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Shaker Furniture History

"beauty rests in utility"

Shaker furniture was made for god, the Shakers' furniture was an attempt to apply the Shaker philosophies of equality, modesty, confession and faith and the shaker search for order and harmony, to the mundane objects found in homes, chairs, tables, cabinets, etc.

Shaker Chairs

Of all the styles and forms of Shaker furniture history Shaker chairs are almost certainly the most admired and famous. As originally designed Shaker chairs were the best example of shaker faith expressed through wood, it's crafting and moulding, and remain perhaps the highest peak in shaker style furniture design and decor, and much prized by shaker antique collectors.

Spindle Shaker Chairs
Spindle Shaker Chairs.

Shaker Side Chairs

Shaker style side chairs were made generally from maple, and to a lesser extent, cherry, birch, and walnut. These woods were taken from woodlands owned by shaker sects.

The shaker side chair was backward leaning, for a little comfort, and always made with three slats at the back. Attached to the back posts of shaker side chiars were tilting feet, one of the shaker movement's great gifts to furniture design. A ball and socket joint allowed the chairs to be rocked back on to the back legs whilst the back feet remained resolutely on the floor.

Shaker side chairs were most often used in shaker union meetings when the church members would sit opposite each other, sexes separated, and make light talk.

Peg Rails

Shaker Peg Rail
Shaker Peg Rail.

In most shaker houses peg rails at 6-7 ft height from floors were installed on walls to enable easy, and decorative, storage of chairs. At each 1 foot gap pegs were put in the rail so that chairs and other home objects such as candle boxes could be stored away when not in use thus avoiding clutter.

Shaker Rocking Chairs

Rocking chairs proper were originally designed for the use of elderly shaker believers as the rocking motion was thought to be beneficial to health.

Shaker rockers were sometimes manufactured with mushroom posts at the ends of the curved arms. Others used scrolled or rolled arms, and in later times, cushioned arms. Shaker style rockers also had four slats in the back. The shakers also developed the "sewing rocker", planned specifically for shaker women, made shorter and without arms, to allow easy access to a sewing basket.

Shaker Cabinets & Cupboards

The guiding principle behind shaker cabinets making was the desire for order and tidiness. Shaker bedroom furniture makers made their cabinets, corner cupboards, chests of drawers, blanket chests, and storage chests in small numbers, in their workshops, and with great handmade consistency and loving attention to detail.

Maple Shaker Cabinet
Maple Shaker Cabinet.

At the Hancock community in Massachusetts there is to be found an historic example of shaker cabinets. 48 drawers built into one wall, the drawer sizes tapering down as the wood cabinet nears the top. The cabinet drawers have simple wooden knobs and the whole design is a classic example of antique shaker furniture making.

Shaker Kitchen Furniture

Shaker furniture makers excelled in building built in cabinets for the kitchen and elsewhere which were used for the storage of cutlery, crockery, candles, etc.

The high cupboards found in authentic shaker kitchens were often accompanied by step stools fo 2,3, or 4 steps.

Shaker woodworking skill in the kitchen is well exemplified in the bread cutting table. Bread cutting tables sported a knife which doubled as a guillotine operated on a pivot affixed to a rail on the back of the lipped tops. These Shaker bread cutting tables allowed for very speedy cutting.

Shaker Dining Room Furniture

Shaker dining tables were made from long pine boards closely jointed to permit easy cleaning as table lined wasn't used in shaker houses. Shaker dining tables sat sets of four people, and so a 12 foot table could seat 12 shakers in their groups. The purpose of this was to enable the passing around food without recourse to speech.

Meaning of Shaker Furniture Today

Shaker style furniture, like it's cousins mission furniture and amish furniture, remains popular to this day and this popularity is perhaps an expression of the contemporary world's longing for a more simple life expressed in home office decor and furniture. It is a perhaps interesting thing whether a form of art so deeply bound up with religion can be successfully transferred to a world so removed from the original movement's religious inspiration.

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