Art Complex Museum

Shaker Chairs: Their Story / Catalog Text

"The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."

The common New England slat-back chair, fashioned by the hands of a Shaker woodworker, has become an icon of American furniture design. Shaker craftsman were familiar with that furniture form. It was found in almost every eighteenth and nineteenth century rural New england home. Converts brought these chairs with them as they joined shaker communities. Shaker craftsmen produced these chairs, refining that vernacular form and creating a distinctive , well-built chair that ultimately earned them considerable renown. Chairs were made in nearly every Shaker village for use within their shops and dwellings. Some chairs were sold to outsiders. Mount Lebanon, New York, the only community to mass produce chairs for sale, sold tens of thousands to individuals, families and businesses.

The Art Complex Museum's Shaker collection includes a significant number of chairs that were produced in the workshops of most of the eastern Shaker communities. The collection contains examples that present a myriad of changes of chair design in over more than a century of chair production, with particularly good examples of chairs made at Mount Lebanon. The exhibition presents the best examples of chairs in the collection, all produced by Shaker hands between the first quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1930's. This essay explores the history of Shaker chair making and the evolution of Shaker chair design. The production of chairs in Shaker workshops began soon after the organization of Shaker villages. Manuscript journals and account books suggest that chairs were being sold from this time as well. The day book of Brother Joseph Bennet records the sale of 1 great and 6 small chairs on September 25, 1789 from Mount Lebanon. The earliest sales of Shaker chairs occurred between Shaker families and villages. It was not long however, before chairs were marketed to the public, an activity that continued at Mount Lebanon until 1942

The first Shaker chair makers made their slatback chairs with turned vertical posts and horizontal stretchers that connected to form a "boxey" frame. The seat stretchers supported rush, splint,cane, woven cloth tape, leather or cloth seats. Several slats connected the back posts above the seat. Rounded finials or pommels, topped the back posts of most Shaker chairs. There are a number of construction characteristics that are useful in determining a chairs community of origin. The chairs produced at Enfield, Connecticut, for example, display a slender symmetrical finial that ends abruptly at a well-defined neck. Those found on chairs from South Union, Kentucky, resemble an "egg in a cup," while those found on chairs from Enfield, New Hampshire, looked like a candle flame.

The majority of Shaker chairs have not as yet been associated with a particular craftsman. Occasional journal entries include the identity of brothers who made chairs and a few chairs bear a makers mark. There are a number of chairs made in Watervliet, New York for example, that bear the initials"FW". The chair making activities of Freegift Wells are well documented in his daily journal. In addition to the details of how he made chairs, his notes include the earliest information on the application of tilter buttons on chairs.

The earliest of these chairs where sturdy and practical, but uncomfortable. They sat squarely on the floor, but were unforgiving to the contours of the human body. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Shaker craftsman made the generic chair more graceful and comfortable by angling the front and back posts slightly back to make the chair more accommodating to the way people reclined as they sat. At the same time they became visually more appealing. Even the rocking chairs benefitted from this change in design.

While a number of subtle variations in the design of chairs can be traced through the years of production in almost every shaker woodworking shop, the most distinct changes can be seen in the produced at Mount Lebanon, New York. That community had the longest era of chair production and certainly the greatest number of chairs where made there.The Art Complex Museum's collection of chairs is rich in examples that portray the range of changes in chair design at Mount Lebanon. Stylistic changes in Mount Lebanon chairs can also be seen in chairs made in other communities.

In addition to filling the great need for chairs in a growing community, Shaker chair makers also supplied chairs for the growing markets in nearby towns. The earliest chairs produced at Mount Lebanon were almost indistinguishable from those made by craftsmen in the surrounding region. They were sturdy, serviceable chairs that met the needs of both traditional and communal families. Particular characteristics emerged as the chair industry developed, making Shaker chairs distinctive from those produced in the world. As their religious life became increasingly ordered, many Shaker crafts became more refined and distinctively "Shaker" in appearance. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century Shaker society included eighteen prosperous villages from Maine to Kentucky. Shakers labored to create a heaven on earth and the fruit of those labors was reflected in the fine Shaker products.

The basic "boxey" chair was refined, creating a lighter chair with more balanced proportions. By the late 1840's the turnings of the back posts exhibited noticeable tapering from the seat to the top,lending a more delicate appearance to the chair, both visually and structurally. the finial, one of the most distinctive features, began to evolve from the rounder, more bulbuos shape atop a long, turned neckto one with a more basic and uniform appearance by the 1860's.At the height of Mount Lebanon's prominence as a manufacturer of chairs during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the finial was described as an "acorn" with a rather pointed acorn shape on a well-defined collar.

Sharon Duane Koomler - Curator of Collections, Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

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