Scholar finds Shaker crafts more sophisticated, colorful than previously thought


March 31, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

The Shakers are vanishing and so are some old assumptions about the simple furniture and useful objects made by this celibate communal religious sect.

New interest and new scholarship have come along just as the movement is ending. In October the Shakers' last religious leader, Eldress Bertha Lindsay, died at her home in Canterbury, N.H., at 93. She is survived by only one Shaker sister at Canterbury and a small community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

In the last few years celebrity collectors Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, and others less famous, have paid maximum prices for minimalist pieces produced by the Shakers.

The Shakers, as they were popularly known, or the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as they called themselves, were founded in Manchester, England, in the 1770s by a religious visionary named Ann Lee. They came to America in 1774 to find religious freedom and settled in the back country of New England and upstate New York.

After a few years of hardship they prospered. During the first half of the 19th century 19 Shaker communities were established -- 11 in New England, others in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. In the 1870s an urban ministry of Shakers in Philadelphia practiced celibacy, communal property, equality of the sexes and singing and dancing (or shaking) in worship.

Although no Shaker objects survive from the Philadelphia Shaker community, the Philadelphia connection inspired the loan exhibition to be seen at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, April 6-10 at the 103rd Engineers Armory. The exhibition and its catalog challenge some widely held notions about the Shakers and their arts.

Dr. Robert E. Booth, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Rothman Institute at Pennsylvania Hospital, and his wife Katherine, both dedicated collectors, assembled an array of Shaker furniture and objects that explodes the myth that the Shakers were a drab lot, their crafts simple and plain -- if simple means primitive and plain means colorless.

"The principles of Shaker design are exemplified in this spool of thread," said Dr. Booth, taking a red spool from the drawer of a sewing box. "This tiny turning, brightly painted, is in total harmony with the Shaker belief that objects with the highest use possess the greatest beauty. Its narrow shaft and thin wide ends allow for more thread and less wood; quite the opposite of commercial unpainted spools made now or then."

The directness, honesty and suitability of Shaker products appeal to the Booths. "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God," said Mother Ann Lee. "Do your work as if you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow." For Shakers, manual labor was a religious ritual; perfection was their goal in life.

With careful craftsmanship and deliberate attention to detail, the Shakers refined the generic forms of New England chests, tables and ladder-back chairs. Relying on proportion and color, they created timeless designs.

Unfortunately, in the early 20th century Shakers, like the rest of the populace, refinished much of their furniture, removing paint in their effort to spruce things up. The Booths, however, have chosen objects that retain their original surface and have illustrated them in color in the catalog to demonstrate how important paint and figured wood are to the Shaker aesthetic.

A red wash over the figured surface of a tailoring counter from Hancock, Mass., serves to unify the asymmetry of the drawer arrangement. Chrome yellow paint gives a heavenly aspect to an Enfield, N.H., washstand whose wide overhang, graduated drawers and slender turned legs give it lightness and verticality.

A stack of red and yellow oval boxes, their long thin fingers or swallowtail laps held together with copper tacks, are vivid examples that reflect the Shakers' joyous nature.

The finest of the Shaker sewing desks, from Enfield, N.H., is painted red, though not as bright as the red wool cloak hung on a peg nearby. A half-dozen utilitarian objects in various shades of yellow are illustrated on the cover of the catalog, which includes an article by the Booths and another by Scott Swank, director of the Canterbury Shaker Village.

Mr. Swank writes about the urban "family" of Shakers in Philadelphia founded in the 1850s by Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free black seamstress and charismatic lay preacher at the Bethel A.M.E. church. Jackson and her constant companion, Rebecca Perot, lived with the Shakers at Watervliet, N.Y., from 1847 to 1851, and returned to Philadelphia to preach. In 1857 Eldress Jackson organized her black followers into a female Shaker family and by the time she died in 1871 Philadelphia Shakers included men as well as women, whites as well as blacks, converts from other Christian sects, and a woman of Jewish origin.

The catalog costs $15 postpaid from the Philadelphia Antiques Show, 422 Cavershaam Road, Bryn Mawr, Pa. 19010, or $8 at the show.

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