Who are the Shakers?

Shaker Design continued - Surface and Color

The surface of an object is determined by its form and function, but its treatment rarely affects either. A surface may be left plain or embellished with ornamentation. Compared to fashionable Federal inlay or Sheraton reeding, Shaker forms were plain and simple. Craftsmen reduced forms to their essence and omitted extraneous detail not necessary to achieve a functional beauty. Although not stripped of all decorative elements, Shaker furniture still made a marked contrast with worldly designs, as many observers have pointed out. Charles Dickens’s negative reaction to the Mount Lebanon Shakers following a visit in 1842 was recorded in this familiar quotation:

We walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock, which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly and under protest. Ranged against the wall were six or eight stiff high-backed chairs, and they partook so strongly of the general grimness, that one would much rather have sat on the floor than incurred the smallest obligation to any of them.

A comparison of Shaker with rural furniture produced by northern European immigrants in the Hudson River Valley reveals a noticeable absence of both Dutch and German influences. Most early Believers, such as the New Light Baptists and Presbyterians, who joined during the critical early decades of community development, were primarily from England rather than the Continent. Consequently, the decorative work found in storage units such as the Dutch Kas or German Schrank characterized by monumental cornice moldings, bold architectural statements, and vibrantly painted floral surfaces have no counterparts within the broad spectrum of Shaker design. Instead, early and classic Shaker furniture exhibits a restrained use of decorative elaborations on structural forms, such as a rounded table edge or turned chair pommel. It also makes moderate use of moldings, both at midcase and on the cornice, which are relatively small and rather simple, consisting primarily of quarter-round or bull-nose-shaped elements. However, rarely was a piece reduced to its aesthetic minimum. In most cases, Shaker decoration is integrated with the overall form and adds an interesting sense of movement to the piece. For example, the vertical panels forming the sides of sewing desks are structural elements, and at the same time they provide a contrast with the horizontal orientation of the drawer fronts (see pl. 183). The deliberate selection of figured woods for the exposed surfaces of some work furniture reveals the Shaker craftsman’s development of a refined functionalism. The lively grain relieves the monotony of the large, bulky form, enhances visual interest, and provides a smooth and aesthetically pleasing working surface.

Sewing Desks, Benjamin Smith (1829-1899), Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1861
Plate 183. Examples of form and decoration – Sewing Desks
Benjamin Smith (1829-1899), Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1861

In the mid- to late nineteenth century, many Shaker cabinetmakers adapted and modified the current Victorian style, among them Henry Blinn [Canterbury, New Hampshire], Thomas Fisher [Enfield, Connecticut], Franklin Youngs [Enfield, New Hampshire], Henry Green [Alfred, Maine], and Delmer Wilson [Sabbathday Lake, New Hampshire]. Elder Henry Blinn contributed to the intriguing variations on the ever-broadening style of Shaker design. His sewing desk and secretary desk are characterized by decorative touches such as machine-made molding around drawer faces and white porcelain pulls, in an understated interpretation of Victorian style that reflects not only his acquaintance with but also his acceptance of contemporary worldly fashion.

Whether embellished or left plain, the surface was invariably treated with a protective finish. In a manner generally consistent with worldly practice, the Shakers used paint, stain, and varnish in various combinations on both freestanding furniture and built-in storage units from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries. In selecting paint to finish their work, Shaker craftsmen were continuing the long Anglo-European tradition of using pigment to create a neat and clean appearance and add visual interest to the furniture and its room setting. Color also served either to unify the appearance of a piece of furniture constructed of several different woods or to emphasize certain structural parts.

The selection of a particular color was based on its expense and availability, and in this respect the furniture reflected the taste of the Shakers’ rural American neighbors. Due to the low cost, various shades of red served as the traditional paint color for barns and other large-surface exteriors; it also represented the logical choice for Shaker-made freestanding and built-in units. As a result of advances in paint technology, brighter colors became available by the early 1800s, and blue green, ocher, and chrome yellow were frequently employed.” The latter, which may have suggested a gilded surface to worldly Americans, often served as a back- ground for decorative “fancy” painting. The Shakers, however, used bright yellow pigment independently as a solid coat of paint. Some authorities theorize that due to the expense, the Shakers reserved dark blue for religious spaces, as this color appears almost exclusively on meetinghouse interiors.”

Surviving examples of opaque painted surfaces are found on built-in storage units. These include the dark blue woodwork in the interior of the Sabbathday Lake meetinghouse dating from 1792 and the third floor of the Canterbury meetinghouse, whose woodwork and counter were painted in 1815 (pls. 239, 177). Among the freestanding dated furniture from several communities are a c. 1800 washstand painted yellow (pl. 235); a red case of drawers, c. 1830 (pl. 21); and a box finished with blue-green pigment inscribed 1821 (pl. 156).

By the 1830s, written and physical evidence suggests the Shakers introduced transparent colored stains, which were not as common in American country furniture of the same period.” Thinner pigments may have satisfied the same practical and aesthetic needs as opaque paints and simultaneously allowed some of the wood’s grain to show through. According to “The order as it respects painting and varnishing: written in 184l, “Ye shall have the stain in your dwelling house, an orange color; and your Shops the same, only a shade darker, your floors in the dwelling house shall be, of a reddish yellow; and these at the shops of a yellowish red, not too dark.’’ Surviving evidence for this staining policy is found in William Demings description of the 1832 Church Family Dwelling House at Hancock. The building contained colorful built-in units consisting of pine cases and 240 pine cupboard doors stained yellow and 369 butternut drawers stained red.” The 1837 addition to the Church Family Dwelling House at Canterbury includes a third-floor attic with six walk-in closets, fourteen cupboards, and one hundred drawers, all stained ocher to reveal rather than conceal the grain of the pine beneath (pl. 168). A mixture of paint and stains is found in the 1841 North Shop at Canterbury, which contains a room finished with a mustard wash adjacent to an interior with built-in units painted red. Freestanding furniture also shows this transition in surface treatment. Examples include a c. 1840 counter with chrome yellow paint and red stain (pl. 245) and a c. 1840 case of drawers with a yellow wash (pl. 19).

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

Information regarding finishes is also documented by several journal references. On January 13, 1835, “Ziba finished the cradle and brought it into the Nurse room where it was stained.” According to a sister’s journal entry of 1867, she cleaned “the paint off the palm lief shop counter” on September 24 and two days later stained it.” It is readily apparent from written records and conversations with the twentieth-century Shakers that they regularly refinished both freestanding and built-in furniture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which explains why so few pieces exist with the maker’s original surface unchanged.

Dickens’s impression of grimness notwithstanding, the Shakers used color to create brilliant living spaces. When considered as part of a room setting, bold colors are used to define specific pieces of furniture or architectural spaces. This is amply illustrated in William Deming’s description of the 1832 Church Family Dwelling House: “And I think we may say it is finished from the top to the bottom, handsomely stained inside with a bright orange color. The outer doors are green. The outside of the house is painted with four coats of a beautiful red. The plastering is covered with a coat of hard finish & is a beautiful white.” The fourth-floor built-ins still retain their original surface pigment, which consists of drawers stained red surrounded by a case painted chrome yellow. The Centre Family Dwelling House at South Union, Kentucky, presents a dramatic juxtaposition between the ocher-stained peg rail and floor, brick red baseboard, solid white plastered wall, and clear varnished built-ins. The effect is heightened by the addition of movable furniture, which might include mustard yellow side chairs and bottle green painted beds, providing a colorful counterpoint to the interior woodwork and trim. Shaker taste also evolved over time, as the Believers updated interiors to reflect a more contemporary look. By the 1870s, the popular Colonial Revival style became part of the repertoire of prominent worldly architects and is reflected in the Shakers’ remodeling efforts. For example, in 1875, Room 10 of the Canterbury Church Family Dwelling House, which was originally stained chrome yellow, was repainted white, a color closely associated with the new style.

Another option besides color, for both Shakers and worldly Americans, was to create a shiny or matte finish. In order to protect the wood and give it a glossy surface, they applied either varnish or shellac over a colored stain or raw wood. It is difficult to distinguish between the two finishes, although references in Shaker journals suggest that varnish was the most common method of treatment. A visitor writing about the interior woodwork of the Great Stone Dwelling under construction at Enfield, New Hampshire, in 1840 noted that “the paint is very smooth and glossy. Elder Orville says they finished it by dipping the paint brush in boiled oil just as the paint is drying, and brush it over. By this means the oil becomes a varnish which looks elegantly when dry.” By the 1860s a common look was that of naturally figured wood with a clear varnish finish.

The issue of applying either a matte or glossy finish was apparently of some concern to the mid-nineteenth-century Believers. The 1845 “Millennial Laws” state, “Varnish, if used in dwelling houses, may be applied only to the moveables therein, as the following, viz., Tables, stands, bureaus, cases of drawers, writing desks or boxes, drawer faces, chests, chairs, etc. etc.” Conversely, according to the “Holy Orders of the Church: “These are the things upon which ye shall in no wise use Varnish: The wood work of your dwelling house and Shops; drawers and cupboards … chests.” By 1861, the more conservative Believers expressed their opposition to the increased use of varnish on surfaces. “There is a great proclivity in this, our day, for fixing up matters very nice, & ( the varnish has to go on to the cupboards, drawers &c. & the paint on to floors, everything has to be so slick that a fly will slip on it.” Writing in 1865, Daniel Boler in the ministry at Watervliet addressed the same subject in a letter to Orren Haskins at Mount Lebanon.

In the present case as touching the use of Varnish on the wood work of our dwellings in the Sanctuary at the Mount, we have unitedly decided to have what varnish is used, put into the last coat of paint – Yet some of our members are inclined to feel some like the old Indian who did not want to like much pudding in his rum, and finally concluded he did not care about any – however, on the present occasion, I rather believe I guess we had better have some pudding for union and for example sake.

Numerous examples from the 1860s survive in the signed and dated sewing desks by Benjamin Smith (see pl. 183) and Eli Kidder (see pl. 181). Emmory Brooks, working at Groveland, New York, also produced distinctive black walnut pieces with a clear finish during the last quarter of the nineteenth century (see pl. 335).

The age of golden oak was made popular in Grand Rapids, Michigan. between about 1890 and 1920. As supplies of dark walnut were depleted, furniture manufacturers created a lighter appearance by finishing oak in layers of shellac. This look was mimicked by the Shakers using varnish on ash and other woods and is evident in the furniture of Amos Stewart at Mount Lebanon, including the drop- front desk dated 1877 (see pl. 29) and that produced by Thomas Fisher at Enfield, Connecticut (see pl 137).

Case of drawers, attributed to Thomas Fisher, c. 1890
Plate 137. Example of varnish on ash – Case of drawers,
attributed to Thomas Fisher, Enfield, Connecticut c. 1890

Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, some documented interiors were further decorated by graining and marbleizing techniques. Graining could be strictly imitative, copying exactly the characteristic features of any wood, or highly fanciful, so that the finished surface was both stylish and economical. In order to achieve the desired result, usually a dark color was applied over a lighter- colored ground with a brush, although rollers, combs, and other graining cools were employed as well (see pls. 209, 246, 251). Henry Blinn’s written comments on his 1873 tour of the Shaker villages provides specific information on the treatment of interior woodwork at various societies. At the North Union dwelling he observed, “Some of the doors were grained, others had drab pannels and pink trimmings. Some of the wood work was marbled.” At Groveland, Elder Henry noted, “The meeting room at the Meeting house is now painted a light green & the doors are grained like mahogany.” When the meeting room in the Church Family Dwelling House at Sabbathday Lake was built in 1884, the doors were grained to match the ash that formed the rest of the woodwork. Jessie Evans of Canterbury recorded in a diary reference of March 22, 1900, “The South dining room of [the] office [building] is being painted by M. Dearborn of Upland. The first ornamental house painting done at the Village. Oak leaf trimming and graining.

In their use of finishes, clearly the Shakers at all the villages were aware of current fashion trends and adopted as well as adapted prevailing practices to suit their changing needs.

Although the placement of a piece of furniture in its site often occurs after its construction, the dynamic relationship between object and setting is usually considered in the initial design stage. For example, the large counter situated in a second-story workroom at Canterbury Shaker Village ( pl. 174) measures twelve feet long and four feet wide and was conceived, built, and assembled in place, for the original door openings do not accommodate its removal. This particular design has four usable sides made accessible by the counter’s location in the room and the addition of wheels. It contains an assortment of long and short drawers and cupboards to store textile-related materials. The extremely large counter commands primary importance in its surrounding space, which measures only 17 feet 1/2 inch by 16 feet 1/4 inch.

While most dwelling house furniture was probably used against walls, specific freestanding pieces were designed to be used on more than one side. For example, many sewing desks (pls.183, 185) have, in addition to drawers and work surface in front, storage and pullout slides for extra work space on one or more sides, so more than one Believer could use the desk at the same time. Many counters and worktables were similarly equipped on two or more sides, like the counter (pl. 174), which also has wheels for easy mobility. The concept of providing multiple access resulted in a distinctive look for Shaker work furniture.

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

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