INFLUENCE OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS ON SHAKER FURNITURE
By Beverly Donaldson
History Of Shaker Furniture
Shakers, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, originally derived from a small branch of radical English Quakers. The sect was first heard of in Great Britain about 1750. They were known for their peculiar ritual practices of shaking, shouting, dancing, whirling and singing in tongues. Because of this they were given the name “Shaking Quakers” or “Shakers.” The Shakers’ religious beliefs were introduced to the United States in 1774 by an Englishwoman named Ann Lee. She came to America with seven followers seeking a place to freely practice their religious beliefs. Through perseverance and dedication their settlement began to grow near Albany, New York. Their gospel of separation from the world, common property, confession of sins, celibacy and equality of men and women were taught to all who would listen.
Shakerism flourished during the mid 1800’s but their numbers dwindled and all but disappeared after 1860 because of a decline in the interest in spiritualism. No new members were accepted after 1964 and only a few Shakers remained in the early 1980’s. Even though they were often persecuted for their pacifism and bizarre beliefs, they won admiration for model forms of orderly and prosperous communities. Today fewer than a dozen Shakers remain but Shaker work endures.
The Shaker craftsmen were not influenced by what the world considered fashionable. They did not use applied ornaments but concentrated on color, line, pattern, form and proportion. Shaker design was bound by only one restriction: do not make what is not useful. The Shakers were thorough and exact in whatever they undertook and they were always seeking a better way to perform a task. The Shaker name was a sign of integrity and excellence.
They believed beauty came from usefulness and that impractical objects were sinful. Their furniture was characterized by simplicity of decoration and truth to materials used reflected the belief that to make a thing well was in itself an act of prayer an conviction that the appearance of a thing should follow its function. Chairs were designed to be both sturdy and light weight so it could be hung on pegs on the wall when the room was being cleaned or to provide space during religious ceremonies so they could “shake.”
Design Of Shaker Furniture
Shaker furniture is, above all else, functional because it works and it serves. The character of a Shaker chair discards all decorations that do not contribute to the basic function of the chair. The Shaker designs are beautiful though it does not strive for beauty on purpose. It comes from a dedication to craftsmanship.
The Shakers believed that a perfectly useful piece of furniture must first be sound and strong. They started with these aspects and then considered the user, the material to use, the size and its adaptability to its environment.
The best known and most widely sold chairs were the “slat-backs” which were made with bent back slats and carefully turned legs. The back slats were usually planned to precisely 5/16” thickness with a slight graduation in the width of each successive slat. The legs and back posts were slightly tapered at the ends or rounded to remove useless wood. This gave the chair a light and delicate appearance, even though it was strong and durable.
There were three basic types of Shaker chairs, each with a specific function. The dining chair was made with one or two curved slats with the back posts shortened so that it could be tucked under the table after mealtime. The maple chair is a widely used chair. It usually features three or four slats. It was used as a task chair. The rocking chair was designed to bring comfort to the elderly and was designed to support the human body. It was made with or without arms.
The construction of Shaker furniture did not follow the design of other cabinet makers outside of their communities. They produced new techniques which made the furniture lighter, stronger and more practical. It derived its strength and durability from the clever joinery methods which the craftsmen used to put the parts together. They used crudely made nails and screws and special adhesives. Joins used were mostly tongue and groove which created a very strong join.
Some chairs featured the “tilter feet.” These were special feet to keep the back legs flat on the floor when the user leaned back. Protection of the floorboards was the main advantage of “tilter feet.” The tilter was held in place by narrow leather strips threaded through a hole in the foot and through a hole drilled in the leg a few inches above the foot. The chair was also made to have a slight lean towards the back because it was believed to be a more comfortable way of sitting.
Use Of Materials In Shaker Furniture
The Shakers favored using pale and light wood which was easy to work with and fine grained, usually domestic hardwoods or pine. They chose wood that looked good on its own since they did not veneer their furniture because they considered it a form of deception. Since the wood was used for its natural beauty the craftsmen rarely painted or polished their pieces. They used shellac, linseed oil, lacquer or stain to protect the wood.
What really sets apart the Shaker design is that it goes beyond usefulness, simplicity or perfection to a subtle beauty of proportion. Excellent examples of Shaker furniture can be seen in Fruitland Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts or Shaker Museum at Auburn, Kentucky.
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