It is said that no one was born a Shaker for the simple reason that Shakers practiced celibacy as a tenet of their faith. But did the same hold true for Shaker furniture, boxes, and baskets? Perhaps not, since it took Shakers to give birth, if you will, to these elegantly plain utilitarian objects.
While the Shakers established themselves in the United States in the late-18th century after fleeing religious persecution in England, it was their output in the 19th century, in places like New Lebanon, New York, and what is now Hancock, Massachusetts, that concerns us here. At first, Shaker chairs, benches, footstools, cradles, cabinets, tables, and desks were produced for the insular and reclusive sect’s growing population of converts, but it didn’t take long for the austere and non-materialistic Shakers to begin building objects made expressly for sale to members of the consumer society they had largely turned their backs on.
Particularly capitalistic was the chair industry based in New Lebanon, which began manufacturing chairs in 1873. By 1874, a Shaker Elder named Robert M. Wagan had published a catalog and price list of “Shakers’ Chairs” with this warning in the back—”All persons are hereby cautioned not to use of counterfeit our Trade-Mark.” The mark in question was a decal that featured an image of a Shaker ladder-back chair in the middle with the words “SHAKER’S” (misspelled) above and “MT. LEBANON, N.Y.” below.
From Wagan’s catalog, customers were invited to order factory-built chairs by item number, in sizes from 0 (small) to 7 (large). Chairs could be ordered with or without arms, as rockers or not. Today, many think of Shaker chairs as having slat, or ladder, backs exclusively, but the Shaker chairs offered in Wagan’s catalogs, which were printed with few changes until the early 20th century, came with backs and seats made of worsted webbing or even upholstery—in 14 colors, no less!
Other Shaker communities were known for their brooms (Watervliet, New York), swallowtail boxes (New Lebanon and elsewhere), and baskets (Canterbury, New Hampshire). Black ash was one of the most common types of wood used in baskets, owing to the relative ease in which it could be formed into thin, pliable splints. Baskets were shaped using molds, in styles with names like spoon, cat head, and kitten.