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Home | Articles | 2008 Winter Antiques Show Loan Exhibition: The Shaker Museum and Library -- Seeking Perfection: The Shakers' Material World

2008 Winter Antiques Show Loan Exhibition: The Shaker Museum and Library -- Seeking Perfection: The Shakers' Material World by Sharon Duane Koomler
by Sharon Duane Koomler

The Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham, New York, holds the most significant collection of Shaker materials in the world. With more than half obtained directly from Shakers, the collection exhibits remarkable original finishes and detail, superb quality, comprehensive scope, and impeccable provenance. The Museum's recent acquisition of the North Family property at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon, New York, unites the collection with the site that, as home to the Church's leading Ministry, was once the center of all Shaker life.

Museum founder John S. Williams, Sr. began collecting in the late 1930s, traveling to the remaining active Shaker communities to acquire examples of their arts, industries, domestic life, and spiritual artifacts. His goal was to preserve the breadth and depth of the Shaker story. His affection for Shakers, and theirs for him, contributed both to the rich interpretation of their lives at his museum and the number of "treasures" they made available to him. Williams turned his private collection into a public museum in 1950, and since then the collections have been used to educate the public about Shaker life in America. An Eye Toward Perfection: The Shaker Museum and Library, the loan exhibition at the 2008 Winter Antiques Show in New York City, includes some of the museum's best examples of objects that demonstrate Shaker principles of faith, community, industry, and design.

Chair, Mount Lebanon, N.Y., ca. 1850. Bird's-eye and curly maple, pewter tilters, cane. H. 42, W. 18-1/2, D. 14-1/4 in.

The choice of wood, the delicate turnings, the fine cane seat, and the use of pewter tilters make this an example of the Shaker chair perfected. Note the unusual and decorative braiding of the cane binder around the rim of the seat. The maker has pushed the limits of the Shaker aesthetic to make this chair beautiful.
Bench, Canterbury, N.H., 1850. Pine seat, cherry crest rail and spindles, birch legs. H. 31-1/2, W. 162-1/2, D. 16-1/2 in.

This bench was used to seat worshippers during meetings and was light enough to be moved out of the way to make room for the dancing common to nineteenth-century Shaker worship. Although more than thirteen feet long, it has only three pairs of legs and no bracing between them. Its maker understood that the bench would be used respectfully by those who sat on it.

Familiarly known as Shakers because of their distinctive dancing rituals, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing has been one of the most compelling religious and social movements in American life since its founder, Ann Lee, arrived with her husband and seven followers from England and settled in Niskayuna, near Albany, New York, in 1774. Dedicated to pacifism, celibacy, and gender and racial equality, Shakers numbered 6,000 members in nineteen communities just before the Civil War; today, one community continues at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

The Shakers' initial efforts to create domestic settings reflected the teachings of their founder, whose admonition, "Do all your work as if you had a thousand years to live, but as if you knew you would die tomorrow," guided them. The chairs, oval boxes, case pieces, and other objects that have come to represent Shakers in today's world are the physical evidence of their quest for spiritual perfection on earth. Shaker craftsmen came from the world, so certainly were aware of and comfortable with many design elements prevalent there. Shaker design, however, reflects a distinctive application of an internal cultural aesthetic, and they made every attempt to avoid the wastefulness and pridefulness they perceived as prevalent in worldly domestic design.

Double case of drawers, Mount Lebanon, N.Y., 1825. Pine, bone escutcheon.

This case of drawers communicates fundamental attributes about Shaker belief and daily life. The uniform size and egalitarian arrangement of the drawers speaks to the communistic nature of a Shaker family. Only one decoration on this sixteen-drawer case lacks tacit connection to its storage role -- the plain molding nailed to the top. All other forms and embellishments answer directly to the function: the drawers are arranged in two rows and occupy the entire height and width of the case, the red paint seals and protects the pine, and the bone escutcheon on the top left drawer shields the drawer from scratches from the key.

Counter, Canterbury, N.H., ca. 1815. Pine, cherry knobs, blue and orange paint. H. 38-7/8, W. 104-3/4, D. 25-1/2 in.

Four elements make the appearance of this counter extraordinary -- its dark blue and bittersweet-orange paint, its asymmetrical arrangement of drawers and cupboard, its unusually high work surface, and use of single pulls on its drawers. The counter was originally built into a third-floor workshop room in the Canterbury, New Hampshire meetinghouse, where it was used by ministry eldresses for their temporal labors.

Knitted rug, attributed to Elvira C. Hulett (1805- 1895), Hancock, Mass., ca. 1893. Multicolored wool yarn, denim backing. Diam. 43 in.

One of a half-dozen known rugs skillfully knitted by Elvira Hulett, this rug seems to contradict the popular sense of Shaker "simplicity" in its intricate patterned design. Sister Elvira's remarkable work demonstrates the Shaker desire to reflect the Victorian styles of the day. The main body is made from knitted strips sewn together to form concentric circles. Some design details were carefully applied over the knitting. Hulett was apparently also a skilled weaver. A collection of fourteen pattern drafts for weaving prepared by Hulett are preserved in the Edward Deming Andrews Collection at Winterthur. The unusual patterns she used in her knitted work are reminiscent of the patterns she would have produced at the loom.

The lines of Shaker architecture and furniture are graceful, regular, and predictable. Striving for a particular physical atmosphere within their communities they created a standardized appearance in their material lives to foster a true sense of unity -- the Shakers would say "union" -- among all Shaker communities.

Furniture forms produced by Shakers for their own use were free of unnecessary embellishments. Refined to its most essential form, Shaker furniture truly reflected its intended function. The well-designed object, from the point of view of the Shaker, was one that most simply meets the need for which it was created. For example, built-in and free-standing cases of drawers and cupboards were designed to accommodate shared communal needs. Decoration was kept to the minimum required to make a piece look finished and give it visual grace.

Apple basket and utility carrier, Mount Lebanon, N.Y., ca. 1850. Black ash, hardwood handles, maple cleats, copper. Photograph by Paul Rocheleau.

Basket making was a prominent activity at Mount Lebanon, going well beyond production for use within the community. These baskets represent some of the finest utility baskets made there. Great care was used in preparing materials -- black ash was harvested locally and processed into splint for weaving; the splint was skillfully scraped to create a sheen finish; and molds were made to ensure a consistent size and form of basket. There is an almost imperceptible transition between the square bottom and the round rim of the apple basket. The sculptural quality of the handles on both baskets shows the extraordinary skill of their makers. While other Shaker communities made and sold baskets, Mount Lebanon produced arguably the best quality baskets.

Electrostatic machine, Thomas Corbett (1780-1857), Canterbury, N.H., 1810. Pine, iron, glass, leather, silk. H. 9-1/2, W. 12, D. 9-3/4 in.

Shaker doctors used electric generators to produce and store an electric charge for a variety of medical treatments. Turning the handle of this machine caused the horizontal glass cylinder to rotate against a silk-covered cushion. The charge produced was collected by a metal comb and conducted by wire to the tinfoil-covered glass Leyden jar, where it was stored until needed. The patient sat on a chair or stool on a platform insulated from the ground by four glass legs. The physician used various attachments applied to the patient's skin to channel the stored charge to the place needing treatment. The patient experienced a shock much like that felt by touching a doorknob after walking across carpet in dry weather.

Late in the nineteenth century, in an effort to suggest to potential converts that the Shakers were modern and progressive, new furniture was produced and existing furniture was altered. Many pieces took on a more worldly style. Older pieces were "updated" by refinishing, replacing plain wooden knobs with porcelain or cast iron ones, and adding decorative moldings. Newer pieces, particularly those made after 1870, were designed to accommodate a shrinking population. Small sewing desks, for example, replaced large tailoring counters. As Shaker communities continued to shrink and were consolidated in the twentieth century, the need to produce furnishings decreased. Labors focused instead on popular items for the tourist market, produced with the tradition of honesty and consecrated labor of earlier members. Today herbs, teas, culinary products, yarns, oval boxes, and a variety of fancy goods are sold at Sabbathday Lake.

It is the physical and material world created by generations of Shakers that has captured the interest of a contemporary audience. Shakers labored on earth to achieve spiritual perfection, and in doing so, they created a rich temporal legacy for the world to consider.

Gift drawing, "Holy Wisdom's Seal of Life or Death" in A Golden Roll, or Holy Gift, from Holy Mother Wisdom to the Ministry, 1847, Mount Lebanon, N.Y. Paper, ink, watercolor. 6-1/8 x 4-1/16 inches.

Shaker society experienced a spiritual revival called the Era of Manifestations in the mid-nineteenth century. During this period which lasted from the late 1830s to around 1850, Shaker tradition states that heavenly spirits came to earth, bringing visions, particularly to young women, who danced, spoke in tongues, and produced inspired spiritual "gifts," such as this drawing. More than 2,000 such drawings are thought to have been produced in the period. It is not known how these drawings were used, but only about 200 survive today.
Cross-stitched kerchief, inscribed "ET," attributed to Betsy Crossman, Mount Lebanon, N.Y., n.d. Cotton. 25-1/2 x 26 inches.

Many textiles, especially personal garments, were marked with the wearer's initials to ensure its return from the laundry. Of particular note on this piece is the extraordinary care taken by Sister Betsy to achieve a perfect visual appearance, both front and back. A number of examples of work by her hand exist, including a signed sampler. The remarkable execution of lettering, with no thread out of place on either surface, is testimony to her quest for perfection.

Fragment of Mother Ann's apron, Canterbury, N.H., ca. 1775. Linen or cotton. 4-1/4 x 5-1/4 inches.

Following Mother Ann Lee's death in 1784, pieces of her clothing were divided into fragments and shared among Shaker families as remembrances. This piece of one of her aprons made its way to Canterbury, New Hampshire, where the young girls in that community cross-stitched the text that identifies its significance. Before it was divided it probably read, "[A Pi]ece [o]f [Mothe]r Ann's [Apr]on."

Wood engraving, "The Shakers of New Lebanon -- Religious Exercises in the Meeting-House," Joseph Becker, Mount Lebanon, N.Y., published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1873.

Shakers were well known for their dancing during worship services, a curiosity that drew onlookers from "the World" the term Shakers used to describe those outside their community. Choreography, coordinated costume, and the meetinghouse setting created the equivalent of a theatrical production. Perfection in dance and song, while in itself a consecrated activity, was also intended to inspire potential converts to the faith.

All photography, unless indicated, by Michael Fredericks.

Sharon Duane Koomler is director of the Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham and New Lebanon, New York.
An Eye Toward Perfection: The Shaker Museum and Library, sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, is the official loan exhibition of the 2008 Winter Antiques Show, New York City For more information about the Shaker Museum and Library, visit www.shakermuseumandlibrary.org or call 518.794.9100.

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