In Old Chatham, New York, roughly 225 km north of New York City and 30 km southeast of the state capital in Albany, 18,000 buckets, brushes, bowls, benches, bonnets, chests, chairs, and chisels rest in a warren of stuffy farm buildings. These objects, representing the world’s most comprehensive collection of Shaker artifacts, are neatly organized and thoroughly cataloged, yet they haven’t been on public view in over a decade. Sometime in the next couple years, though, when both funding and supply chains are more secure, the whole menagerie will move 13 km down the road to Chatham, where they’ll populate the exhibition galleries and climate-controlled storage facilities of the new Shaker Museum, designed by New York-based Selldorf Architects.
I’ve been invited to write an article on the new museum and how it embodies Shaker ideals of order. So, I’ve spent the past few weeks learning about the millenarian Protestant sect, more properly known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, which once numbered in the thousands but is now sustained by only two Believers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Popularly recognized for their ecstatic dancing, their celibacy and separatism, their commitment to communal ownership, and their minimalist aesthetics, the Shakers also embraced racial inclusion and gender equity (the group was founded by Mother Ann Lee), sustainable farming practices, and, most pertinent to The Prepared readers, innovative, technologically-advanced manufacturing and engineering. All were informed by their religious belief. And while their elegant tables, quaint villages, and quirky contraptions tend to invite romanticization, it’s important to remember that the community also encompassed paradox: the Shakers were removed from “the World,” yet regularly did business with it; they embraced both simplicity and technological advancement; they manifested their faith through both rapturous movement and rigorous order; and they promoted social equality while governing their own community through what some regarded as a rather “despotic” centralized authority.
Still, the complexity and chaos – and seeming ethical and spiritual deficiencies – of our own contemporary world have prompted a resurgence of interest in the Shakers, particularly their material culture. The Prepared community might look to the Shakers, who prioritized utility, and ask how their legacy might prove useful for us as we reevaluate the principles undergirding our own systems of production and distribution.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~12% of opens) was a delightful gif revealing the mechanisms inside a sewing machine. In the Members' Slack, the advice on offer isn't all about vendor management and sourcing - this week we swapped tips on framing out walls and finding healthcare as a freelancer.
Planning & Strategy.
- Catherine Allen served as a member of the Shaker Central Ministry in the early 20th century, as the community’s population dwindled and various settlements closed. She argued that the group “must allow [its] customs and habits of thought and life to be remolded, not in conformity to the spirit of the world, but to the progressive spirit of the age.” Allen advocated for universal suffrage, the total separation of church and state, land reform, inheritance taxes, compulsory education for minors, municipal ownership of utilities, and, perhaps most relevant to us, “an end to exclusive rights to inventions.”
The Shakers had a fraught relationship with intellectual property. Edward Andrews, a leading (although not uncontroversial) Shaker scholar argued that,
in principle, the Shakers did not believe in patents, feeling that patent money savored of monopoly and violated the Golden Rule. It would be wrong, they held, “for the people of God to take advantage of their fellow creatures by securing patent rights and speculating thereon, as the children of the world generally do.
Shaker lore maintains that Tabitha Babbitt of the Harvard Shaker community developed the first circular saw, which was later patented by two Frenchmen. As enterprising counterfeiters continued to produce knock-off Shakers chairs and brooms and other goods, the community trademarked their chairs and sought patents for a variety of inventions – a mowing machine, a washing machine, broomcorn stripping and sorting machinery, a folding stereoscope, a piano-violin, a tilting mechanism for chair legs – to protect their economic interests and reputation.
Particularly in this age of proliferating patent, trademark, and copyright trolls, we might draw inspiration from the Shakers in exploring alternatives to intellectual property – from open source patents to Indigenous IP and traditional knowledge protections.
- While many enthusiasts celebrate the Shakers’ embrace of new technologies and commitment to innovation, the community’s “strategy,” if we might call it that, compels us to question the uncritical celebration, and supposedly inherent goodness, of innovation. As Timothy Rieman and Jean Burks note in the Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture,
On the whole, Shaker designs were not new but, rather, variations of worldly models based on community ideals, institutional needs, available materials, and the skill of the cabinetmaker. However, while the forms themselves have historical antecedents, their clarity, sharpness, and institutionalization were innovative.
Strategy committed to thoughtful refinement and critical reflection – on our practices of production, on the values they embody, on their social impact – can have greater long-term and widespread impact than innovation for its own sake.
Making & Manufacturing.
- In Shaker Built: The Form and Function of Shaker Architecture Paul Rocheleau and June Sprigg note that
many communal families had access to their own quarries, clay pits, gravel beds, and woodlots. The Hancock Shakers had a small iron mine. When the Shakers in Kentucky built with stone, they used limestone; the Shakers in New Hampshire used granite, and the Hancock Shakers used marble. Kentucky carpenters used a lot of white walnut, Hancock carpenters worked with butternut, and the New Hampshire Shakers favored birch and maple.
Today’s broken supply chains reinforce the value of similar approaches to local, sustainable sourcing. Yet we also see their limitations. Even the Shakers recognized that it’s simply infeasible, or even undesirable, to locally source all materials; historical account books show that they regularly outsourced glass, for instance. They imported merino sheep and bulls, too, to increase the diversity and hardiness of their livestock.
- As Shaker communities grew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Brothers’ labor was dedicated primarily to constructing and furnishing new dwellings, shops, and barns – most of which were made of the materials harvested from their communally held lands. The Central Ministry at New Lebanon, NY, set production standards and established protocols that were then applied across the various communities, which spread from Maine to Kentucky. But when the population stabilized, in the early 19th century, craftsmen were often then able to turn their attention toward more customized constructions – including myriad work counters and desks, whose arrangement of drawers and surfaces suited the very particular needs of specific tasks and workers. As June Sprigg describes in Shaker Design, some desks had drawers that opened on three sides, to allow multiple bodies to gather around a garment or gadget-in-the-making, or wheels to allow for movement around the shop.
- Most makers recognize the workbench as a manifestation of their own idiosyncratic ways of thinking and doing. Scott Landis and Christopher Schwarz have both celebrated and diagramed this most utilitarian and intimate of apparatuses. My dad, a furniture maker, has used his own workbench as a means of testing different joinery and finishing techniques and organizational strategies. That order also materializes in the spaces where we buy the tools and materials to make and stock our workbenches. A few years ago, shortly after my family sold our own hardware store, I wrote about the cultural history and continued social value of these community anchors.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- The Shakers’ entire built world was engineered to maintain communitarian values and social order. Their furnishings, including especially their magnificent, monumental built-in cabinets (more here, here, here, and here), were designed both to provide “a place for everything and everything in its place,” and to facilitate the everyday maintenance of that place, by minimizing the need for dusting and sweeping. The community frequently adapted furnishings and equipment for new uses, too.
- The Shakers foreshadowed widespread recent discussion about maintenance and care – including an essay I wrote a few years ago, which engages with the work of the Maintainers network – as well as advocacy that designers, engineers, manufacturers, and policymakers plan for both the everyday upkeep and long-term maintenance of our built world: from our software to our building systems to our logistical infrastructures.
Distribution & Logistics.
Mail-order catalogs helped the Shakers distribute their ladder-back chairs, packaged seeds, and herbal medicines (like these) around the world. The catalog, which depends upon the existence of postal infrastructure, has, since the 19th century, played a key role in distributing goods – and in shaping the way those goods are designed, manufactured, packaged, marketed, shipped, used, and disposed of. Today, Shaker Workshops, which specializes in furniture reproductions, relies on a digital catalog to distribute its furniture kits from New Hampshire. As I argued in an essay I published last summer, the kit is itself a logistical genre: it’s a means of packaging and delivering ideas and things and methods.
The Shakers’ principled aesthetic has new resonance in this age of pandemics, geopolitical unrest, crypto-grift, and misinformation. Critics and theorists propose that Shaker design’s proto-minimalism could prompt us to simplify and engage in critical reflection about the values we’re building into our world – and many contemporary fashion designers, furniture makers, architects, artists, and even restaurateurs have taken up the mantle. Ours is simply the latest wave of Shaker Fever, which tends to grip the nation during tumultuous periods.