Shaker Furniture: Distinctive Style and Characteristics

Megan Cooper
Shaker Village

The Amish are well-known for their handcrafted goods, but the shaker furniture of a different religious community - the Shaking Quakers - is considered by many to be some of the best hand-crafted wooden furniture currently available. Whether you find authentic antique examples of this group's carpentry or buy less-expensive modern interpretations, these pieces are incredibly sturdy and built to last the thousand years of peace before the end of the world that Shakers believed was already happening around them in the 18th century. Take a deep dive into this unique historic community, their tenants and talents, and discover what makes shaker furniture so popular today.

The Shaking Quakers Come to America

In the 1770s, a group of religiously inclined individuals called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing and led by the prophet Ann Lee -- an unusual position for a woman to have during the period -- broke from the Church of England in order to seek religious freedom in the American colonies. Landing in North America in 1774, they built communities that were entirely self-sufficient. In an attempt to follow Christ's humble earthly life, these "Shaking Quakers" refuted excess and ornamentation as it was an embodiment of the 'sin of pride,' and were even life-long celibates. Due to this communal celibacy, the group was forced to commit to outreach programs so as to keep their numbers stable and their communities thriving. This meant that talented artisans and crafters were integrated into the group's ranks, and the minimalist, wooden furniture they produced was perfect for average 19th century families. Thanks to the understated design, these pieces have a timeless quality which allows them to be bought and sold by people around the world today.

Characteristics of Shaker Furniture

A guiding tenant for crafting in the Shaker community is to create honest, simple, and utilitarian work which reflects Christ's purity and humble beginnings. Since Shaker furniture was theologically prevented from having the ornamentation that grew popular during the late-19th century, the Shakers adapted their finishes, forms, and shapes to create an attractive, but natural, design. These are a few of the different characteristics which define shaker-style furniture.

Shaker bedroom

Ladder Back Chairs

Most often seen in Shakers' woven-seated rocking chairs, ladder backs are backrests made out of a few wooden boards which run horizontal to the chair's posts. Yet, Shakers could mold soft or hard lines into these sections to develop a beautiful linear flow, and these wooden rocking chairs were designed to be very lightweight so that they could be hung from a nail in the wall when they weren't being used.

Shaker chairs

Wooden Knobs and Asymmetrical Drawer Size

Since a majority of furniture handles during the 19th century were metal and highly detailed, shakers had to create their own and turned to making simple but effective round wooden knobs to attach to moveable parts like drawers and cabinets. Another unique aspect of shaker furniture is their incrementally smaller drawer sizes. The drawers of things like armoires or dressers start off small at the top and grow larger as you travel down the item.

American Wood

Shakers utilized the materials that were around them and that included the different species of wood that were indigenous to their area. Oak was most prevalently used, but they also made furniture out of other native species like pine, maple, and cherry.

Paints and Stains

To enhance a piece's beauty in a way that was permitted by their religious rules, Shakers painted or stained a majority of their furniture. However, there were a specific variety of sanctioned colors they could use which include yellows, reds, greens, and blues.

Shaker student desk

Collect Shaker Furniture

Unfortunately, it's going to cost a significant amount for those who want to collect authentic antique shaker furniture; these pieces can range between $1,000-$5,000 on average, and even modern shaker-style furniture will cost you around $1,000 at the very least. However, the amount of skill and labor that went into making each individual piece of furniture certainly justifies these steep prices. For example, a 19th century drop-leaf table with its documented provenance is listed in one online auction for close to $4,000, and a communal dining table from Doug Towle's shaker collection was listed for $4,250. Yet, if you're really interested in collecting antique shaker furniture and you happen to live in the American northwest, one place to start looking is at estate sales since so many normal 19th century families had these understated shaker pieces in their homes.

Rocker in the Shaker Village

Shake Up Your Space With Shaker Furniture

Shaker furniture is certainly a preeminent style among carpenters not only because of its historic roots but also because of its innovative, minimalist design. Now, if buying shaker furniture isn't in this month's budget, you can take a trip to visit the Shaker Museum's collection of antique shaker artifacts, which includes items like clothing, storage boxes, and their famous ladder chairs. Just remember, it's no time like today to shake up your personal space with some shaker furniture.

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Shaker Furniture: Distinctive Style and Characteristics