The Shakers are universally admired for their architecture and handcrafts. Shakers believed that they served God by approaching every task with care. This care resulted in a distinctive Shaker style of architecture, furniture and decorative arts characterized by traditional Shaker values of simplicity, utility and fine craftsmanship. The Shaker sense of order and neatness is reflected in the clean lines and lack of ornamentation of their designs. Shakers were pioneers of the principles of form and function advocated later by architects and designers such as John Ruskin and Louis Sullivan.
Shakers understood the effects of the physical environment on the life of their communities. The society headquarters at Mount Lebanon established written orders and rules, or Millennial Laws, in 1821 (revised in 1845 and throughout the 19th century) which prescribed proper conduct of Shakers' lives. This doctrine included architectural standards that lead to commonalities of design throughout the geographically dispersed villages. This recorded doctrine clearly dictated the physical characteristics of an earthly paradise. Each community's location would include a site of great natural beauty for worship and rejoicing. Simple buildings were to be constructed in a linear arrangement with carefully tended walkways, roads and fields. Form and color were dictated by their Millennial Law that stated "odd or fanciful styles of architecture may not be used among Believers." Instead, Shakers focused on creating efficient and easily maintained buildings that would inspire a sense of serenity and grace--apropos for the "heavens on earth" they were striving to create. They turned to traditional, rural vernacular buildings as inspiration for their own buildings, the form and symmetry of which were representative of the Federal and Greek Revival styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, the distinctive Shaker settlements were set apart from neighboring communities in their layout, orderly landscapes and the clean profiles and details of their buildings.
Four-story brick Brothers' Shop at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon, New York--characteristic of those found in many Shaker communities
Courtesy of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village
Hierarchy was a central component of Shakers' lives. While male and female believers were considered equals, each community was governed by a ministry of Elders and Eldresses, who lived separately from the younger Brothers and Sisters. Each village was typically divided into three units or "families" of 30 to 100 individuals. The central and most significant family was the Church Family. The other two family units, North and South, were named after their geographic location relative to the central core, and each unit had distinct functions within the whole of the community. Typically the clusters of family buildings were located in a linear arrangement, not more than three quarters of a mile apart. This was a radical departure from the grid layout of typical New England communities. The major buildings in the community--the meeting house, office and primary elders' dwelling--were located within the Church Family complex. Other dwellings and some of the workshops were usually located in an orderly fashion radiating along the main road, while service buildings such as barns were arrayed behind this central axis. As villages grew so did their functions or tasks, which required specialized buildings such as tanning houses, broom shops, cooper shops and spinning shops. Their earliest buildings were wood and painted straw yellow with red shingle roofs, except for the meetinghouse, which was white as prescribed in the Millennial Laws. As the society grew and prospered, masonry materials were also used. Fine granite and marble-faced stone foundations were used for four-story brick buildings in many of the villages. Shaker buildings were often large to eliminate overcrowding and in anticipation of the future growth of each family. Shaker buildings were void of fanciful architectural details as Millennial Law restricted the use of decorative "beadings, moulding and cornices." Elements such as door and window frames, lintels and chimneys, stairways and hardware were all executed with clean lines in the most basic forms. The design solutions for individual Shaker buildings were often devised in response to the demands of communal living. Buildings that were used by both men and women, such as meetinghouses and dwellings, incorporated separate entrances and stairways as their beliefs dictated the separation of the sexes. The interior space of Shaker meetinghouses had to include large, uninterrupted floor space to allow for their religious dances--requiring a huge truss to support the roof. At Mount Lebanon, an ingenious arched roof, or "rainbow roof," was designed for their meetinghouse. Dwellings included communal rooms on the ground floor but carefully segregated bedrooms on the floors above. These large dwellings also necessitated the introduction of interior windows to bring natural light into dark interior rooms. Wood peg rails were a feature of many rooms, built on all four walls for hanging garments, chairs, hats or baskets. One visually dominant building in every family complex was the barn--huge buildings that reflected the importance of agriculture to the Shaker economy. Barns were often built into hillsides, allowing ground-floor access on multiple levels, with hay and grain stored on upper levels and cattle below. Many of the other daily activities took place in large wooden buildings similar in size and form to the dwellings.
Classic Shaker furniture
Courtesy of Shaker Museum and Library
Shaker furniture and handcrafts were also influenced by the concepts of order, utility and durability. As with their architecture, the discarding of any unnecessary ornament resulted in distinctive furniture of simple forms and proportion, often colored with a thin Venetian red or yellow ochre wash. Craftsman did choose some of their most beautiful woods for their furniture such as maple, birch, chestnut, butternut and honey pine. Early Shaker furniture was based on rural English examples. By 1820, the second generation of Shakers unencumbered by other "worldly" influences, was creating pieces considered classic Shaker style--essential forms with clean lines, free of unnecessary detailing. After the Civil War, as Shaker communities were declining, popular Victorian tastes did seep into the designs of some Shaker craftsman as well. It is the classic style that most closely reflects Shaker ideals and dates to the society's most prosperous and creative years. Shakers made all of their own furnishings including chairs, cupboards, tables, beds, desks, bookcases, washstands, trunks, benches, clocks, stools, foot warmers, sewing boxes, brushes, brooms--a nearly endless variety of items crafted with simple elegance.
Collection of Shaker baskets
Photograph by Bill Finney
An essential handcraft at every Shaker village was basketweaving. Shaker baskets were noted for their quality craftsmanship, and were created in a wide variety of shapes and sizes as each basket was designed for a specific use. Shaker craftsman, unlike most other craftsman, designed a piece with the knowledge of its exact purpose and intended placement within a room. Built-in cupboards and drawers were used extensively, and high pine chests were found in nearly every room in dwellings or shops. Beds were made with short posts, as tall posts did not serve a useful function and would therefore be an unnecessary use of wood. These pieces were also popular with "the World" at the time they were being produced, as Shakers generated income by selling their crafts. Popular items included rocking chairs, rugs, brooms, dolls and capes.
|Ladder-back chair |
Courtesy of Shaker Museum and Library
In the late 19th century, the Shakers began mass-producing their ladder-back chair at Mount Lebanon. This chair was based on a common New England form, but refined by the Shakers to create a lighter, more comfortable version with simple finials. The Mount Lebanon ladder-back chair received a medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition for combining "strength, sprightliness, and modest beauty." This chair became so popular that the Shakers acquired a US Patent for their design to ensure continued profits from their production--affixing small, gold decals as trademarks to these chairs. They also obtained a patent for a wooden ball-and-socket chair-tilter--the precursor for that found in all types of chairs today. The Shaker's invention of the circular saw in 1810 transformed the production of furniture throughout the world, and their simple, function design influenced not only American furniture makers, but Japanese and European designs as well. Today, these antiques are revered and widely sought after, as well as copied by modern furniture manufacturers.