Shaker history begins in the early eighteenth century. The derogatory term Shaker referred to members of The United Society of Believers, an offshoot of the Quakers. Because of the animated manner in which Society members worshipped, they were called Shaking Quakers and eventually simply Shakers. The Society was Christian and its membership reached its pinnacle in the mid-nineteenth century when some 6,000 members lived on nineteen different utopian communes across the eastern United States (Sprigg and Larkin 20). Members were not born Shakers; rather they joined the Society voluntarily because of deeply held religious beliefs. When they did, they donated all their material possessions to and lent their personal talents for the betterment of their commune, called the Family. Communes were self-sufficient villages in which work was divided equally among members. The Shakers strongly believed that to work hard was to worship God (Ibid 188). According to June Sprigg, former Curator of Collections at the Hancock Shaker Village, “Whatever they held most important for the good of their souls – honesty, utility, simplicity, purity, progress, order, precision, economy – they felt should be part of the things they made…” (Sprigg 5).
To the outside world, the Shakers seemed to be extremely conservative. Yet Shaker furniture belies that belief and demonstrates that they valued versatility. Because of their communal lifestyle, each maker had to be skilled in other areas in addition to cabinetmaking. The Shakers were progressive in their belief in the equality of the sexes; however they assigned communal tasks based on traditional opinions of women’s versus men’s work. Cabinetmakers were men who made furniture in the winter and in the summer farmed and cut wood (Sprigg and Larkin 112, 121).
Shakers became known for ingenious techniques. An influential example is the tilter, a ball-and-socket device inserted in the back legs to protect the floor if the sitter leaned back. To construct the tilter, holes were drilled in the back legs a couple of inches from the bottom and in the bottom of the foot. Leather strips attached to the tilter were threaded through the holes and kept it in place. Tilters were normally wood; however brass was also used as well (Sprigg and Larkin 163). In the mid-twentieth century, designers in the Sculptural Modern style were influenced by the ingenuity of the Shakers. Specifically, the Shaker tilter was the prototype for the ball and socket foot used on chairs by Charles and Ray Eames (Bates and Fairbanks 346).
As the nineteenth century progressed, elements from the various Victorian-era styles including Renaissance Revival, Stick-Style and Eastlake were adopted by the Shakers (Kirk 210) & (Nicoletta 73-74). When Austrian bentwood furniture became popular in the outside world, the New Lebanon community that operated the commercial factory adapted this style in a rocking chair (Bates and Fairbanks 346). As the nineteenth century drew to a close, membership in the Society was in rapid decline. Precipitating the decline, in addition to cultural factors, was the Shakers’ inability to compete in the industrialized furniture business. Shaker craftsmen, despite their ingenuity and adaptability, were conservative in their techniques and bound by tradition. It was the attention to detail and handiwork that made each piece unique. Paradoxically, this uniqueness contributed to the eventual end of furniture production. Popular machine-made furniture appealed to the outside world because it was trendier. Pieces were not unique; being made by machine made them uniform (Sprigg 28-29).
Despite the ultimate demise of the Shaker lifestyle and furniture production, the Shakers influenced designers in later periods. The International Style of the early twentieth century had many of the same design elements including utility, simplicity, minimal ornamentation and smooth surfaces. The main difference between these two furniture styles is method of production and materials. Shaker was hand-made, took time and was constructed of wood. International Style was machine-made, designed for rapid production and constructed of varied materials (Sprigg 78-79). The Sandows Chair by René Herbst is an example of a utilitarian line constructed of steel and rubber.
In the late twentieth century, mass-produced furniture in the Shaker style became popular and is still favored today. The current preference for open spaces in homes coupled with increasing accumulation of material goods makes Shaker influenced built-in storage popular. In the late 1990s, designers Peggy Deamer and Scott Phillips designed a house in Sagaponak, New York based on Shaker elements.
Despite its reputation as being simple and pure, the history of Shaker furniture was as rich and complex as the people who made it. The ideals of simplicity, practicality and grace elevated the style beyond that of a vernacular tradition to one of international influence and longevity. Ubiquitous Shaker styled furniture of today is a mere imitation of the original. And it is the original that will likely continue to inspire designers of the future.
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