April 13, 2009 | Our tools are kind and gentle words,
Our shop is in the heart,
And here we manufacture peace
That we may such impart
---"Our Trade," Shaker song composed at Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts, 1872
During the first half of the nineteenth century more than a hundred utopian communities with notions of re-creating heaven on earth sprang up across the United States, including some two dozen-scattered from Maine to Kentucky-founded by the Shakers. In these Shaker villages, life was minutely regulated, duties were clearly assigned, and authority as well. Celibacy was the rule, and the sexes were separated so far as practicality would permit, although men and women worked and worshipped in close proximity.
Shaker religious practices attracted attention from American and European observers alike, most particularly the ecstatic, if not erotic, singing and dancing that earned them the sobriquet Shakers. But while the fundamental impulse behind Shaker life was religious, the sect has come to be best known for its utilitarian aesthetic and superb craftsmanship. Shaker workshops turned out an amazing variety of domestic products that reflected the "gift to be simple." The distinctiveness of their artifacts lay in the combination of their desire for efficiency and their devotion to honoring God through an ordered, industrious life. The lack of decorative adornment reflected a determination not to let anything stand between the believer and God.
In an old-fashioned New England way the Shaker villages were idyllic: the necessities of life were fully, even abundantly supplied; the spotless interiors, gracefully plain furniture, fine herb gardens, and perfectly tended fields were all testimony to their social and economic success. The movement outlived the demise of the Shaker communities through our enduring appreciation for the objects the members created. The first article on Shaker furniture in The Magazine ANTIQUES, by the scholars, collectors, and dealers Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, appeared in 1928. In the years since, a steady succession of articles, books, exhibitions, and collections have continued to celebrate the sense of peace these works impart.
An assortment of nineteenth-century stained maple and pine storage boxes from various Shaker communities adorn a sewing desk attributed to Elder Henry Green (1844-1931) of the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine, 1870. Private collection; photograph by Paul Rocheleau.