Living with antiques: Shaker

Shaker law and practice forbid private ownership except in rare cases, and craftsmen were discouraged from signing pieces. As a result, assigning provenance to most pieces involves a kind of practical archaeology; after some thirty-five years of looking, asking, and reading, Russell can usually determine from details of the joinery in which workshop and within a few years when a piece was made. Here and there, though, bits of history have survived in this collection. The near vertical drop of the cabriole legs of a candlestand in the farmhouse living room, for instance, indicates that it was made in the Alfred community in Maine, Russell says. Eldress Fannie C. Casey of that community presented it to a Catholic priest whose order, the Brothers of Christian Instruction, purchased the land and buildings from the last Shaker inhabitants in 1931.

A little cherrywood box (Figs. 6, 6a) made at the Harvard village provides a glimpse of Shaker personal life. Inside, along with a pair of sewing scissors, is a prayer book with an inscription noting that it was a gift from Catherine Walker to her daughter Annie on her twelfth birthday; Shaker converts may have taken up a life of celibacy, but emotional ties endured.

Sometimes the pieces themselves tell the stories. There is a table with legs that unscrew so that the whole can be folded up. “The original tailgate table” as Russell describes it. The table was made to fit into the back of a wagon or buggy by the Canterbury Village Shakers of New Hampshire so that they could take it with them when they went out on the road to sell wares, herbs, or seeds.
And there are mysteries—the blanket chest over drawers in the downstairs hall, for instance (Fig. 10). Why was an extra small locking drawer pieced into the front panel? Analysis of the construction reveals that the drawer is original to the piece, but judging from the awkward way it is enclosed, by a wooden tunnel running through the well of the chest, the drawer was an afterthought. What caused the craftsman to rethink his work? Did the user for whom the piece was intended belatedly reveal some special need? Because Shakers typically had little or no private property, locked storage was uncommon in their furniture. What then was secured in here? The only thing that is certain is that this feature is not reproduced in any other known surviving Shaker chest over drawers; the piece is unique.

Observers of the contemporary antiques scene have remarked on the irony of the fact that interest in the craftsmanship of the unworldly Shakers should have boomed during our generation of public excess. Certainly, there is something strange about an auction where people bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a table or desk that was never intended to have an owner. Russell tells the story of an encounter between Edward Deming Andrews (1894–1964), the pioneering Shaker scholar and antiques dealer, and one of the last of the brethren of the Mount Lebanon village. When Andrews asked to buy a candlestand by the Shaker’s bed, the brother refused to sell. That candlestand, the brother pointed out, was where he put his watch at night. So disturbed was he by the thought that the candlestand might be removed, he screwed one of its feet to the floor. The point, Russell explains, was not ownership—the Shaker did not say it was his table, and there were many possible replacements in the nearly vacant community. For him, it was a matter of function: that was where he put his watch.

Perhaps what we seek in Shaker furniture is an antidote. Its famous simplicity and graceful functionalism was, after all, no accident. In their pursuit of a godly life, the Shakers tried to follow what they saw as divine principles in their dwellings and community. Their furniture’s style was a reflection and an enhancement of a philosophy of living that was deliberately spare, honest in its avoidance of superfluous decoration, and selfless. You built not to flatter a custo-mer but to satisfy a collec-tive need. Because work was a form of worship, the joinery was not hidden. Rather, you crafted it so perfect-ly that the joinery became a chief beauty of the product.

You cannot live with such things, Russell’s farmhouse collectors say, and not be affected by them. The chairs around the kitchen table have low backs; Shakers wanted to be able to push their chairs under the table after a meal to keep the space orderly and simplify the after-meal cleanup. Such a chair may not provide as much support for your back, but from a certain perspective, that is an advantage. One of the collectors says that when he comes to this table, he thinks of the elders who used to gather around it to direct their community. At such a table, you sit differently.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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