Who are the Shakers?

Shaker Fancy Baskets

Shaker fancy and utility baskets
Shaker "Fancy" Basket (foreground) and non-Shaker "Utility" Basket (in rear). Photograph by Paul Rocheleau, courtesy of Shaker Village, Inc., Canterbury, NH.

Shaker Fancy Baskets

by Martha Wetherbee and Nathan Taylor

From their first acceptance of a new faith, the Shakers separated their aspirations from the world, but they never attempted to fully remove themselves from it. They bought and sold “outside,” and saw no contradiction in it so long as they didn’t compromise their ethics. As early as 1795 the ministry were advising that “all things made for sale ought to be well done, and suitable for their use” – indicating that even when the communities were barely formed, already they anticipated developing some sale lines.

The Shaker basket business at Mt. Lebanon, New York, was a major industry. Before the close of the nineteenth century, the Church Family made some 71,244 baskets for sale. There was sale production at other communities in the northeast but nothing to equal what was made at Mt. Lebanon.

By 1830 the Church Family had developed an original system for producing baskets. But the system had served its initial purpose: the Mt. Lebanon community was supplied with baskets. Membership also was peaking, and it appeared there would be no call for any additional volume for “home use.” In order to utilize their tooling and expertise, the Church Family began to concentrate on making baskets for sale.

It would not have been feasible for the Shakers to manufacture their large utility baskets on a commercial basis. They consumed too much material to be cost effective and were an inconvenient size to make in multiples. But more importantly, the market for traditional utility baskets was being eroded by new factory-made baskets. Cheaper and quicker to make than traditional types, these factory-made baskets were produced in a quantity and at a price that took away even the Indians’ dominance of the utility market. However, the Indian basketmaker still held a hegemony with small, lightweight, “fancy” baskets, as these were difficult to make with factory methods. Indians therefore capitalized on their remaining market, selling baskets for souvenir or “fancy” use.

Shaker production also shifted to fancy types. A line of “fancy” baskets seems at odds with Shaker testimony. But the meaning of fancy has changed since the nineteenth century. It did not necessarily translate as decorative or decorated. Fancy, instead, was understood to mean “of superior grade, extra fine, choice; complex or intricately made; better than average; suitable for select patronage.”

Within a short time the Mt. Lebanon Shakers developed an extensive marketing program for the wholesale and retail sales. Close to home – within the radius of Hudson, N.Y. and Pittsfield, Massachusetts – they maintained a regular trade route where they solicited orders and delivered baskets. But many more fancy baskets were sent to accounts all across the country. Shipments went regularly to New York City, Albany and Philadelphia; other wholesale accounts were in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York State (Niagara Falls, Saratoga, Poughkeepsie, Stratford), Massachusetts (Lenox, Springfield, Chicopee), Connecticut (New Haven, Bridgeport, Winsted), Michigan (Saginaw City), Nevada (Virginia City), California (Sacramento, San Jose, Judson Gates) and Nottingham, England.

Shaker Fruit Baskets
The quintessential Shaker fancy basket is the fruit basket. The form is not, however, unique to the Shakers. Indians made baskets of the same form. What identifies Shaker work is the splint, the tooling in the rims and handles, and the overall precision. Molds and jigs – for basket bodies, handles, and rims – gave control to the work that could not be gotten freehand. Photograph by Hugh McMillan, 3d.

With the shift to fancy types, basketmaking became something the sisters could do. Up to this time, basketmaking had been men’s work. The Shaker system changed this by breaking production down into stages, and separating the heavier tasks from lighter tasks. The brothers in the basket shop continued to make utility baskets and to prepare splint and make up all rims and handles. By the mid-1830s, however, the sisters were weaving the fancy baskets, applying those handles and rims, and finishing them off. They also took over sales.

At Mt. Lebanon the basketmakers were able to take advantage of modern machinery introduced around 1815-25. Some of the most progressive people of their day, in the years when the industrial revolution was just breaking, the Shakers were thinking in terms of mass production and tooling up for it.

“After the year 1813 there was some important improvements,” a Shaker brother wrote, “particularly the buz saw . . . .” With the spinning circular blade, material could be sawn quickly and accurately; and shop work was eased. A tongue-and -groove machine was used to dress the edge of a board and cut a profile into it as it passed across a spinning blade. Now blanks could be ripped up on the circular saw, then shaped for rims and sliced off to length.

Initially, the Shakers, like most traditional basketmakers, used a draw knife to dress rims and handles – to pare the blanks they made them from, and take a chamfer off the edges. Then they finished with a file. After a while they began to follow the drawknife with a spokeshave, using a file and scraper to finish. A block plane took them into another phase. With it, they got an exact cut each time, so there was very little variance in the line. With each tool they refined the contour a little more, and then finished with a file. Most other basketmakers were satisfied with what they got with a drawknife.

In 1800 the Shakers had set up a triphammer in their blacksmith shop. In 1816 they adapted it to pound ash logs. This eliminated much of the labor in freeing splint from a log and enabled them to obtain great quantities of basket material.

Power planers, another new idea, were adjusted to work up splint. As early as 1828 a Mt. Lebanon brother notes in his journal that he has been planing “basket stuff.” By machine planing the splint, it was possible not only to get a nice finish on it but also to control the thickness of it, so that it was even and exact and easily graded by gauge or weight. After the splint was planed, it was pulled through adjustable slitting knives to trim it to standardized widths.

Finally, basket bodies, rims and handles were shaped over wooden molds. As a result, all baskets of a type were standardized. This meant that bodies and parts could be made in stages, in volume, by different people. When the parts were assembled, they fit – perfectly.

A Selection of Shaker Fancy Baskets
A selection of Shaker fancy baskets. Photograph by Hugh McMillan.

Basketry was seasonal work. (“We now . . . commence our winter work of making baskets,” the sisters begin a journal.) They usually started in November or December and finished up in April of May. During the year the Shakers moved from job to job; they were proficient in several employments, and their system of “joint labor” was predicated on rotation between assignments. Switching off to laundry or garden or kitchen or herb room was usually a pleasant change for the sisters. But there were two years when sisters in the basket shop had to prematurely leave off making baskets and help out elsewhere in the village. (“In March and April we have much sickness in the family,” a sister writes in 1870. “The hands were taken off to work in the kitchen. Not much work done in the Shop these two months.”)

The brethren’s basketwork was also seasonal. In the fall they went to look for black ash trees, often having to go a great distance to find any. Then they prepared the splint and delivered it to the sisters. During the winter months they worked up rims and handles. (When spring came, in 1878, a brother wrote with quiet Shaker ceremony: “May 4. In the swamp after cowslips. PM in the Shop making the last of the Rims for this year. Good news.”)

Right after the time the basket business began to develop at Mt. Lebanon, Shakers everywhere were seized with a sense of profound revival. A purge was on to restore more spiritual motivation, such as had animated the Society in the Shakers’ early days. There was a showering of spiritual gifts, together with admonitions and instructions from departed spirits. A renewal, moving and mystic, was at work, and it continued some ten years.

The special mood that pervaded the basket shop becomes apparent from lists of believers who “received” gift songs or were “instruments” for emblematic drawings. Twenty or more of the seventy Shakers at Mt. Lebanon to whom “gift songs” are attributed were basketmakers; and at least two of the basket makers were among the artists who drew the beautiful spiritual drawings. “The attention to spiritual gifts was by no means confined to the place and time of worship,” a brother commented. “The people were full of faith and zeal, and . . . mixed spiritual and temporal things together. Meetings were held occasionally at any time of day: religious exercises could be going on in one part of the house, and hand labor in another.”

Among those who made baskets, certainly the patterns of the Shaker dances, with all members singing, weaving in and out in concentric circles converting to spirals and squares, mingled in their subconscious minds with the patterns of the baskets they wove. Virtually everything they were after, everything they did, was impelled by a commitment to bring their faith into form. “Here are pretty little baskets, filled with love,” they sang in meeting, “and I’ve brought them to you on my silver wings, says Mother’s little dove.” You can see they believed it.

Shaker Quadrifoil Basket
A Round Bottom Basket from Mt. Lebanon showing the "quadrifoil" center,
a design signature not seen outside of Shaker work. Photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

Mt. Lebanon’s fancy baskets carry over some vernacular conventions and some Indian ideas; but they are subtly different from all other American baskets. System, and the Shakers’ attitude toward system, shows in them.

Traditional basketmakers used the most rudimentary system, if any at all. The basketmaker selected the trees, prepared the splint, wove a basket, made its rims and handle(s), finished it off and started on another. Indians may have worked in multiples, and certainly they streamlined where they could: their aim was to produce saleable baskets as quickly as they could. They did good work because they respected their craft, but they weren’t after a perfect look. Factory operators combined, in some ways, the Indian concept and the Shaker system; they eliminated a lot of handwork but they cheapened material and process, to get a product that “would do.”

Only the Shakers sought perfection. And that is what you see in the Mt. Lebanon sale line. What distinguished fancy baskets made at Mt. Lebanon is the ultra light and even splint, satin on both sides; the tooling in the rims and handles; perfect shape, perfect line; the cleanness of the work; the symmetry and balance. These were production baskets, but they show production could be art.

Excerpted from: Martha Wetherbee and Nathan Taylor, Shaker Baskets (Sanbornton, NH: Martha Wetherbee Basket Shop, 1988).

Copyright © 1988 by Martha Wetherbee and Nathan Taylor. Used by permission.