of the 19th century. One of the most durable of American Utopian experiments, their movement originated with a small band of English emigrants who arrived in New York in 1774.
Known derisively as the "Shaking Quakers" for their frenzied dances and trances during religious services, the Believers (as they referred to themselves) preached that the path to salvation lay in hard work, abstention from worldly pleasures, and constant prayer. They also practiced celibacy and a cooperative lifestyle, one in which all property was jointly owned. When families became part of a Shaker community, husbands parted from wives, and children lived separately from their parents. At its height, the Shaker movement included some 6,000 members living in 19 villages stretching from Maine to Indiana.
As they began making furniture (first for their own use, and later for sale), Shaker craftsmen principally followed contemporary Federalist styles, like those of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, with their ideals of symmetry, proportion and balance. But they simplified these neo-classical lines even further, to an almost ascetic degree.
Mother Ann Lee, the movement's founder, advocated that a piece be made "plain and simple ... unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability."
Instead of intricate inlay, elaborate carving or thick veneers present in other american furniture styles, "the quality of workmanship, sound materials and a smooth finish became the classic elements of Shaker design," note Jonathan Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bates in American Furniture: 1620 to the Present.
The Three P's
The three P's characterizing the Shakers - plainness, practicality, and pride - are reflected in their furniture including their chairs:
- Woods varied by region, since craftsmen used inexpensive local timber readily available. Common woods: maple, pine, cherry, walnut, hickory (especially for items that required bent pieces) and poplar (especially for interiors).
- Legs are delicate and straight: may be square or round, often tapered or with a gentle swelling in the middle. There are either no feet, or extremely simple bracket feet for case pieces; cylindrical, arrow or pear feet for chairs and tables.
- Prominent fasteners include hand-forged nails and double-pins.
- Construction elements include ball-and-socket feet, mortise-and-tenon joints, dovetailed drawers and frame-and-panel structure.
- Furniture is often painted or stained - typically dark red or green, colors that didn't show dirt; yellow and orange were also used.
- Designed for communal living, many pieces are large: dining tables, chests and sewing tables for two people, but they are often light and compact for portability and easy storage. Tables had drop leaves and legs that unscrewed. Chairs, racks and cupboards were built to be hung on pegs. Often, much of a Shaker work's beauty lies in its ingenuity.
- Furniture is not without decorative elements, but the decoration is actually part of the structure of a piece. Especially characteristic features: long 'finger joints'; large, plain, button-like or 'mushroom' knobs; and wide slats across chair backs. Chair tops are adorned with acorn-, pinecone- or flame-shaped finials.
Their Greatest Hit
Along with their finger-jointed boxes and baskets, the Shakers are best known for their numerous chairs. They were probably the first people in the country to use and produce the rocking chair on a large scale, according to Clarence Hornung's Treasury of American Design and Antiques.
Another invention was the 'tilting' chair, a ladder-back side chair with unique ball-and-docket feet allowing it to tilt backwards without straining. Both were so popular in the 1870s the Shakers patented and began manufacturing them for sale to 'the world,' marking them with stencils or stickers reading "Shaker's Trade Mark, Mt.
Lebanon, N.Y.", the site of the Mother Colony.
Changing Styles and Times
Architecture and furniture designs were dictated by the sect's Mother Colony in New York, and those designs remained constant over time. However, regional differences did develop. For example, despite Shaker Millennial Laws mandating "beadings, mouldings and cornices which are merely for fancy may not be made by Believers," furniture made by the South Union, Kentucky colony often has subtle ornamental details. And, contrary to the sect's communal spirit, some craftsmen did sign their work; notable names include Orren Haskins, Amos Stewart, Benjamin Smith, and Eli Kidder.
Many Shaker specialists consider 1820 to 1865 the 'classical era' of Shaker furniture. After that, the pieces began to evolve, growing more colorful and even reflecting contemporary styles which can help to date them. In these later works:
- Commercially made porcelain knobs replaced wood knobs.
- There's an increased use of contrasting light and dark woods.
- Woven cloth tapes, made of colorful fabrics arranged in checkerboard patterns, replaced the caned backs and seats on chairs.
- Pieces are varnished to accentuate wood grains.
Prices and Popularity
In the 1980s, even as the final Shaker villages closed (one active community still exists, Sabbathday Lake in Maine with only two members as of 2017), interest in their arts and architecture began to grow. Large pieces in good condition can fetch prices in the five and six figures. At a Willis Henry auction in October, 2009 at Harvard, Massachusetts (once the site of a Shaker village), a trestle dining table fetched $117,000, while a sewing desk sold for $17,550.
Designed in an era when styles were growing increasingly heavy and ornate, Shaker furniture's lean lines and unembellished surfaces seem especially modern - even familiar - to contemporary eyes. Though technically this would fall into the category of 'country furniture,' Shaker pieces are so carefully crafted they look not rough-hewn, but quite sophisticated.