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Artist: South Family, Shaker Community (New Lebanon, New York)

Date: c. 1895
Medium: Soft maple, cloth tape
Overall: 33 5/8 × 40 1/2 × 20 1/4in. (85.4 × 102.9 × 51.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 70.8
Label Text
Shaker-made settees are extraordinarily rare. They were not included in the Shakers' catalogues but were created out of their existing line of chairs. Fewer than a half-dozen settees survive; some are larger than this example, which suggests that all may have been made to order.

A settee was made from standard armchair parts with extra-long front and back stretchers to hold a double seat. To bear the weight of an extra person, the stretchers that carry the woven seat and back are thicker than those on chairs.

Text Entries
By 1850 Shaker communities were well- established and respectable parts of the American landscape, and Shaker agricultural and manufactured products  were noted for their  high quality. In New England and New York, Shaker families had reached their peak member­ ship by midcentury, and many had excess capital.(1) At New Lebanon, New York, Shakers invested this capital to change their cottage-industry chair business into a commercially competitive chair factory. The earliest sign that members were enlarging the chair business came when the Second Family Shakers printed its first price list for chairs in the 1850s. Between 1860 and 1863 the Shakers made   production more efficient by standardizing the sizes of their chairs.

In 1863 the New Lebanon chair business was placed under the supervision of thirty-year old Robert M. Wagan. For the next decade Wagan slowly improved the business, but old equipment and reliance on seasonal waterpower limited annual production to about six hundred chairs. In 1872, under Wagan's direction, the community spent twenty-five thousand dollars on a chair factory with new machinery powered by steam. Shakers as well as non-Shakers from the surrounding towns worked in the factory.(2) "Br. Robert is enterprising," observed Henry C. Blinn, a leader from the Shaker community at Canterbury, New Hampshire. "He says anything will sell that is carried into the market."(3) To take advantage of those markets, Wagan published a series of catalogues illustrating the various sizes and models of chairs available from the community." The Shakers also sold chairs to retailers such as Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, Illinois. By 1885 production and sales had more than quadrupled. Wagan died in 1883, and the management of the chair business passed to William Anderson, who continued the business at roughly the same level into the twentieth century.

The variety of Shaker chair styles available to customers was considerable. The commercially made chairs were fabricated in eight sizes ranging from "0," a child's chair, to "7," the largest adult chair. Chairs could be ordered with or without arms, with or without rockers, with acorn-shaped finials, and with rails from which to hang padded cushions. Customers could choose wood slats or woven cloth-tape backs, select from four different finishes, and pick from a number of colors of webbing and plush cushions. The Shakers were willing to accommodate a customer's request for special modifications, even to the point of making chairs in older styles.

Shaker-made settees are extraordinarily rare-they were not included in the Shakers ' chair catalogues but were created out of the standard line of chairs. It is not known whether the impetus for this innovation was developed by the Shakers, by one of their wholesale customers, or by a special order from an individual, but they seem to have first been made in the mid-1890s. A railroad receipt elated April 5, 1895, records the shipping of two settees from the Shakers to Marshall Field and Company.(5) The sales of a few other settees are recorded about this time, and the July 1895 issue of the Shakers' monthly magazine, The Manifesto, mentions that there "continues a constant demand for the famous Shaker chairs, sofas, [and] footrests.”(6)

Settees were made from standard armchair parts, but extra long front and back stretchers were used to create a double seat. In order to bear the weight of an additional person, the stretchers that carry the woven seat and back are thicker than those on the chairs. The length of the back posts and depth of the seat suggest that the MWPI settee was made from part s of two different standard chairs. The back and front posts are probably from the size "3" side chair. To provide a deeper seat, the Shakers apparently used side stretchers and arms from the size "6" chair. Fewer than a half-dozen Shaker settees survive; some of them are somewhat larger, which suggests that all may have been made to order.

Essay by Jerry V. Grant and Timothy D. Rieman

1. For a discussion of the successful development of Shaker communities in the antebellum period, see Priscilla J. Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986). For a general discussion of the growth the of Shaker industry and agriculture, see Edward Deming Andrews, The Community Industries of the Shakers (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1932).

2. For a detailed history of the development of the New Lebanon chair factory, see Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman, The Shaker Chair (Winchester, Ohio: The Canal Press, 1984).

3. Henry Blinn's diary, Canterbury, N.H., 1872, as quoted in Muller and Rieman, The Shaker Chair; p. 169.

4. See, for example, "Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Shakers' Chairs Manufactured by the Society of Shakers" (R M. Wagan & Co., ca. 1876), reproduced in Robert F. W. Meader, Illustrated Guide to Shaker Furniture (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972), p. 126ff.

5. Receipt, Boston & Albany Railroad, Apr. 5, 1895, Edward Deming Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection (no. SA 934), Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del. Also described in E. Richard McKinstry, comp., The Edward Deming Andrews Memorial   Shaker Collection (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987), manuscript no. 1147.

6. The Manifesto (July 1895). The publication was printed at the Canterbury, N. H., Shaker Village under various titles between January 1871 and December 1899.