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Date: 1850
Medium: Soft maple; cloth tape (Tape seat is late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century)
Overall: 40 × 18 5/8 × 14 3/4in. (101.6 × 47.3 × 37.5cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with funds from the Verne S. Swan Fund
Object number: 70.7
Label Text
The sect known as the Shakers is a Protestant millennial group whose celibate members live in a communal environment. The Shakers are widely recognized for creating a style of American furniture known for its simple elegance. Their designs, a natural outgrowth of the sect's beliefs in simplicity, humility, honesty, and prudence, were attempts to harmonize their beliefs with their surroundings.

This chair has tilters of an early design. Tilters are wooden balls (held in sockets by rawhide cords) that swiveled to ingeniously permit the sitter to lean back in the chair while the rear feet remained flat on the floor.

Text Entries

The sect known as the Shakers is a Protestant millennial group whose celibate members live in a communal environment. Members settled first in New York and New England in the last decades of the eighteenth century. By 1810 Shaker settlements also existed in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.(1) Only one very small community of Shakers, located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, remains. At the sect’s height of acceptance, however, hundreds of converts were added to the Shaker “families,” which were independent entities with their own leaders, farms, and businesses. Geographically contiguous “families” were united into communities that often bore the name of the nearest town.(2)

The Shakers are widely recognized for creating a style of American furniture known for its simple elegance. Their designs, a natural outgrowth of the sect’s beliefs in simplicity, humility, honesty, and prudence, were the results of their attempts to harmonize their surroundings with their beliefs. Most Shaker communities included workshops where members made chairs and other pieces of furniture; throughout the nineteenth century the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York, the largest of the Shaker villages, made chairs for its own members and to sell to other Shaker villages and the public.(3) The history of chairmaking at New Lebanon is obscure, but surviving documents show that it had begun by 1789 and continued as a cottage industry until after the Civil War, when the business was greatly expanded.(4( Although Shaker records have yielded the names of some New Lebanon chairmakers (Gilbert Avery, Benjamin Lyon, and John Bishop), students of Shaker furniture have neither been able to connect chair styles with specific makers nor to date individual chairs precisely.(5) However, in the interval between the fabrication of the earliest eighteenth-century chairs and the production of the elegant chairs of the 1850s, Shaker seating furniture can be chronologically arranged according to evolving design details.(6)

The earliest New Lebanon chairs, the lathe-turned slat-back chairs common in the eighteenth century, have turnings as stout and decorative as their “worldly” counterparts. The Shaker-chair finials or pommels on the back posts are squat or bulbous. With straight backs and rear posts that meet the floor at right angles, the chairs are practical but rigidly uncomfortable. During the next few decades, Shaker chairmakers gradually changed this generic form into a uniquely Shaker creation. By the 1850s New Lebanon chairs had thinner turnings and had become progressively lighter. Shaker craftsmen had also elongated and refined the pommels, canted the front and rear posts to make the chairs more comfortable, reduced the diameter of the chair posts to about one and one-eighth inches, and replaced the traditional seats of splint, rush, or cloth webbing with cane.(7) Chairs became so delicate that a stout person might doubt the wisdom of sitting on one.

As early as 1820 small buttons or tilters—wooden balls held in sockets by rawhide cords that were threaded through the bottom of the tilter, drawn tightly, and pegged through a hole in the back post (inset) —were incorporated into Shaker chair design. These ingenious devices swiveled to permit the sitter to tilt backward while the rear feet of the chair remained flat on the floor. This stabilized the chair and kept its feet from marring the floor when a sitter leaned back. A few extraordinarily lightweight chairs were fitted with pewter tilters, patented by the Shakers in 1852.(8) Thus tilters date the chairs, and they identify the last stage of Shaker chair design before the sect began factory production.

The MWPI Shaker side chair most closely resembles New Lebanon chairs made about 1850.(9) Its posts and stretchers are thin, but they are not as delicate as those found on chairs from the patent-tilter era. The pommels are more elongated and refined with a smoother transition along the narrow neck than what is seen on the chairs of the early 1840s, and the chair has tilters of an early design. The MWPI chair was constructed to have a splint or cloth seat rather than a cane seat.

 Essay by Jerry V. Grant and Timothy D. Rieman 

1. For more information about Shaker history and theology, see Stephen]. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), and Priscilla Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986).

2. A Shaker family could have as few as twelve or as many as 130 members, and a Shaker community or village might have as few as two families or as many as eight.

3. The village at New Lebanon, N.Y., had eight families—the Church, Center, Second, North, East, South, Upper Canaan, and Lower Canaan families. Over the years chair shops were located within several of these families. In 1861, when a post office was established in the village, the community’s name was changed to Mount Lebanon to differentiate it from the town of New Lebanon. New Lebanon is used here for consistency.

4. See Edward Deming Andrews, The Community Industries of the Shakers (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1933), for a description of the production of Shaker chairs for sale to the “outside world.“

5. Gilbert Avery lived and made chairs at the Upper Canaan Family, Benjamin Lyon at the Center Family, and John Bishop at the Second Family.

6. For further discussion and illustrations of New Lebanon Shaker chairs from different periods, see Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman, The Shaker Chair (Winchester, Ohio: The Canal Press, 1984).

7. The earliest references to the use of cloth as a seating material for Shaker chairs suggest that the Shakers used listing, a narrow strip of selvage from woven cloth hemmed on its raw edge, to make a tape that was then woven for the seat. Later, the Shakers wove material, variously called tape braid, webbing, and lace, especially for chair seats. When New Lebanon Shakers began to make chairs for commercial purposes, factory-woven worsted tape was purchased for the chairs.

8. Design patent 8771, U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C. The patent was granted on Mar. 2, 1852, to George O. Donnell for “a new and improved mode of preventing the wear and tear of carpets and the marring of floors caused by the corners of the back posts of chairs as they take their natural motion of rocking backward and forward.”

9. Although the chair does not retain its original finish and its seat has been replaced with a replica of Shaker webbing, the chair closely matches a number of other New Lebanon chairs that survive in public and private collections.