Shaker Simplicity (1800-1860)
Between the Revolution and the Civil War, a generation of uncompromising dreamers emerged in America, most of them Utopians or millenniumists, seeking "heaven on Earth". They organized a great variety of socialist, voluntary communities that lived apart from the rest of society. Some were insistently and narrowly religious; others were secular and permissive. Some were extremely democratic; some, extremely autocratic. Some were peopled by visionaries who did not know one end of a saw from the other; others distinguished themselves by their craftsmanship. Looking at plain but neat Shaker chairs and barns today, it is evident that the Shakers made their heavenly ideals a working part of their everyday life in all things they made. Their motto was "put your hands to work, and you hearts to God."
The shops of the Shaker joiner and cooper, blacksmith and tinsmith, wheelwright and tanner, tailor, weaver, and dyer, turned out an amazing variety of products both for sale and for use by the community itself. All reflected "the gift to be simple".
People today admire Shaker furniture and architecture because of its simplicity, honesty, grace, utility and sturdiness. These are the qualities that characterize the things they made, because these were the ideals that the Shakers felt were part of God’s heaven and his home. As one member said, "What are goods worth unless they are full of genuine religion?" The lack of adornment bespoke the Shakers’ determination not to let anything unnecessary stand between the believer and his God. Order, harmony and utility were the objectives of good workmanship. It is a recognizable look, not "factory-like" as some have described their buildings, nor austere and "grim" as Charles Dickens once called the Shaker furniture, but, rather like its users, dispassionate, reliable and unworldly.
Between 1787 and 1826, nineteen Shaker communities were established in eight states from Maine to Kentucky. A surprising number of people joined - some six thousand between 1830 and 1850. The Shaker communities were one of the American marvels, visited by many foreigners, including Dickens, who scoffed at their "grimness".