Shaker Crafts from the Index of American Design
The Shaker church in American was founded by Ann Lee and seven followers who came from Manchester, England, in 1774. After an early settlement near Albany, the Shakers founded in 1786 what was to be their central colony at New Lebanon, New York. There, they were able to form an independent, communal society where they could live, work, and worship without persecution. The Shaker sect was distinguished from other communal groups by the strict religious tenets that guided every aspect of life. Shaker life was modeled on the vision of a heavenly kingdom in which "true gospel simplicity" was the cardinal principle. Purity of mind, harmony, and order were the most esteemed Shaker virtues. The qualities of harmony and order were translated into the design of articles for daily life made by Shaker craftsmen. Shaker design is distinguished by simplicity of form, harmonious relationship of parts, good workmanship, and utility. Because ornate forms represented a worldliness that they had abandoned, the Shakers kept decoration to a minimum and eliminated veneers. Belief in the sanctity of labor and emphasis on the quality of each task were essential elements in maintaining the high standards of Shaker craftsmanship.
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing was the official name of the Shakers, or "Shaking Quakers." They earned the name Shakers because of their group dancing, which was an important feature of their religious service. In the decade from 1837 to 1847, Shakers were immersed in an intense emotionalism expressed in elaborate rituals, in visions, and in various psychic experiences. Spirit drawings were received as "gifts" or visions from God. Never regarded as art, they were sacred, pictorial drawings of divine revelations. The Shakers' Millenial Laws placed restrictions on the use of decoration, but through spirit drawings, the Shakers revealed a delight in the ornamental. In this example, the Shaker sense of artistry is expressed in the variety of symbols used. The heart is a symbol of love; lamps and candles represent heavenly light; doves, birds, and the falling feather reflect the daily speech of the Shakers. The clock signifies mortality, while the trees, a common symbol in spirit drawings, represent the Tree of Life.
Weaving was a craft assigned to Shaker women, known as "sisters." They produced a variety of fabrics such as woolens, cottons, linens, and silk. Although made primarily for use within the community, Shaker fabrics were sold to the outside world as well. Shakers usually shunned decorative designs, but they were not opposed to the restrained geometric patterns that were readily produced on the loom. By incorporating three colors -- blue, tan, and white in these pieces -- designs could be woven that expressed the Shaker appreciation for pattern and color.
To make work more efficient, Shakers adapted many common items to specific purposes. This bean sieve was made by adding holes to the bottom of a basic basket design. The careful workmanship and perfect symmetry of the weave suggest the high standard of quality required of even the simplest articles.
Although the various Shaker communities shared the same beliefs and organization, differences were reflected by certain designs. This rug, from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, shows an exuberant decorative pattern not found in rug designs of the New England communities. Shakers used several techniques for rug-making, including braiding, tufting, and shirring. In each case, wool threads or pieces of woolen cloth were sewn to a cloth base. This rug was made with dyed rags shirred and sewn to a gunny sack backing. Shaker rugs were often colorful and the designs lively; this one suggests a symmetrical scheme that has gone slightly awry.
Though Shaker dress conformed somewhat to prevailing styles, it emphasized simplicity. A favorite color used on wood and fabric alike was a warm brown made from butternut bark. Though subdued colors reflect the humble, self-effacing Shaker spirit, bright colors were not eliminated entirely. The man's costume incorporates a blue vest with a brown coat and trousers. In length and cut, the coat retains a lingering suggestion of eighteenth-century style. In keeping with their religious beliefs, Shakers rejected individualism in costume.
Though Shaker dress conformed somewhat to prevailing styles, it emphasized simplicity. A favorite color used on wood and fabric alike was a warm brown made from butternut bark. Though subdued colors reflect the humble, self-effacing Shaker spirit, bright colors were not eliminated entirely. The woman's costume has tight, narrow sleeves, a triangular kerchief, and a bell-shaped skirt that completely obscures the figure. Even so, severity is relieved through the use of white and orange with blue trimmings. In keeping with their religious beliefs, Shakers rejected individualism in costume.
Shaker simplicity is nowhere more evident than in chair design. Outwardly straightforward, each element of the design was carefully considered for greatest efficiency in use. This is a tilting chair named for the device attached to the back legs. A ball-and-socket joint was invented by the Shakers so that the chair could be tilted backward without having the legs scratch the floor or cause unnecessary wear of the rugs. Shaker chairs were famous for being light in weight yet sturdy. Because they were light they could be hung on the walls while the floors were being cleaned; their sturdiness provided durability over many years. The seat of this chair is made of cane. Caned chairs were uncommon except at the colony of Enfield, New Hampshire.
The trestle table had its ancestry in early European styles. Shakers transformed the heavy, ornate style by narrowing and lightening the trestle ends to dimensions still sufficient for rigidity and strength. The variation they introduced succeeds in combining beauty and utility. This table was made especially long and wide to be used in the communal dining room of a Shaker village. The chairs are unlike those typically made by Shakers. The legs are bulbous with a pronounced taper toward the top and bottom. The spindles on the back, with a small diamond-shaped ornament, suggest the nineteenth-century Windsor style popular in the outside world. Made in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, these pieces reflect a more elaborate style than was common in most Shaker furniture. Even though the sect emphasized uniformity, difference among the communities were nonetheless evident.
Candlestands, like this one, were a standard item in each Shaker bedroom, or "retiring room." They were typically made of cherry with a round top and a slender shaft which expanded downward to a tripod base. The legs curve outward to form graceful arcs. Candlestands were usually about twenty-five inches high and could serve a variety of uses within the room.
In this piece the Shakers adapted the basic pedestal table, such as the candlestand, for a specialized use. Drawers have been added on opposite sides of the table so that it could be used for sewing by two sisters at once. The tripod base of the candlestand has been modified to a four-legged variety here. As in other pedestal tables, stability of the vase-shaped base and pedestal shaft has been insured by the precise calculations of Shaker craftsmanship.
Because efficiency and order were dominant themes in Shaker life, many types of cabinets and chests were built for storage. This cabinet is also a secretary. It was used by trustees of the community who were responsible for all business matters with the outside world and with other Shaker communities. Because the cabinets and drawers are identical on each side, the secretary could be used by two trustees. The fall front, used as a writing surface, provided sufficient space for both to work at the same time. Because storage was important, the piece is equipped with ample drawers and cupboards for efficient organization of papers and documents. An interesting feature of Shaker secretaries is that craftsmen found no advantage in sacrificing drawer space for the sake of recessed kneeholes.
Built-in cabinets were a standard feature of most Shaker rooms. By building in drawers and cupboards, greater efficiency was achieved in utilizing available space. Often, built-in cabinets were stained, like these, to provide a contrasting color scheme. The knobs, stained darker than the cabinets, furnish an interesting visual pattern. Rows of pegs lining the walls were another standard element of interior design. Used for hanging items such as chairs in addition to coats and hats, pegs served to keep a variety of things neatly out of the way.
Chests, like this one, were made for storage of blankets and other bulky items. Of the traditional features of chest design, only the slightly projecting lid, the reduced keyhole, and the slightly projecting base remain. In the place of carved or painted panels common in chests of the outside world, Shakers allowed the grain of the wood alone to decorate the immaculate expanse of broad surface.
Little more than cots, Shaker beds were derived from traditional eighteenth-century styles. They had simple, low headboards and measured less than thirty-six inches across. The holes bored around the frame were used to secure ropes that served as springs. The legs of this bed are set on rollers so that it could be easily moved in order to clean the floors. Though this one retains its natural wood finish, Shaker beds were often painted green.
This kitchen piece is a type of washstand or dry sink set on a cabinet. The high back protected the wall from splashing water, while the space below provided a small storage area. The Shakers showed a fine appreciation for the natural beauty of the material. Made of white maple, the sink has a light stain that enhances the decorative grain of the wood.
Clocks, such as this one, were found in Shaker dormitories and shops. Its design is a simplified version of the traditional New England clock. Ornamental features have been deleted, and only the major elements of the classic base, shaft, and capital have been retained. An exception to Shaker custom, Benjamin Youngs followed the tradition of other clockmakers by inscribing his name on the face. Shaker craftsmen were not usually permitted to sign their works, for this represented a display of personal pride.
John W. Kelleher (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), North Family, Shaker Colony (object owner), Shaker Stove/Built-in Closet, c. 1938, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.13677
Shaker stoves were distinctive for their plain, clean lines in an era when most woodburning stoves had at least some decoration. Shakers simplified the basic stove design and emphasized features that enhanced efficiency. The shape of most Shaker stoves was rectangular and low, so that heavy logs could be easily placed inside. The metal door, set into the baseboard behind the stove, is for the convenient disposal of ashes.
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