Posted on 8 October 2019
The Shakers were a breakaway group of Quakers who became renowned for designing and making furniture, especially tables and chairs.
In 1774, a small independent group of English Quakers left home for America and conducted possibly the largest and most successful communal experiment in American history. They were known as the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers for short, because of their ecstatic movement and dancing during worship.
Separating From The Outside World
The Shakers separated themselves from the outside world to create a self-sufficient way of life and several small communes were formed. Members grew their own food, constructed their own buildings, and manufactured their own tools as well as household furnishings. They also adhered to a strict set of rules governing their behavior, dress, and domestic environment.
Although they lived a strict life, the Shakers were socially progressive and believed in racial and sexual equality, pacifism, and common property. Celibacy was also part of Shaker orthodoxy and as a result members had to recruit people from the outside world to prevent their communities from dying out.
The Shakers believed that every object in the home should have a function and that decoration was unnecessary. Two of their favourite sayings were:
‘Whatever is fashioned, let it be plain and simple and for the good’
‘Beauty rests on utility’
Because they also believed that the quality of their work was a testament to God, each item they made was painstakingly honed to perfection.
- open plan
- simple, uncluttered
- limited colour palette of red, blue, yellow and blue-green
- handcrafted wooden furniture
- natural materials
- hand within a heart motif – it meant ‘hands to work and hearts to God’
To support their communities, Shakers sold surplus food and goods to outsiders. By the 1860s, chairmaking had became a staple industry of the overall community. With their turned posts, slat or ladder backs, and woven seats, Shaker chairs were simplified versions of a centuries-old design that remained popular in part because the component parts were comparatively quick and easy to produce.
When marketing their furniture, Shakers trumpeted their attention to detail and quality in an era when mass-produced furniture was synonymous with shoddy construction.
Membership in Shaker communities declined steadily after the American Civil War. The ascetic lifestyle and fervent spirituality proved no match for the pull of modern life, and by the early 20th century, many Shaker communities had ceased for want of new members.
Today, no Shaker’s communities remain, but the classic well-built simple chair design proves as popular as ever and is now simply sold as the Quaker Chair.
Original Shaker furniture is highly collectable and many items are in dedicated museums across the United States.
Images from shakervillageky.org