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By Ethel Hall Bjerkoe
( Article orginally published March 1954 )
Chairs were among the very earliest items of furniture constructed ub Shaker workshops. And thye, with the oval boxes, continued to be made long after the making of furniture had ceased. As early as 1789, records show that chairs being made at the New Lebanon Colony and this Colony became the of the Shaker chair industry. It is evident that many Shakers men and women were busy with the various details of chair making.
In the months before 1800 (and might well be called the experimental period), chairs constructed at the Shaker workshop doubtless differed little from the slat-back made by the joiners of the region roundabout. By 1800, however, the design had been perfected by the shaker workmen in accordance with their own ideas, and a somewhat standardized chair continued to be made thereafter. By this time, the sale of chairs to neighborhood stores had begun, and as this product became known and popular, orders were received from the stores of Boston, New York and other large cities.
In addition, various types of chairs were made for the use of the community itself. There was a low, one-slat-back dining chair. There were -high seated chairs for use at counters, laundry tables and desks, with the seat 22 1/2" from the floor. These were made with one-slat, two-slat and three slat backs. High and low chairs were made for use in schools or at shop desks. There were armchairs, invalids chairs, and other types for special uses.
Shortly after 1800 rocking chairs appeared and seem to have been most popular with the Shakers, themselves, as well as with the "worldly ones". After all, they offered a welcome comfort not too common in chairs of the period. Although these rocking chairs were of some variety, they can be loosely classified. They were similar in most respects. The arm rests differed. There was the mushroom-post type (and most of the later rockers were in this style) ; the scrolled arm; and the rolled arm. All had a four-slat back with one rung at the rear of the body and two at the front and sides. Very rarely a rocker was made with a five-slat back. The backs and seats varied greatly in width with the back posts ending in finials, generally of the acorn variety. Occasionally these finials were pointed but usually they were rounded at the top. The arm rests were low.
At times a narrow rod was placed above the top back slat from the upper edge of one finial to the other. To this a cushion could be attached for additional comfort. Sewing rockers were similar to the four-slat back rocker but often were made with a three-slat back and without arms. Whatever the type, the Shaker chairs and rockers had a delicacy that distinguished them from other chairs of the period. This was largely due to the smallness of the posts used in their construction. Even in the largest chair, these posts seldom were more than 1 1/4 inches in diameter.
In the earliest chairs, the rockers fitted into slots cut into the posts with the rocker about even with the front post but extending six or seven inches beyond the back post. This rocker was a heavy, shaped piece of wood. Later it was made to extend a short distance in front and still later a thin, delicate, blade-like rocker became common.
In the beginning, a narrow splint was used for the seats; then rush, listing-tape and cane. When the hand-woven listing tape was used, it was often in two colors to form a checkerboard design. With this tape seat, a slight padding was pmced between the upper and under layers, extending well over the front edge of the frame. This provided extra comfort and also helped protect the tape over the front wooden rod from wearing thin.
Many of the early chairs and rockers were painted a dark flat red. Soon, however, a thin red or yellow stain was used; later varnish stains and commercial dyes in dark colors were common. The entire chair frame was dipped into the stain, making the painting of it a one-operation process. By 1807 side chairs were selling to the "outsiders" for seventy five cents each while a rocker brought about twice that amount.
One of the innovations of the Shakers was the tilting chair. In this a socket was made in the rear posts of the side chair and a small ball with a flat bottom edge was fitted into this socket. A leather thong passed through a hole bored into the post about an inch from the bottom and then through the ball which was thus held in place. The flat end of the ball rested on the floor and enabled the chair to be teetered back and forth.
A student of furniture can usually tell the age of a piece by a quick appraisal of its general style and appearance. In determining the age of a Shaker chair, examine the seat, the shape of the rockers, whether the nails are hand-wrought or machinemade, and whether the dowels are the square, hand-chiseled variety.
The making of boxes, began as early as that of chairs. These boxes were made also to sell outside the community as well as for the use of the Shakers. The same careful workmanship went into the construction of this somewhat unimportant item as into the most important piece of furniture. These boxes were made in many sizes, were often sold in "nests" and had many uses. In their making a thin band of maple of the required width was cut out at one end by means of a pattern into "fingers" or "lappers". The piece was then steamed and wrapped around an oval mold with the "fingers" overlapping. These were glued and fastened down by copper or wrought iron rivets. A disc of pine was then fitted into the bottom. Covers were made in the same fashion. Boxes were painted in mellow old reds and yellows, blues and greens. Most common, however, were those in a clear varnish.
Tables were made in great variety by the Shakers to fill the many requirements within the community. Those with a one-piece top were the earliest but by 1820 tables with one or two drop leaves were fairly common and those with one drop leaf were particularly popular. At times these tables were very long and again as small as two feet. As in everything conatructed in the Shaker workshops, the article was fitted to the requirement. A trestle type base seems to have been common in Shaker tables while the stretcher or tavern type base is rare. The drop ieaves were generally supported by wooden straps or brackets - including the butterfly. At times the long dining-room tables had many small individual drawers along the sides to hold the flatware and napkins. Again a table would be made with a drawer at one end extending back half the length of the table.
Many of the small four-legged tables had a "bread-board" or an oval top, and the most common leg was a simple turned rod without foot, although in some of the communities a small button foot was used, and on rare occasions at the New Lebanon colony a Dutch type foot. Tip tables were made for the Sisters' shops and retiring rooms, and rim-top tables with one or more drawers for the sewing shops. There were large tables for the laundries, for baking and for breadcutting.
Candlestands and "peg-legs" were of many types for use beside the looms, sewing-tables and in other occupations. There were several types of sewing stands usually with square tops and with a narrow drawer on either side to be used by two Sisters working together.
The outstanding features of these Shaker tables and stands in addition to the careful workmanship that went into their construction, were their comparative lowness and the slightly tapered and rod-shaped turnings of the legs without foot or other terminal. Because of the Shaker desire for simplicity, Shaker tables will have no elaborate turnings, vase-like pedestals or other ornamentation usual at this period for furniture made outside the communities.
Chests and Cupboards
In a day before closets were numerous in any household, order demanded furniture in which to store c;othing, bedding and other linen. Without doubt chests were being made in the Shaker colony of New Lebanon before 1800 as well as lift top or blanket chests with one, two or three drawers. These chests would lave been known to the converts to Shakerism since they were common articles of furniture in most parts of America at this time. After 1800, Shaker records reveal that in addition to these several types of chests, cupboards, chests of drawers - all evolution of the blanket chest- and built-in chests of drawers were bemg made in the community workshops.
There was not too much difference between the pieces made within the community and those made on the outside except that the Shaker items would be simple without ornamentation and all would show the show the exceedingly careful workmanship which distinguishes all Shaker furniture. The highboy and the lowboy, so popular at this time, with shell ornamentation and cabriole leg, were not copied the by Shaker joiners.
Feet on chests and cupboards were often shaped into an ogee curve or an arc. At times they were applied to the piece being constructed; at times they were shaped as part of a base molding; and at times they were cut out of the end board on either side. Whether constructed in one manner or the other, they were generally joined at the corners by large dovetailing. Turned wooden pegs were used for drawer pulls. Brasses and escutcheons were absent. Catches for doors of cupboards and other pieces were of wrought iron. Cupboard doors were usually narrow, of wood, although occasionally small panes of glass were used.
Because of the requirements of community living and of the community workshops, new types of furniture were constructed in the Shaker workshops. Large counters for tailoring and sewing shops were made, usually with a drop leaf attached to the back and with drawers for materials. Many combination pieces were designed in the Shaker workshops. Other items included writingboxes, step-stools, wall clocks, wall sconces, towel racks, and the very common pegboards used on the walls of almost every Shaker room to hold clothing and other small articles. But all these were made for the use of the Shakers, themselves, and are seldom available to collectors today.
The Shaker workshops are closed and empty, but every piece of furniture that came from them, large or small, remains as a symbol of the Shaker ideal of perfected work, and this outstanding workmanship distinguishes every chair, every oval box, every-cupboard.