Years ago while I was working as a cub student reporter in Northern Ontario, my husband and I took a trip to Hancock Shaker village in Massachusetts. It inspired him to make several Shaker pieces of furniture (including the drawers behind me in my photo). We haven't gone back but I still am impressed by their progressive and practical approach to design (a round barn = pure genius).
Shakers sought perfection in everything that they made with their hands, no matter how humble. They invented hundreds of labour-saving devices, from the clothespin to the circular saw. They shared these innovations without patents, and didn't profit when the men who borrowed those designs became very wealthy.
Shakers (coined for their movements during religious fervor) fled to the New World in 1774 to escape persecution and attracted at least 20,000 converts in 20 settlements in the U.S. over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers acquired members through the conversion and adoption of orphans. They were educators too: parents who couldn't afford to send children to school would leave them with a Shaker sect, returning years later to pick up them up. Once a child reached 21, they could remain Shakers, but typically only one in four adults did. As of 2010, there were three surviving members left in Maine.
This staircase in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky is meticulously constructed, yet simple. Ann Lee, a leading Shaker figure known as Mother, emphasized that assets should be functional and modest; grandiose objects made the heart fall prey to pride, vanity and lust. But they weren't cowed by progress: the New Hampshire Shakers owned one of the first cars in the state and had electricity while the state capital building was still burning gas.
Whether it was a broom, basket or bed, the Shakers made all their own furniture and furnishings. Their simple ladder-back chairs relied on lightweight woods like pine, so furniture could be easily picked up and moved around. Often a peg rail was hung at shoulder level for clothes and chairs (upside down, so any crumbs would fall), making sweeping easier. Ann Lee said: "good spirits will not live where there is dirt."
Any architect will tell you how difficult it is to build a round structure: but the real genius lies in the efficiency of the round barn at Hancock village, built in 1826. The four-ring structure inside spawned copycats across the Midwest for its "machine-like" efficiency.
The innermost ring was used for ventilation to keep the hay, stored in the second ring, from spontaneously combusting since the previous barn burnt to the ground. Ox wagons could enter, unload the hay and then exit the barn without ever having to back up. The third ring was where the Shakers would walk to distribute the hay and pick up milking buckets for the cows, standing in the fourth ring.
Shaker men and women lived separately — notice the two doors above, in some buildings there were also separate staircases — but were considered equal. Shakers pioneered the sale of seeds in paper packets: men would grow the crops and the women picked, sorted and packaged them, demonstrating the partnership between the genders.
The Shakers' forward-thinking beliefs in equality pre-date the emancipation of the slaves by 75 years and the vote for women by 150 years. Their numbers may have dwindled but their impact lives on: several Modernist furniture makers, including icons like craftsman George Nakashima and Danish designer Hans Wegner, were inspired by Shaker style.
See more timeless styles in our Iconic Furniture photo gallery.