It was 1774. A small, radical group of English Protestants emigrated to America, coming to port in Watervliet, NY. Within a half century’s time, these dancing, singing ‘Shaking Quakers’ had founded a network of principled, self-sufficient communities that stretched from Maine to the Midwest; parts of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Their religiously motivated self-sufficiency was coupled with principles of simplicity, utility and honesty. They built homes, cultivated food, made tools and designed furniture with great humility and care. Their work, as they would have it, became a form of prayer.
Historians admit that looking back across the centuries, the Shakers were—at their peak—probably the largest and most successful utopian group to take root in American soil. And their legacy of craft and handwork has proven to be an exemplary—and highly collectible—one.
Some consider Shaker to be the first American furniture style. Function certainly inspired form and pieces were crafted for friends and neighbors with incredible attention to detail. Shaker craftsmen favored native woods like maple, pine, cherry and walnut and in place of imported brass pulls, they hand-turned wooden knobs to silken perfection. Avoiding the temptations of embellishment and ornamentation, the Shakers let their design and material selection distinguish their furniture. When they began to sell their goods at public market, the quality of their offerings set them far apart from the mass-produced, factory-born products of their competitors.
Richard Bissell’s Shaker Sideboard below was the first piece crafted from wood harvested on his land in Putney. For a Shaker fan in Seattle, it’s a custom version of his Four Drawer Sideboard with the same dovetailed drawers and pinned mortise and tenon joints you’d find in any of the period pieces.
History provided by the National Park Service tells us that the Shaker’s New Hampshire ladder-back chair ‘received a medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’ combining the qualities of strength, sprightliness, and modest beauty.’ The chair was so popular that it was registered with the US Patent Office, so the Shakers were innovators, too.
Any one of the McGuire Family of Furniture Makers will tell you that they don’t build Shaker-style, they build Shaker; and they do it with a foundation of American antique expertise and supreme craftsmanship. Their solid cherry side chairs at right, and their tall and dwarf Shaker clocks have been featured in magazines, movie productions and shipped around the world.
The 20th century saw the decline of Shaker communities. We’re fortunate that a handful of collectors and museum professionals embarked on an early quest for preservation. The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Decorative Arts houses one of the most complete Shaker collections. The National Park Service maintains fifteen shaker architectural sites distributed along their Heritage Trail.
Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers members craft heirloom furniture pieces with the time-tested methods employed by the Shakers. Some pieces are exact reproductions and some are more interpretive.
Designers favor the clean lines and graceful silhouettes while first time collectors appreciate the affordability of a simply constructed piece that does not sacrifice quality or craftsmanship. Whether it’s a restoration, reproduction or completely new inspiration, our makers are producing some of the finest pieces in the country.
When you commission a furniture item from the Guild, you’ll be supporting a kind of living preservation of Shaker history and celebrating a tradition of craftsmanship that set the bar for American makers.
Shaker furniture is solid, sound, and American made and we’re channeling it with a purity and grace that’s unmatched in the marketplace. This is the kind of furniture that brings warmth and serenity to the home. It’s handcrafted, time-tested and darn good looking.