The Influence Of Shaker Furniture On Today's Furniture Market

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The Shaker's austere concept of what made for a good life with heavenly rewards was reflected in everything they did and the severe simplicity of their work and the scrupulous workmanship that was insistently practiced resulting in an esthetic standard that anticipated the popular functionalism of twentieth-century American art and architecture. "Principles of Shaker furniture consisted of union (basic uniformity of design), equality of sexes (balance, proportion), utilitarianism (adoption to needs, durability), honesty (mastery of techniques), humility and simplicity (absence of pretense or adornment), purity (a sense of pure form)(Andrews People 126). These precepts placed great influence of every day activities in a Shaker's life; therefore, the furniture produced cannot be greatly appreciated without understanding the people and their socio-religious background.

Shakers derived originally from a small branch of radical English Quakers who had ritual practices of shaking, shouting, dancing, whirling, and singing in tongues. Ann Lee, an illiterate textile worker of Manchester, who was converted to the "Shaking Quakers" in 1758, formulated the Shaker Doctrine.

In 1774 Ann Lee came to America with eight disciples, having been charged by a new revelation to establish the millennial church in the New World. Ann Lee was regarded as the female aspect of God's dual nature and the second incarnation of Christ bringing forth the doctrines of celibacy, Christian communion, and separatism (Shaker Village). America's shift to materialism and the general exposition of doctrines made the Shakers separatist and may be summarized in the definition of "Resurrection State" made by Ann Lee, which declares abstinence and claims that "Weakness of the flesh was the cause of worldliness" (Andrews furniture 12). Settlement in New England and the upper Hudson River is where Lee's doctrine manifest forming distinct religious order of life as well as a specific craftsmanship (Walter Harris).

Ann Lee, later called Mother Ann, had two brothers, William and James Whittaker who dealt largely with primitive Christian virtues (freedom over evil and absolution from sin through public confession). James Whittaker had taken over the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing or Shaker society after Ann Lee had died in 1784. Whittaker had anticipated the necessity of a united society of a common stock when he declared that "the time is come for you to give up yourselves and your all to God-your substance, your temporal prosperity-to possess as though you possessed not" (Andrews Furniture 10). Before Whittaker died in 1787, he directed the building of the first meetinghouse in 1785 at New Lebanon, signifying the advent of a new cult. New Lebanon was the first society to be brought into gospel order and was considered the "fountainhead" of Shakerism and the home of the central ministry. With New Lebanon being the parent colony, the other colonies would base their doings of religion and craftsmanship on New Lebanon's, while the Shaker communities became more attached and uniform. During this time testimony was considered closed and attention was concentrated on consolidating the religious order and giving it meaning and form. Also economic policies were formulated, characteristic industries started, and dwellings and shops erected (Andrews Furniture, 3-5). Later on Meacham became leader and convinced leaders at New Lebanon to adopt "united inheritance" or ideal of oneness with Christ by 1788 (Andrews Furniture, 10).

By the 1800's the Shaker system had become firmly established; its essential principles had become sufficiently operative to affect the activities of the sect; and distinct conventions in workmanship had been adopted. Until the time of the Civil War the culture of the believers retained a pure and unselfconscious intensity. Very precise doctrines and a strict, though not autocratic leadership, dominated the members of the sect. The church persued its unworldly but industrious ways, independent in its beliefs and practices. During this period a rapid growth of society from 1,000 in 1800 to a maximum of 6,000 in 1850-60, which involved a steady demand for domestic appurtenances, that the production of furniture was largely confined (Andrews Furniture 4).

Shaker joiners and wood turners would have to be and were very productive. A joiner was free and self-reliant craftsman who worked by himself, or with an apprentice or two, and though often interrupted by various unrelated duties, he was responsible for each project's skilful and early completion. Profit was not a consideration in the work of the wood turner's shop, and the principle of division of labor and scientific cooperation on which most Shaker industries depended for their success here played a minor role(Andrews Furniture 33). A wood turner would be responsible for shaping chairs, tables, beds, and cases of drawers on a lathe and would live under the same hectic conditions as a joiner.

The art of craftsmanship was constructed abiding principles of merit. Order, harmony, and utility were the main objectives of good workmanship that was measured by the capacity of any object to fulfill its appointed function with mathematical exactitude (Andrews People 126). Sound construction and perfection of workmanship the Shakers viewed as indispensable evidence of man's willingness to labor faithfully and honestly according to God's holy ordinance. The simplicity of Shaker furniture could be reasoned further with the definition of "true gospel simplicity." According to A Summary View of the Millennial Church "its thoughts, words and works are plain and simple"¦It is without ostentation, parade or any vain show, and naturally leads to plainness in all things (Andrews Shakers 126)." Furniture in the beginning of the Shaker period consisted of miscellaneous styles and any piece of furniture that was useful; nothing was rejected because of its ornate appearance. Of course the furniture of the early period severely came in conflict with beliefs of practicality and uniformity (Davidson 370). Once Shaker communion began to grow and the economic system expanded creating transference of jobs from home to factory; and new industries were conducted on a scale requiring labor saving devices and progressive methods (Andrews Furniture 26).

The millennial laws and the circulars issued by the ministry re-enforced the principle uniformity and gave such details on such matters as the furnishing of rooms and the finishing and care of furniture. "The millennial laws were a secret definitive code covering every aspect of the "resurrection life." Other influences tending toward the development of a uniform style may thus be summarized: 1. Cooperation amongst artisans from different communions.

2. The similiar shop equipment required by similiar occupations 3. Distribution of a family or societies work to another organization.

4. Principles of design in chairs as in other types of furniture, worked out in the parent colony of New Lebanon undoubtedly influenced style in other communities (Andrews Furniture 29)." Constant exchange of ideas, interaction, and the apprentice program stimulated talent. Each individual felt himself responsible for the general welfare. Pride in honorable work was kindled by the will to serve the church and to promote the comfort and happiness of each other. Pieces of furniture, therefore, represented the values of the worker but, yet, had an impersonal quality since the products of the craftsman were dedicated to the group as a whole, and not in any way commercialized (Harris). These words through their belief represented the mood of the craftsman toward his work: "We are debtors to God in relation to each other and all men, to improve our time and talents in this life, in that manner in which we might be most useful (Andrews Furniture 11)." By the close of the Civil War the numerical decline of Shakers, due to various economic religious causes, had become definitely manifest. In 1875, the recorded population was only 2500, and by 1900 it was 1,000 again. With the decrease of numbers was a partial disintegration of the earlier pure and isolated culture. Shaker dance rituals were slowly modified and abandoned. Overall society became more liberal and worldly. Basically every belief was disregarded and the furniture made in this period bears frequent evidence of the influence of Victorian taste. Today one community is left of Shakers with eight followers (

The Shakers created many practical inventions that were used in every day life. Such labor saving devices or contrivances as the screw propeller, Babbitt metal, a rotary harrow, an automatic spring, a turbine water wheel, a threshing machine, the circular saw, and the common clothespin are a few. Shakerism gained recognition with many other communities in the early 1900s that acted as a counterculture to the Industrial age. People were moving back to simplicity and meaning as they were disillusioned by mainstream values (Walter Harris).

According to Walter Harris, a sales director at Thomas Moser Company, Inc., Shaker furniture has not influenced styles but has found a home in today's market for its own unique style. Shaker furniture is directed toward people who live a simple life and people of principle. The demographics of the people who are attracted to Shaker furniture are people 45-54 years old who are married with children and highly educated. 71% of whom hold post annual degrees whom are professional and typically work in areas of business, legal, medicine, and education positions with their income being over $100,000. They usually live in major cities with the largest concentration of customers being in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast areas. Shaker owners usually get their ideas for furnishing their homes through magazines, and when asked to describe their homes usually say "eclectic and clean." Therefore, Thomas Moser Company, Inc., has found that advertising in high class well-respected magazines like the New Yorker and on the Internet has added greatly to their business.

In the products of the joiner's shop, certain basic values in the culture found concrete expression; usefulness above all else, no excessiveness in either line or mass, restraint always, strength, proportion-the most assiduous care that the essential function of the piece should be insured. Inspired and guided by a passionate devotion to the life of the spirit, the society's furniture makers wrought into their work sincerity freed from all dross and marked by a great humility. In these labors, the artistic coincided with the religious conscience, and in the end we find utilitarianism raised into the realm of undeniable charm and a quiet and pure beauty.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Andrew, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.

Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews. Shaker Furniture: The Craftsman of an American Communal Sect. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939.

Davidson, Marshall B. The American Heritage: History of American Antiques. NPC: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1968.

Walter Harris. Sales director at Thomas Moser Company,. Inc,. Telephone interview. 6 Novemer, 1998. 3 June, 1998. 2 November, 1998