Review by Robert P. Emlen
The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture

Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks. The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. 400 pp.; 117 color and 283 bw illustrations, bibliography, glossary, index. $75.00

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Barnes and Noble, another book on Shaker furniture has appeared in the shop window. It’s not as though the world has been lacking for literature on the subject: over the years we have seen a stream of books on the furniture of this communal sect, including, for example, Shaker Furniture, Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture, The American Shakers and Their Furniture, Illustrated Guide to Shaker Furniture, Drawings of Shaker Furniture, The Book of Shaker Furniture, The Shaker Chair, and Shaker Furniture Makers, to say nothing of the scores of magazine articles, dozens of exhibition catalogues, and hundredweights of volumes of color plates, all about the Shakers but dwelling chiefly on their furniture. Could there possibly be anything more to say? Could anyone possibly come up with one more original title?

Yes, and yes. At 400 pages and 5.2 pounds, The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture is the best (and biggest) book on the subject. Authors Timothy D. Rieman (woodworker, historian of craft technology, and coauthor of The Shaker Chair) and Jean M. Burks (adjunct professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, and author of Documented Furniture at Canterbury Shaker Village and of Birmingham Brass Candlesticks) have created a comprehensive regional and chronological study of the furniture produced by members of America’s oldest communal society. Theirs is the first book to embrace the full range of Shaker furniture made in communities from Maine to Kentucky, from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

What has taken furniture historians so long to come to terms with Shaker furniture? How hard could this task be? The Shakers’ communities numbered fewer than twenty, populated by a membership of probably no more than 20,000 souls over the course of 220 years. What could be so elusive about country furniture made and used in self-contained communities that the task of distinguishing its regional characteristics and identifying its makers could have sustained a minor industry of book production?

Plenty, it seems. The Shakers had the gift to be simple, and the stylistic analysis of furniture can be tough going when the subject’s most distinctive feature is its lack of ornament. A comparative analysis of construction techniques can be just as hard when the makers of this furniture espoused uniformity as a virtue. Even the role of documentary evidence is limited in supporting field research in Shaker materials. Although the Shakers wrote extensively about their spiritual lives, they showed an annoying lack of interest in the material world, and their records yield relatively little mention of their furniture and the men and women who made it. What is more, the provenance of Shaker furniture is not always what it seems at first look. As the authors of this new book repeatedly demonstrate, not all furniture in Shaker villages was of Shaker manufacture. Some was brought along by converts when they joined a community, and some the Shakers went out and purchased. Of the furniture actually made by the Shakers, some migrated from one community to the next as needs dictated, confounding collectors who assumed that tracing an object to a specific community also determined its place of origin. These complexities and subtleties of Shaker material life often eluded early writers (my favorite example being the recent conclusion that, in Shaker parlance, the term “clothes pins” probably refers to the ubiquitous pegs mounted on the walls of their rooms, thus laying to rest the canard about Shakers inventing laundry clothespins). In comparison with those earlier books, however, The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture is characterized by a sophisticated methodology of furniture scholarship, informed by unprecedented access to research materials in Shaker collections.

In the course of this study the authors examined well over a thousand pieces of furniture. On page after page of their handsome book are excellent illustrations and knowledgeable descriptions of an encyclopedic variety of chairs, tables, beds, clocks, counters, chests, cupboards, and cases, many published here for the first time. Throughout, the authors support their findings with impressive written and pictorial evidence from virtually every archival source imaginable. Over the ten years it took them to conduct their research, they also drew upon a wave of important new scholarship in the field. Their comprehensive book synthesizes authoritative information from such diverse sources as June Sprigg’s observations on original finishes, Jerry Grant’s biographical study of Shaker cabinetmakers, Priscilla Brewer’s work on the historical demography of Shakerism, Steven Stein’s examination of the philosophical underpinnings of the Shaker experience, and the research of the late Br. Theodore E. Johnson and of the late Edward F. Nickels, whose community-based studies of the furniture of the Maine Shakers and the furniture of the Kentucky Shakers were presented at the ground-breaking symposium on Shaker furniture held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982.

The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture is divided into two parts. In the first section, the authors set the stage by describing the Shaker experience in America. The Shakers’ origins and their daily life, the cultural context of Shakerism, Shaker design, and the tools and technology of nineteenth-century America are all discussed here and all extensively documented by historical references. Those readers familiar with Rieman’s article on Shaker built-in furniture in the spring 1995 issue of Home Furniture or with Burks’s article on the evolution of design in Shaker furniture in the May 1994 issue of Antiques will recognize the individual contributions of the authors to this book. Rieman the woodworker interprets historical process through the toolmarks Shaker cabinetmakers left on their work. His precise mechanical drawings of case pieces illustrate his analysis of the patterns and proportions that characterize Shaker furniture, and in words recorded in the journals of the nineteenth-century Shaker cabinetmaker Freegift Wells, he takes us step by step through the construction of a single piece of furniture from green lumber to finished bookcase.

Burks the historian relates specific pieces of Shaker furniture to designs in commercial furniture pattern books and to comparable furniture produced by the Shakers’ contemporaries in nineteenth-century America. The concept that the Shakers were influenced by their surrounding cultural environment is illustrated in side-by-side comparisons of Shaker furniture with its non-Shaker counterparts. Though these comparisons occur inconsistently and are lamentably few, they do effectively refute the simplistic perception of the Shakers as unique beings existing in a cultural vacuum.

In their second section, the authors tighten their focus to identify the actual furniture made and used by the Shakers. Wisely, they have organized this part not primarily by form but by form within a geographical region, demonstrating how the furniture within a bishopric (the Shakers’ term for individual villages linked by geography and administered under a central authority) shares common characteristics. Following the model of furniture study developed in the 1970s, they start by identifying specific elements of architectural woodwork extant in original Shaker buildings. Having recognized the local vocabulary of furniture making, the idiosyncrasies of joinery, turning, and molding and of woods, finish, and hardware, the authors proceed to identify related features in a variety of forms and styles of freestanding furniture, which can then be ascribed to each community. In the course of their research, the authors also encountered numerous pieces signed or otherwise marked by their makers (in apparent violation of Shaker law), strengthening the attributions to specific craftsmen and expanding the list of known Shaker furniture makers to more than 250 names.

The authors make an important contribution in identifying furniture from outside the Shakers’ “classic” period of from 1820 to 1840. Anyone who hasn’t read a Shaker furniture book since the late Robert F. W. Meader concluded his 1972 Illustrated Guide to Shaker Furniture with a discussion of “the horrors of Victorianism” is in for a big surprise here. Starting with the frontispiece, where a plain, painted washstand made ca. 1840 in Enfield, New Hampshire, is paired with a ca. 1890 Grand Rapids–inspired desk made by Br. Delmer Wilson at Sabbathday Lake, the authors make clear their intention to encompass the entire range of Shaker furniture—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Along with superstars in the league of the celebrated $200,000 work counter purchased at auction in 1990 by Oprah Winfrey, they also document some of the rare early and stylistically undeveloped Shaker furniture as well as the fancier furniture inspired by changing tastes in Shaker communities after the Civil War. The authors are also to be commended for eschewing some old standards in favor of illustrating previously unpublished examples (though I do wonder about the fairly weird tripod stand with a “possibly unique” birdcage [fig. 127, p. 188], which, despite its unlikely appearance and the apparent absence of any provenance, is attributed to the Enfield, Connecticut, community, presumably on the basis of lathe turnings alone). From village to village, the authors are so conscientious about documenting even the wallflowers of Shaker furniture that one can forgive their occasional excursion into such airy captions as, “Beautifully constructed of heavily figured curly maple, this is one of the finest Western Shaker case pieces extant (p. 291).”

Rieman’s excellent photographs of Shaker furniture are augmented by his detailed drawings. Among my favorites is a diagram clearly explaining the workings of a wonderfully complicated mechanism for locking simultaneously the five drawers of a sewing case (p. 180). This book is also richly illustrated with historical images—period photographs, wood engravings, and watercolor renderings from the Index of American Design. When these pictures are integrated with the text, they enrich the authors’ presentation by serving as the visual evidence of Shaker history. When the authors illustrate historic photographs or a Shaker “spirit” drawing without any accompanying explanation, however, as they sometimes do in the introductory section, these images are left stranded outside the interpretive structure with their potential as historical evidence unrealized. Because historical images are employed so effectively elsewhere in the book, certain sections suffer by comparison when these images are used as decoration.

This book is by and large of a descriptive nature. Though several times it crosses the threshold into interpretation, using furniture as a means of revealing Shaker history, it generally adheres to the authors’ stated goal “to develop useful criteria to help identify Shaker furniture and, when possible, to determine the community of origin, the construction date, and the name of the maker (p. 11).” The authors accomplish this task splendidly. Not only do they decipher Abner Allen’s signature on the back of a drawer, thereby finally setting the record straight and expunging the apocryphal “Abner Alley” from the list of Shaker furniture makers, but they make a creditable attribution of a whole group of furniture based on the characteristics of this one signed chest (pp. 190–91).

Authors Rieman and Burks have done an exemplary job of factoring the complicated and elusive corpus of Shaker furniture down to its primary elements. It’s all here: the cabinetmakers, the woods, the construction techniques, the signatures, the finishes, and the communities of origin. This book is a storehouse of the information that has eluded generations of students of Shaker furniture since Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews published their pioneering article on the subject in 1928. With such an enormous amount of facts firmly in hand, one would expect The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture to be the last word on the subject; but this book reveals just enough about the Shakers themselves, their yearning for perfection, their ambivalence about conformity, to open the window to larger questions about the place of material objects in Shaker life. For the Shakers, furniture was never an end in itself, of course, and the social historians among us await a study of what meaning their furniture held for them. Such abstractions, however, were never the purpose of this book. The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture delivers on its promise to serve up the facts, and in that regard, it is hard to imagine how it can be surpassed.

Robert P. Emlen
Brown University

American Furniture 1995