Shaker Style Simple But Not Easy

Shaker Style Simple But Not Easy  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Garth's Auctions.                       

Some say Shaker buildings and villages still hold the presence of the souls who worked the land and lived out their lives there in harmony.  Whether it’s the smooth pine floorboards, the door handles or the carefully sculpted rocking chairs, everything in a Shaker building was created with a high level of love, intention, and attention to detail.

Tis the gift to be simple, Tis the gift to be free, Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, will be in the valley of love and delight. 
— Shaker Hymn

Think of the Shakers as master craftsmen.  That’s what they were.  They were also the largest 19th century utopian, communal society.  Nearly 6,000 celibate men and women made up the group just before the Civil War. 

Celibacy and communal living was not only their way of life but also what they believed was their path to salvation.  They lived in dormitory-like buildings divided into separate halves for Brethren and Sisters. 

They came together for work and prayer.  Life in the 19 Shaker communities from New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine, to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky wasn’t easy.

It was--simple and orderly. 

Sleeping rooms were typically furnished with a chair, a narrow bed, a wood-burning stove, a small piece of carpet, a washstand, looking-glass, towels, brooms, a few brushes and not much else.  The Shakers did appreciate bright, solid colors in their rooms.

Usually signaled by a bell, there was a time for them to wake up, to eat, meet, work and sleep. They were taught to move and speak quietly.  No one person possessed more than another. Children in the community either came with their parents or were taken in from broken homes.    

The Shaker communities have died off.  The last one, Hancock Village near Pittsfield, Mass., closed in 1960, but the spirit lives on in the meetinghouses, furniture and handcrafted wares they left behind.

The Shakers lived by a simple creed.  Don’t make anything if it’s not useful.  But, if it is useful, then make it beautiful as long as the decoration is part of the design and doesn’t get in the way of its function.

Practicality, grace and delicacy were the Shaker creed.  There was a commitment to perfection in everything they touched.  A timeless style. 

Furniture was typically made in the winter when farm work was minimal.  The Shakers frequently built things like ladder-back chairs which were light and sturdy in multiples.  Not only was it an efficient way to do things, it also guaranteed the uniformity they so prized.

Shaker is a type of furniture that is very much in demand today for its minimalist styling and basic quality.  It’s furniture as art.  The same holds true for all things Shaker.

On March 26-27, Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers featured a selection of Shaker items in its Early American Antiques and Decorative Arts auction. 


Child’s Armchair Rocker; mixed woods; probably Mount Lebanon, New York; also probably made for community use; 2nd. half-19th century; 12 inches high;  $382.

Gathering Basket; North Lebanon, New York; 19th century; 18 inches diameter;  $705.

Bonnet Box and Bonnet; cedar dovetailed box with lid; holds woven straw bonnet; 19th century; 11 ½ inches by 11 ½ inches;  $940.    

Lidded Bucket; pine; three iron bands including one on lid; original blue paint; probably Enfield, New Hampshire; 19th century; 9 ½ inches high;  $940.

Sewing Box; poplarware; Alfred, Maine; eight-sided rectangular box; contains original sewing implements; early-20th century; 6 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches;  $1,410.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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