Arriving in the colony of New York in 1774 from England, Ann Lee and her eight followers set about creating a model communal society in what would become the United States. Officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shakers believed in Christ’s imminent return. Their support of pacifism, near equality between the sexes that allowed women to take on leadership roles, and perfectionism set them apart from most Americans. Within a decade, they had begun creating a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth through their worship, work ethic, and construction of orderly villages with buildings and furniture meant to reinforce religious belief and shape and control behavior. From humble beginnings, the sect created a total of twenty-two communities beginning in the 1780s, spreading from Maine to Indiana and as far south as Georgia and Florida, though these latter two sites and the one in Indiana were short lived. During periods of religious revivalism in the United States in the late 18th and early19th centuries, the Shakers attracted hundreds of converts who gave up their worldly possessions to live celibate, communal lives. After a peak population of over three thousand in the1840s, the Shakers have dwindled to just three members inhabiting the only surviving living community of Sabbathday Lake, near New Gloucester, Maine. The Shakers’ demographic and economic success over several decades left a legacy of buildings at numerous locations throughout the eastern United States. Some of these villages have become museum sites, most notably Hancock, Massachusetts; Mount Lebanon, New York; Canterbury, New Hampshire; and Pleasant Hill and South Union, both in Kentucky. Other Shaker buildings remain as private residences and parts of retirement communities and state prisons. In many ways, Shaker architecture reflects contemporary regional vernacular building practices, such as the closely spaced anchor bents in the framing of the earliest meetinghouses in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and eastern New York State, and the rather grand masonry structures of the dwelling houses and trustees’ offices in Kentucky. The linear arrangement of buildings, their large size, and separate entrances for men and women distinguished Shaker buildings from those of the outside world, though stylistically they appeared much like non-Shaker buildings. The Shakers organized building interiors to use space efficiently with many built-in cabinets and drawers, installed pegboards on walls for storage and to help keep floors clear for cleaning, and included separate staircases to demarcate men’s and women’s areas. The buildings, especially the meetinghouses and dwelling houses, reminded Shakers of their commitment to their faith and to their distinctive way of living and encouraged them to “put their hands to work and their hearts to God,” a saying attributed to Ann Lee. Nevertheless, the Shakers were not immune from influences from the outside world. They needed to interact with outsiders to encourage the economic success of their villages and to attract converts. As their population shrank in the latter half of the 19th century, they turned increasingly to hired help to assist with building construction and other aspects of daily life. The Shakers also embraced stylistic changes in architecture and furniture; their buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflect these influences with added ornamentation inside and out, as well as embellished furnishings either made by the Shakers or purchased from non-Shaker furniture makers. Rather than undercut any appreciation of the simple style for which the Shakers are best known, these changes show the group as always practical and responsive to changes in mainstream society.
The Shakers have been an object of both scorn and fascination since their early years in America. Initial scholarly interest in the material culture of the Shakers began in the early 20th century with their furniture and objects, such as oval boxes. For some early collectors and scholars, the perceived simplicity of Shaker architecture and objects reflected a truly American creation. For others, simplicity appealed to the modernist predilection for functionalism and lack of ornament. No truly comprehensive scholarly analysis of Shaker architecture exists. Early works on Shaker architecture tend to be descriptive and present the buildings as reflective of the sect’s simplicity, perfection, and isolation, following the approach applied to the sect’s decorative arts, though some later publications persist in presenting this perspective; see Anderson 1969, Andrews 1937, Rocheleau and Sprigg 1994, and Schiffer 1979. Since the 1990s, however, some works have approached Shaker architecture through a more critical lens, seeking to examine its theological roots (Emerich 1992, Meader 1966, and McLendon 2010) and place the Shakers in a larger context of American architectural history, as in Hayden 1976, Nicoletta and Morgan 1995, and Swank 1999 (cited under Villages).
Anderson, Philip James. “The Simple Builders: The Shakers, Their Villages and Architecture.” PhD diss., St. Louis University, 1969.
The first dissertation written on Shaker architecture; broad in its descriptive approach and views, but provides little analysis or insights beyond interpreting Shakers as simple builders.
Andrews, Edward Deming. “Communal Architecture of the Shakers.” Magazine of Art 30.12 (December 1937): 710–715.
Written at a time when only five Shaker communities remained, this article presents the buildings as having a distinctive “Shaker look” reflective of the sect’s unity and simplicity and desire for functionalism and perfection. William F. Winter’s photographs show interiors devoid of furniture except for built-in cabinets and drawers.
Emerich, A. Donald. “American Monastic; or, The Meaning of Shaker Architecture.” Nineteenth Century 11.3/4 (1992): 3–11.
Builds on the concept of the Shakers as a monastic community and argues that the sect’s architecture survives as the strongest metaphor (more than the furniture or other objects) of the Shakers’ belief systems. The author points to the meetinghouse, the dwelling house, and the trustees’ office as the most distinctive building types in Shaker villages.
Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976.
A groundbreaking book that examines the connection between architecture and social belief systems among seven American communitarian groups from the 18th to the 20th centuries. One chapter is devoted to the Shakers, focusing on the Hancock community.
McLendon, Arthur. “‘Ye Living Building:’ Spirit, Space, and Ritual Encounter in Shaker Architecture.” PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2010.
An important contribution to scholarship on Shaker architecture that notes the simultaneous development of early Shaker theological doctrine with architectural form and function. Focuses on the role of Shaker spiritual belief in the shaping of buildings and landscapes, reinforcing ritual in the daily life of the sect.
Meader, Robert F. W. “Reflections on Shaker Architecture.” Shaker Quarterly 6.2 (1966): 35–44.
This article describes the sect as a Protestant monastic order with villages in the form of a medieval “double monastery” housing both men and women. Argues that the Shakers drew on their pre-conversion knowledge and erected buildings based on adaptations of forms in the outside world.
Nicoletta, Julie, and Bret Morgan. The Architecture of the Shakers. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1995.
This volume covers a range of building types at many Shaker villages through the lens of social history and beautiful photographs shot with natural light by Bret Morgan. Asserts a more critical view of Shaker architecture than most previous works that present the Shakers and their buildings as simple and isolated from the outside world.
Rocheleau, Paul, and June Sprigg. Shaker Built: The Form and Function of Shaker Architecture. New York: Monacelli Press, 1994.
This lavishly illustrated and produced book provides an introduction to the architecture of the Shakers, covering various building types at villages ranging from New England to Kentucky. Focuses on aesthetics and perpetuates the myth of the Shakers as simple builders.
Schiffer, Herbert F., comp. Shaker Architecture. Exton, PA: Schiffer, 1979.
Reproduces Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) drawings and photographs of structures from sixteen Shaker communities accompanied by brief passages of descriptive text.
Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
Since its publication, Stein’s history has been the most definitive, comprehensive account of the Shakers. Includes discussions of the sect’s architecture and the place of the Shakers in popular culture. Excellent bibliography.
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