Shaker Furniture:19th Century Minimalist Design

Shaker chairs

Photo: Carl Wycoff

The Shakers were a 19th century utopian religious group. They began as the French Camisards immigrating to England in the late 17th century, where they united with the Quakers. They became the Quaking Shakers, due to their active religious services. In 1774, they came to America, buying land in Albany, New York in 1775.

The Shakers lived in communities that were separate from the outside world. At their peak in the mid 1800s, there were 19 communities comprised of 6000 members in the east and mid-west. Their three concepts of living were worship, community, and work. Living communally, they believed in others before self. Genders were equal. Shakers were also celibate, which helped aid their demise.

They believed in humility, purity, simplicity, equality and unity. They made just about everything they used.  Their Millennial Laws dictated rules for building and designing as well as living, with the ideas of order, neatness and cleanliness at the forefront. Designs were therefore simple and furnishings were few.

Shaker furniture: early minimalism

All Shaker furniture has minimal ornamentation.  Forms were basic, and all buildings and furniture were designed for the task or purpose. Each piece was designed with symmetry and refined proportions in mind. .

There were not many furnishings in a Shaker dwelling. There were only necessities. A bedroom had a bed, a candle table, a dresser (usually built-in), a peg rail and a chair.  Shaker furniture is plain, utilitarian, uniform and could be movable or built-in. They are well known for their built-in storage in attics, bedrooms and under stairs.

Photo: local louisville

The uniformity is derived from their shared beliefs. So no matter who built what, each piece was the same as the next. Unity was encouraged, not individuality. Their fine craftsmanship was an expression of their religious belief that work equaled worship.

Wood furniture and the Shakers

All Shaker furniture was made of wood harvested from their own land. In the east, this included pine, maple, ash, birch, cherry, hickory and butternut. In the west, walnut, cherry, beech and poplar were used. Early pieces were painted, but later they were varnished to show off the natural beauty of the wood. Decoration was considered “worldly” and not allowed. Pieces were coded with numbers and letters to show which building, room or task they were made for.

The Shakers are probably best known for their chairs, which they began to sell to the outside world after the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition of handcrafted furniture brought them into focus. This became a major source of income for the group.

Shaker chairs and rockers were ladderbacks with finials as handgrips. The finial shape could indicate where the chair was made. The seats were planks, cane, rush or colored tape. They originally dyed and wove cotton tape for weaving seats, but later bought it. They created simple patterns with the various colors. The arms were flat with a rounded end.

Other Shaker furniture pieces

The Shakers developed tilting back legs, so one could rock in the chair without the front legs lifting off the ground.

Aside from chairs, they made tables, storage units and beds. A trestle table could seat up to 20 people for dining. They made round candle stands as well as sewing tables. Built-in storage and dressers had flat drawer fronts for ease of cleaning. When the Shaker population was high, trundle beds were common as space savers. Single beds were used as their numbers began to decline.

As the Millennial Laws were loosening in the late 1800s, accessories, previously believed to be worldly, were allowed. Beautiful, oval, wooden storage boxes were common as well as baskets.

Today, there is one active Shaker community in Maine, and others have been turned into museums. Shaker furniture is now copied and interpreted in modern materials, but the simplicity of Shaker design remains.

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