Who are the Shakers?

Shaker Design continued - Proportion and Scale

Proportion is determined by the dimensional relationships of the various parts and how they relate to the whole. The measurements for much Shaker furniture lie within the norms established by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century design books. These principles were derived from classical architecture, which emphasized mathematical relationships both in the ratio between the dimensions of the particular parts to the whole and between the parts themselves. “They tend to be the simple proportions of 2×3, 3×4 and the square. That is, given any unit-centimeters, inches, feet, or yards-the proportion 2×3 uses two units on one side and three on the other; for 3×4, there are three units on one side and four on the other; for a square, each side is of equal length. Combinations of these and other slightly more complex proportions are the fundamental units behind so much of what we prize as beautiful.” The goal of this approach was to achieve integration of design, that is, a synthesis of proportion, balance, and hierarchy in a harmonious composition. The importance of these principles lies in the fact that they serve as cornerstones of good design; they direct and determine the way we look at architecture in general and furniture in particular. For example, the case of drawers by a Mount Lebanon cabinetmaker pl. 19 exhibits a masterful handling of proportions due to the relationship between the height and width of the case.

An example of proportion - Case of drawers, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1840
Plate 19. Example of proportion – Case of drawers, Mount Lebanon, NY, c. 1840
Collection of the Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham, New York

Scale refers to the size of an object relative to its surroundings, which includes other objects, the object’s users, and the space it inhabits. In Shaker furniture, the dimensional relationship of a piece to its surrounding space ranges from a diminutive 6-drawer case made at Hancock to the 860 built-in drawers found in the Church Family Dwelling House at Enfield, New Hampshire (fig 15 & 16). Institutional requirements pushed Shaker furniture forms to a scale not seen in worldly design. Trestle tables spanning over twenty feet in length, workbench tops measuring eighteen feet long, and tailoring counters ranging from six to twelve feet long and four feet wide all became commonplace in Shaker communities (see pl. 174).

Extensive storage requirements for the large families, usually consisting of about one hundred members, created the need for whole areas devoted to newly built storage units. At Canterbury, for example (see pl. 168), one entire floor of the 1837 wing in the Church Family Dwelling House was set aside for built-in units placed away from the walls to incorporate the space behind the units into additional off-season clothing storage. The room is lined on both sides with a series of fourteen cupboards above 101 drawers alternating with six closets stretching over forty feet in length. According to surviving journals, David Rowley contributed much of the labor and many of the skills required to build or furnish the North and Church Family residences and shops at Mount Lebanon, where he lived. In January 1837, it was reported, he “has undertaken to make a quantity of cherry tables, to furnish the great house, in the various rooms—has begun 20 tables:” It is apparent from Hervey Elkins’s description of the Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield, New Hampshire, that the retiring rooms, due to their large size, housed a number of Believers, each with his or her own bed. “in the third and fourth lofts, the corridors, eighteen feet in width, extend longitudinally through the centre, the entire length or one hundred feet. On either side are retiring rooms, all exactly twenty feet square, nine feet high, and of identical furniture and finish, rendering it difficult to determine, but by the number, one room from another.”

An example of scale - A sewing case from Hancock, Massachusetts, c. 1840, 27 inches high and 34 inches wide, compared with multiple cupboards and cases of drawers for communal storage, attic, North Family Dwelling House, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1820
Figs. 15, 16. An example of scale – A sewing case from Hancock, Massachusetts, c. 1840, 27 inches high and 34 inches wide, compared with Multiple Cupboards and Cases of Drawers for communal storage, attic, North Family Dwelling House, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1820, approximately 7 feet high by 27 feet long

An example of scale - Counter, Canterbury, NH, 1845 - Attic, Church Family Dwelling House, Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH
Plate 174. An example of scale – Counter, Canterbury, NH, 1845
Attic, Church Family Dwelling House, Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH

Example of scale - Built-in Storage Room, Canterbury, NH, 1837 - Collection of the Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH
Plate 168. Example of scale – Built-in Storage Room, Canterbury, NH, 1837
Collection of the Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH

Click here to return to a discussion of hierarchy and pattern.
Click here to continue to a discussion of surface and color.