Who are the Shakers?

The Shakers - Another America, by Karl Mang

Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
From the left: Laundry & Machine Shop; Brick Dwelling House; Ministry Shop; Sisters’ Shop (yellow); Poultry House; Tan House (red); Hired Men’s Shop; Round Stone Barn.

The Shakers – Another America

by Karl Mang (b. 1922)

On September 5th, 1774, shortly after “Mother” Ann Lee and her eight companions had landed in America, the Continental Congress convened, to which twelve of the thirteen colonies had sent delegates. A “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” addressed to the king and parliament of the mother country constituted the first step towards independence. In 1783 Ann Lee died in Watervliet (formerly Niskeyuna); the same year saw the signature of the peace treaty with the thirteen colonies. With this, the king of England recognized these thirteen “United States” as “free, independent and sovereign”. In the eight years which lay in between, the Shakers (coming from New York as settlers) had cleared land in the wilderness in the neighborhood of Albany and founded their first settlement in Niskeyuna. During a two-year preaching tour of New England, Ann Lee had won the first American followers of her faith. At the same time the Americans gained their independence.

The American way of life – right from the start – fulfilled the desire of generations for freedom and expansion, the longing of men and women whose ancestors had lived in social and religious straits, subject to compulsion and terrorism. This development of individual groups to form a nation went on for centuries and is still not finally concluded. The “American way of life”, the later form of which – with its materialistic emphasis – is at present manifesting itself in a consumers’ society with all the problems of an unsatisfactory environment, once began with the confrontation of people or groups of people with a country of immeasurable size, rich, but also hard. The characteristic of American development which in the middle of the twentieth century, after two devastating wars, filled the European with enthusiasm was the freedom of the citizen resulting from a revolution which today appears to us quite as important as the French Revolution. Around 1780 one could have understood by “American way of life” the civil freedom which the people of that immense and rich continent won and preserved in order to be able to run their lives in accordance with their own ideas.

At the time when the Shakers were inspired to emigrate to that country, England, after the events of the 18th century, could indeed no longer be compared with the autocratic states of continental Europe. Yet Ann Lee still had to suffer imprisonment, oppression and distress, for the freedom to preach and make converts was limited.

After the death of Ann Lee, James Whittacker assumed the leadership of the community in the free continent. In that part of America – New England – as a legacy of the early settlers, such as the successors of the Puritans from the Mayflower, or the separatists of the later period (as in Massachusetts), the tendency towards a protestant ecclesiastical state was evident in spite of the fact that no other country of the contemporary world could offer the ordinary citizen a greater measure of political and social freedom, while the powers of church and state were already separated in principle at that time. In a world of new freedom, among natural surroundings as fruitful as they were untouched, the Shakers desired to realize one of those communities for which there was no place in Europe owing to political or religious reasons.

The new continent inevitably became a testing ground for religious or Utopian ideas which through sects or communes accompanied the revolution in the social order and the industrial revolution. Of the more than a hundred “Utopian ” communities, with about 100,000 members, that grew up in America during the 19th century, the most outstanding were the perfectionists of Oneida, the Hutter Brothers, the Amana Community, the Rappites and Moravians. The Fourierist phalansteries and the Owenites in New Harmony tried to achieve a just distribution of goods on the basis of a social settlement. Charles Fourier, for example, based his argument on a criticism of the social order: “The accumulation of money in the hands of a few, the competition between workers and the misery and degradation of the working class”. Of all the societies founded at that time in America on a religious or social basis, many of which only existed for a few years, the Shakers, with their integration of faith and form in their personal environment, their development of a cooperative home-industry and above all owing to the consistency of their achievement in the field of design, are of particular interest to us.

Theirs was a religion for poor, hardworking people, in which the belief in justice in this world as in the next predominated. It was in accordance with the mentality of such people to feel that this just life should be deserved by faith, work and clean living.Personal merits or differences were just as unimportant as personal property, and even personal happiness; all these things were only important in and for the community. This very simple conception, arising from Puritanism, demanded a communistic organization accompanied, however, by clearly defined rules such as are always required in monastic communities.

The essential difference in relation to other forms of communal life may perhaps be seen in the fact that the Shakers did not aim to change the nature of the existing society but merely built up their own community in accordance with rules they imposed on themselves. All decoration and embellishment liable to distract the mind from religion was rejected and even branded sinful. The rules, which were first handed down orally and later in written form, became the foundation-stone of the astounding prosperity of the Shakers as well as of the high quality of all their products.

One might be tempted to regard the Shakers’ development as dictatorship by the rule of a religious order, which would not concede that form could have its own life. There is no doubt that the Shakers’ life centered around their religion and their community. All else: architecture, furniture, tools and equipment, was assigned its proper place in their life as a religious community and designed accordingly. Ann Lee’s saying: “Hands to work and hearts to God” shows the way to a symbiosis of religion and the necessary shaping of a personal envronment: order, simplicity, purity.

If in their architecture and implements we seek the early forms which are characteristic of a period of land settlement, we inevitably find to start with the traditional forms that the colonists brought over from their native couyntries. Where the climate and country side allowed it, to begin with, the traditional material and forms were retained, as were clothes and customs. Their adaptation to the new circumstances only took place gradually.

The hardships attending the fight for existence of the original settlers in America left no room for the development of other forms than those of the essential requisites. By about 1780, however, in spite of war and the struggle for freedom, life in New England regions, had become more settled, at least in the Towns. The architecture of the residential buildings of these towns, in Boston for instance, reveals no characteristic development of its own. The traditional design of the implements, and particularly of the furniture, is hardly any different from that developed in Europe, except perhaps certain simplifications introduced in the pioneering regions.

Ann Lee and her small group of faithful followers are said to have built their first house in May 1780, in the wilderness near Albany (Niskeyuna), to serve as their residence and also their church. In the interval up to 1785, when the meeting house in New Lebanon was built by Moses Johnson on the instructions of James Whittacker, Ann Lee and her followers had established the fundamental spiritual principles which are of interest to us in connection with the functionalism of the Shakers. Maxims such as “You must not lose one moment of time for you have none to spare”, or “Simplicity is the embodiment of purity and unity”, referred to the accepted notion of beauty’s being equivalent to worldly decoration or ornament, which meant that it was banned from the life of the Shakers. Later principles, such as “Beauty rests on utility”, “That which has in itself the highest use, possesses the greatest beauty” and “That is best which works best” are characteristic of this functionalism which corresponded to the Shakers’ faith. A further principle which anticipated very much later considerations in respect to industrial production, was also derived from the interpretation of fundamental tenets; nobody should work purely as a specialist (this would perhaps already have meant too great a measure of “personal life”) – therefore each member received training in various trades and was employed alternately in them. This increased the pleasure taken in his work by the worker, while also allowing greater flexibility as it became possible to form larger or smaller teams which could always be assigned to the particular sphere of work where they were most required. This adaptability, the compulsion on religious grounds to make the greatest effort to achieve quality and the very precisely regulated details of the financial administration by “deacons”, also in transactions with the “World”, formed the basis of a production system that included the division of labour and bore an extremely modern aspect. All the negative features of the early industrial period – exploitation of the workers by capitalist entrepreneurs, unemployment and pauperization – did not arise in this case since the voluntary renunciation of personal property in favour of the comunity created completely different conditions.

To begin with it was necessary to satisfy the requirements of the rapidly growing community. This task, which meant building residential houses, manufacturing plant and a meeting house, with the necessary furniture and fittings, as well as making all objects of daily use, including medicaments, first of all demanded specialization.

Ann Lee’s original log-house may hve been a simple wooden house – tradition does not tell us – perhaps influenced by the style of house found in Connecticut and modelled on English houses, or else by the “Dutch” of Hudson River Valley. In the rapidly growing communities it was the practical side of architecture which was of the first importance. Considerations in the nature of town-planning were certainly foreign to the simple people concerned, and the construction of the first settlement proceeded far too rapidly to find “rules” there too. When such rules were laid down in the “Millennial Laws” (1823), many buildings were already standing. Section IX of the Laws reads as follows:

Concerning Building, Painting, Varnishing and the Manufacture of Articles for Sale, &c. &c.

  1. Beadings, mouldings and cornices, which are merely for fancy may not be made by Believers.
  2. Odd or fanciful styles of architecture, may not be used among Believers, neither should any deviate widely from the common styles of building among Believers, without the union of the Ministry.
  3. The meeting house should be painted white without, and of a blueish shade within. Houses and shops, should be as near uniform in color, as consistent; but it is advisable to have shops of a little darker shade than dwelling houses.
  4. Floors in dwelling houses, if stained at all, should be of a reddish yellow, and shop floors should be of a yellowish red.
  5. It is unadvisable for wooden buildings, fronting the street, to be painted red, brown, or black, but should be of a lightish hue.
  1. No buildings may be painted white, save meeting houses.

    The practical execution of the necessary ground-plans based on symmetry (separation of the sexes) was accomplished without difficulty and in full accordance with the simple architectural means available. We marvel today at the inventive talent of the Shakers in the sphere of building. In the adaptation of the form of the building to its intended function, the “Round Barn” (1826) in Hancock appears as an early precursor of Hugo Haring’s Garkau estate, a work of organic architecture. In the three-storey round building, the hay was driven into the upper storey and from there conveyed by the shortest way to the mangers which were arranged round the inner circle, providing for about fifty cows. A very wide outer passage served for the care of the animals by stable personnel. The dung was collected in the basement and could also be driven out on carts. The circular wooden structure in the centre was built so as to project above the roof in order to provide additional ventilation.

    Reports handed down to us speak of specialized teams that travelled from community to community. Architects were hardly known. The builders certainly came, like Moses Johnson, from the carpenters’ trade. Moses Johnson built ten meeting houses for the communities around New Lebanon, which at an early date already foreshadowed the Shakers’ “Laws”. These simple buildings, still to be seen today as in Hancock, instead of the usual ridged roof have a gambrel roof after the style of the Hudson River Valley “Dutch”. In the relationship of their interior to the unpretentious exterior (a white-painted wooden house) these meeting houses actually already represent a magnificently simple profession of architectural style. All other buildings remained more or less anonymous.

    Only at Pleasant Hill, far away from “Holy Mount”, do we find an architect who completely independently (although remaining within the regulations) approached, be it only in the proportions of his buildings, the Greek Revival which was at that time the prevailing architectural fashion in southwestern America. The large “dwelling house” built of limestone or Kentucky marble at Pleasant Hill (which formerly housed over a hundred Shakers), with its fine stairways and well proportioned windows, represents a similar peak of achievement in the architecture of the Shakers as does the stone-built “Round Barn” at Hancock. Micaja Burnett, who in his old age was entrusted with the reponsibility for the business transactions of the Pleasant Hill community (a typical example of the versatility of certain outstanding Shakers), had gained for himself among the Shakers the reputation of being a mathematician and technical engineer. He had presumably acquired his knowledge from contemporary architectural literature. In 1830 he constructed the first public water supply system, operated by a horse-driven pump, west of the Alleghenies.

    The development of furniture-building in America at that period was similar to that of architecture. The close connections with England gave rise to the “Colonial style” which is still in evidence today. Among the Shakers, however, every detail in the furnishing of their rooms was governed by rules based above all on functional requirements. The rooms were thus of extreme simplicity, while their practical convenience was increased by well-tried structural features such as the Shaker peg-boards, service lifts, and sash windows which could be taken out for cleaning. The fundamental character of these rooms was determined by the Shaker’s bible (their Millennial Laws) of which Section X reads as follows:

    Orders concerning Furniture in Retiring Rooms

  2. The following is the order in which retiring rooms should be furnished, the number of articles may be more, or less, according to the size of the room, and the number of inmates therein.
  3. Bedsteads should be painted green, – Comfortables should be of a modest color, not checked, striped or flowered. Blankets or Comfortables for out side spreads, should be blue and white, but not checked or striped; other kinds now in use may be worn out.
  4. One rocking chair in a room is sufficient, except where the aged reside. One table, one or two stands, a lamp stand may be attached to the woodwork, if desired. One good looking glass, which ought not to exceed eighteen inches in length, and twelve in width, with a plain frame. A looking glass larger than this, ought never to be purchased by Believers. If necessary a small glass may hang in the closet, and a very small one may be kept in the public cupboard of the room.
  5. Window curtains should be white, or of a blue or green shade, or some very modest color, and not red, checked, striped or flowered.
  1. The carpets in one room, should be as near alike as can consistently be provided, and these the Deaconesses should provide.

    Of all the early industrial developments on which the Shakers embarked, it was the manufacture of furniture which attracted the greatest attention. For furniture forms an integral part of a room, just as it represents the personal environment of those living amongst it. The light, well-proportioned rooms of their houses, each provided with the “Shaker peg board” for hanging up furniture and equipment (in Hancock 5000 pegs were counted in 50 rooms), did not make a “monastic” impression in spite of their sparse furnishings. An aura of happiness still pervades the rooms which are now but museum pieces. In their simplicity of form, the articles of furniture – if we again disregard a certain independent development on the part of the communities in the southwest – complied with the “Millennial Laws” as well as satisfying the requirements of the community by fulfilling their purpose. Sewing-tables and writing-desks were generally built for use by two people; the long benches of the meeting house could seat a whole group. Appropriate use of materials and simplicity of form combined with a continual search for greater technical simplification made the Shakers’ articles of furniture the forerunners of a rising new architecture.

    Tradition has it that the first furniture was made around 1780; authentic records of the first sale date from 1789. In view of the rapidly growing communities at that time, furniture was first of all produced only for the Shakers’ own use. It was only when their requirements had been met that “industrial” manufacture was started; in the meantime the prototypes had been fully developed. There is evidence that this production began around 1850, above all in New Lebanon; it did not end until 1947. From the 1870s on, Shaker chairs were offered on the basis of a catalogue listing the different sizes (1 to 7) and prices.

    What is probably the most renowned Shaker product came from the joiners’ workshops of the early colonial period: it was the slat-back chair, which was then gradually developed into the well known type with a worsted-lace web seat, as rocking-chair or ordinary chair. The dining-room chair was so small (generally with only one slat) that it could be pushed under the table. In order to clean the rooms, the chairs were hung on the pegs of the “Shaker peg board”. The chairs offered on the market were closer to the standard size in general use than those made for the communities.

    Very soon after the foundation of the Shaker settlements an exchange of commodities with the surrounding world was started. The communities were too small to be completely self-supporting. Later on, a production surplus may have been the reason which drove them to start selling their products, or else the necessity of obtaining money with which to buy those products which the technically developed American market was already able to supply cheaply after 1850 (above all after the Civil War). A long list of their own developments, patents and inventions nevertheless marks the attempt made by the Shakers to retain their independence in an increasingly industrialized environment. It was only when the pressure from outside became very strong – in the “golden years” after the Civil War – that the Shakers took over products from outside. With this they naturally had to accept the risk of confrontation with the rapidly developing surrounding world, which in the long run could only damage their own community. However, the long time during which they had limited the range of styles of their implements and equipment had resulted in a high standard of perfection. Construction and form had reached a perfect balance – only experience over long peroids of time can lead to genuine technical perfection. Whether it was in the clear forms of the “Shaker stoves”, or of other metal objects like their pewter ware (for drinking mugs, the dinner services were bought), wooden products like the well known box made of wood shavings, or products of the broom industry, everywhere it was functional considerations which were dominant, and the basis of these was and remained the Shakers’ faith.

    The craftsmen – or the early industrial team of craftsmen – still preserved the simplicity of form when the products were manufactured especially for sale. Even the labels used on the goods bore only the simplest possible text. An almost “classical” atmosphere surrounded architecture, furniture and products.

    The Shakers had no misgivings in taking over technical processes from industry. At the world exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 they saw the Thonet bent wood process – shortly after, the bent wood rocking chair appeared [editors note: It is now known that this bent wood rocking chair was not made by the Shakers. It was made by the Henry I. Seymore Chair Manufactory of Troy, NY] . In the latter years of the nineteenth century the Shakers, encouraged by the success of their furniture production, ordered chair parts from industrial firms. The manually operated service lifts in the Hancock “dwelling house” were replaced by automatic ones from industry, when these proved more practical.

    At the peak of its prosperity the Shaker community achieved a precise formal expression in architecture, products and design, which essentially reflected the ideals of their religious attitude. They felt no compulsion to change their form to follow a fashion or increase their sales, despite the fact that the world surrounding them was becoming ever more clearly stamped by the commercial thinking of the industrial era and the rising standard of living. They preferred the high ethical values of life in a religious community to the fight for power and money in an individualistic society.

    At the same time the fashionable period – taste developed in America. The “Greek revival” was followed by the “Gothic” style and – imported from Europe – historical eclecticism. The simple pioneer’s house developed into the typical American home, light but fashionable, with the fire-place as the central feature of the room and the only one that was always retained. Millions of simple houses erected on their own ground of about 360 sq.yd. opened the way – and way of life – towards the garden city, the motorcar town and the megalopolis. The mototcar became a dominant feature everywhere, while houses grew up and spread like mushrooms over whole regions. Only very rarely did anything like a community expressing itself in its buildings arise in the towns.

    The logical out come of capitalism and adherence to the ownership of real eatate allowed form and town to dissolve. It was no different in industry. Although in the 1850s the American pioneering spirit revealed itself in the patent furniture, for instance, or in the development of railway train furnishings, the European influence, the rising taste for ostentation and the unbridled instinct of imitation drove the furniture industry into copying historical styles. In contrast to this, the Shakers’ way appears as a possible means of finding a balance between the opposite poles of our present world.

    The experiments which were carried on during the period of development of capitalistic America could be studied in relation to this small sect. Their experiment has great significance for our time. Perfection of form, it appears, is unthinkable without a long period of preliminary development. The laws of our consumers’ society: more production for less work, rapid change in the type and form of goods, expendable products, lead to problems which very soon become insoluable.

    Up to now neither the American way of life, with its belief in full freedom but also with the brutality of capitalism which accepts social justice only after a hard fight, nor Marxist materialism has provided any practical solution for this problem.

    Perhaps we may see in the Shakers’ striving for simplicity in life and form an attempt to realize social justice: because they renounced that freedom which offers riches and power, and accepted the “justice” of an equal distribution of rights an duties within the community.

    Originally published in: The Shakers: Life and production of a community in the pioneering days of America, a catalog for an exhibition at the Staatliches Museum fur angewandte Kunst, Munich, 1974.

    Copyright ©1974 by:
    Die Neue Sammlung, Staatliches Museum fur angewandte Kunst
    D-8000 Munchen 22, PrinzregentenstraBe 3
    Germany