Shaker Design


The spiritual beliefs of the United Society of Believers influenced the design and construction of Shaker furniture. The Shakers believed that ostentatious decoration and superfluous ornamentation were not conducive to the pursuit of the spiritual life. By contrast, plainness, simplicity, harmony, and functionality were esteemed. As Father Joseph Meacham (1742-1796), the third leader of the Society, wrote in Way Marks: "All work done, or things made in the Church for their own use ought to be faithfully and well done, but plain and without superfluity. All things ought to be made according to their own order and use. . . . We have a right to improve the inventions of man so far as it is useful and necessary, but not to vain glory or anything superfluous. Plainness and simplicity in both work and deed is becoming the Church and the people of God. Order and conveniency and decency in things temporal." The 1845 Millennial Laws, which defined the structure and the regulations of the Society, expounded on these basic principles: "No new fashions, in manufacture, clothing or wares of any kind, may be introduced into the Church of God, without the sanction of the Ministry, through the medium of the Elders of each family thereof. Fancy articles of any kind, or articles which are superfluously finished, trimmed or ornamental, are not suitable for Believers, and may not be used or purchased [, including s]uperfluously finished, or flowery painted clocks, Bureaus, and looking glasses, also superfluously painted or fancy shaped sleighs, or carriages."

Nevertheless, Shaker design changed over time and across regions. The classical period of the 1820s and 1830s gave way to the revivalist period of the 1840s, which ultimately gave way to the Victorian period of the 1870s and beyond. Shaker design also reflected regional differences, including the regions from which the Believers came.

Much of the Shaker furniture that survives at Sabbathday Lake was made during the Victorian period and after. As Brother Theodore Johnson, a member of the Sabbathday Lake community, wrote in his book Hands to Work and Hearts to God: The Shaker Tradition in Maine (1969), "despite the fact that these productions of the late nineteenth century are to most of us less pleasing than are those of the classic era, they are still a valid part of the Shaker story. They are in their way as meaningful a reflection of the evolution of a processual community as are the earlier pieces which accord so much more with contemporary taste." The Shaker Store in the Trustees' Office, for example, was renovated in the early twentieth century by Brother Ebenezer Coolbroth (1856-1918). It features built-in fixtures, typical of Shaker design, such as glass-door cupboards and display counters with drawers.