Review by Scott T. Swank
The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief

John T. Kirk. The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. 288 pp.; 82 color and 195 bw illus., map, appendix, bibliography, chronology, index. $60.00.

John T. Kirk’s The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief is one of the most important books on the Shakers to be published in the past decade. The book makes a significant contribution to American decorative arts scholarship by placing the Shaker aesthetic within the larger history of design and by advancing the study of Shaker furniture.

The Shaker World is an audacious title for a big, bold, and brash book, which will serve for many years to come as an art historical complement to Stephen J. Stein’s The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (1992). In many respects, Kirk surveys the material history of the Shakers, just as Stein surveyed their intellectual, religious, and organizational history. The two books are essential reference works on the Shakers and are complementary, even though they are dissimilar in tone and organization. Although both are necessary foundation blocks for understanding the Shakers, both struggle with the same difficulty—how to fit all Shakers into “The Experience” or “The World.”

The book is also a landmark in the evolution of John Kirk’s distinguished career as a design historian. The Shakers, as Kirk now freely admits, were not always on his design horizon. In The Impecunious Collector’s Guide to American Antiques (1975), Kirk wrote: “The myth persists that anything Shaker is great, and that anything simple is Shaker. . . . [D]espite what is generally believed the Shakers did not—as a result of their retirement from the world and their focus on spiritual things—create a radically new concept of design contrary to their surrounding world” (pp. 19, 35).

In short, the Shakers were hardly worth the attention of decorative arts and design historians in 1975, according to John Kirk. Edward and Faith Andrews had created a particularistic myth of the Shakers, and their tunnel vision could be dismissed either as a lack of interest in a broader historical context or, more cynically, as a point of view serving their collector/dealer interests. In 1975 Kirk was more interested in exposing and debunking the myth than in trying to explain what the Shakers were doing.

Fast forward to 1997. The Shaker World is a major book on the Shakers by the same John Kirk, who has spent the past several years looking at Shaker-made objects, visiting Shaker museums, creating Shaker exhibitions, and consulting with curators, collectors, and dealers who specialize in Shaker materials. In addition, he has sought insight from the remaining Shakers at the last community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

What is the result of this twenty-two-year odyssey? Kirk’s thesis in The Shaker World is that Shaker design is an intentional refinement of the prevailing rural vernacular expression of American neoclassicism. The Shakers took the design aesthetic of their region and time and adjusted it to fit their particular theological injunctions (p. 7). In this study, Kirk wants to forever bury the myth of celebratory particularism that has had a persistent hold on Shaker decorative arts studies, in spite of numerous challenges to the work of the Andrews. His goal is to link Shaker and non-Shaker design history, to contextualize the Shakers, and to bring them into the general history of design.

Kirk’s new-found respect for Shaker design allows him to credit the Shakers with a positive, selective reduction of vernacular neoclassicism to its essential components of form, geometry, and color, and with a refinement of that style over a longer time than that of the rural New England vernacular tradition from which the Shakers drew their original inspiration. In Kirk’s view, the Shakers developed a well-defined aesthetic sense in the early years of the nineteenth century, borrowing freely from the world in executing their design concepts and expressing gospel order. Freely accepting change and, at the same time, managing the marketing of their public image of simplicity, the Shakers maintained design flexibility over time.

The Shaker World is organized in a general chronological sequence, with the first two chapters devoted to the theological and historical contexts of Shakerism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The subsequent eight chapters develop the following themes and topics: “Shaker Design: Sources, Central Control, and Regional Differences”; “The Shakers and Beauty”; “Visual Affirmation of Order—A Gift Drawing, a Case of Drawers, a Meetinghouse, a Barn, and Dances”; “The ‘Classic’ Objects”; “Color and Varnish: History and Worldly Practices, and Shaker Use”; “Era of Manifestations, 1837–1850”; “After 1860”; and “The Twentieth Century.”

John Kirk’s writing is creative and engaging, but The Shaker World is a dense, rambling work, difficult to penetrate. My first reading was sequential within a short period of two weeks. I was filled with the anticipation of discovery, and I was richly rewarded. But one of the discoveries was that The Shaker World is a book to be mined over time. Kirk has given us a series of essays on the history of design that are loosely connected but, for the most part, can be profitably read on their own. Although Kirk uses Shaker furniture as an organizing theme for the book, it is not a catalogue of furniture or of any other body of Shaker artifacts.

The first two chapters of history are competently done and provide critical background information on the history and beliefs of the Shakers. There is little new information here, but this introduction is not where Kirk has chosen to develop his thesis. Instead, he is intent on laying out the theological and social framework within which the Shakers work out their aesthetic preferences.

In chapter 3, “Shaker Design: Sources, Central Control, and Regional Differences,” Kirk develops his thesis that “Shaker design, as it emerged around 1800 to 1810, mixed two parallel and complementary themes: the elimination of unnecessary features and the expression of the neoclassical aesthetic. The congruence of these two impulses produced what is now called the ‘Shaker look,’ or ‘Classic Shaker’” (p. 39). To illustrate his thesis, Kirk discusses four drop-leaf tables and three two-drawer blanket chests, all of which seem to confirm his contention that the Shakers selectively borrowed from the rural, vernacular expressions of neoclassicism and made them their own. No matter how one reads Kirk, there is no escaping the fact that his approach is traditionally art historical in spite of the subject matter and his inclusion of topics from barns to naked dancing. Kirk endorses a cardinal principle of traditional design history—namely, that sources can be specifically identified, that such sources are linked to known designers and styles, and that the diffusion of these sources flows from urban centers to the countryside and down through the class structure of society.

On this central point of source and diffusion, Kirk’s book ultimately fails to offer a new way of thinking about the Shakers, their world, and their products. For example, drop-leaf tables and blanket chests are not the most common furniture forms among the Shakers, and not the signature bearers of Shaker cultural tradition. Kirk has developed a thesis and looked for examples to prove it rather than building his thesis from the full archaeology of Shaker material culture. Surely ladder-back chairs, work counters, and storage cupboards are more expressive of Shaker culture, and these forms are not the signature bearers of neoclassical style. In short, to label the Shaker look vernacular neoclassicism tells us little that is new or significant.

The section on sources offers useful insights on the transmission of design and production ideas among the Shaker communities. The part on central control (or lack of it) is an excellent brief summary (pp. 44–48). Kirk also adds to the thinking on regional variations among the Shakers, which was a major contribution of Tim Rieman and Jean Burks’s The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture (1993). In addition, the depth of his knowledge about the various influences on general furniture design pervades the chapter, as when he delineates the role of choice—in woods, in design, in timing, in ornamentation—as it intersects with the training and habits of the woodworkers.

“The Shakers and Beauty,” chapter 4, is a tantalizing essay but ultimately disappointing. The central point here is Kirk’s assertion that the Shakers made aesthetic choices in everything they produced. “The Shakers were, and are, not against beauty, but against ostentation” (p. 54). The Shaker aesthetic, according to Kirk, was dominated by order, harmony, utility, regularity, and appropriateness.

This approach is so obvious that one must ask why John Kirk strains to kill the gnat of ostentation. Most likely, Kirk is still jousting with Edward Deming Andrews here, in a debate that Shaker enthusiasts may appreciate but may well leave the general reader in a fog. It is helpful, nevertheless to be reminded that the 1845 Millennial Laws are an extreme expression of Shaker order and to have the 1821 Millennial Laws included as an appendix. After warning the reader not to accept the 1845 version of the laws as Shaker truth, however, Kirk seems to accept the 1821 laws as operative gospel truth. In fact, the Millennial Laws for the Shakers were primarily codifications of ministerial intent. In practice they were regulators of gospel order, especially for novitiates, but they were less theological dogma and more practical guidelines to grease the skids of group living.

One of the most provocative ideas in the chapter on beauty is Kirk’s suggestion that, for ministerial objects, “their intention to be finer is observable” (p. 59). This point could be key to understanding Shaker design, but Kirk drops the idea without teasing out its implications. Why was he not intrigued enough to explore the influence of the ministry as it affected particular material forms of expression?

Another prescient moment occurs when the author discusses the choices of the Shakers that led to a “plain” aesthetic. “What the Shakers made flowed naturally from both experiences and intentions, which are finally inseparable” (p. 54). Kirk notes that in their avoidance of ostentation the Shakers did not choose to land at the penultimate extremity of plainness but chose a middle ground for the early nineteenth century, especially in their extensive use of color to finish furniture, many woodenwares, and even architectural woodwork. “Color was everywhere in Shaker life” (p. 60).

John Kirk is superbly qualified to juxtapose the Shaker aesthetic with the “fancy” aesthetic of urban America in the 1815–1845 era. He chooses, however, to avoid the comparison except in passing references to the importance of gold in neoclassical decoration and the corresponding prevalence of yellow on and in middle-class American homes, including those of the Shakers.
As he warms to his topic, Kirk engages in some freewheeling speculation in chapter 5, “Visual Affirmation of Order: A Gift Drawing, a Case of Drawers, a Meetinghouse, a Barn, and Dances.” This chapter is fascinating reading, and only a scholar of Kirk’s stature could get away with being so speculative. This reviewer, for one, accepts the chapter as a bold, honest attempt to throw a hand grenade into the treasurehouse of Shaker studies, but most readers will have difficulty following the logic or accepting many of the conclusions in this chapter.

Kirk’s thesis in chapter 5 is that Shaker adherence to gospel order had its roots in Enlightenment rationality, as expressed in a passion for geometry and other patterns of regularity for achieving harmonious relations in design and life (p. 66). To illustrate his point, Kirk discusses the 1832 gift drawing entitled “Holy City,” a square city plan with detailed geometric patterns; an 1806 tall case of drawers with drawers decreasing in size in descending order; the 1824 New Lebanon Meetinghouse with its curved ceiling; the 1826 Round Barn at Hancock; and Shaker laboring exercises, or dances, especially those dances using squares and circles to regulate performance.

With several examples—the gift drawing, the meetinghouse, and the Round Barn—Kirk chooses three of the most exceptional Shaker creations on which to build his case for neoclassical influence upon Shaker design. Granted that all three are evocative Shaker objects, why should these three be taken so seriously as templates of Shaker design? For example, the gift drawing of the “Holy City” is a finely executed expression of idealistic community design, but it has no direct relationship to the actual planning and layout of Shaker communities, and there is no evidence that many Shakers ever saw it. The New Lebanon Meetinghouse certainly was revered among the Shakers and, in basic form, was the template for second-generation Shaker meetinghouses; however, the feature that Kirk touts as its most significant design feature, and its most neoclassical element, was the barrel roof, with the curved ceiling in the main worship space. What he does not mention is that no other Shaker community emulated the curved ceiling. As with the “Holy City” drawing, we are left with a template that other Shakers did not choose to follow.

The Round Barn at Hancock is another example of a spectacular Shaker creation that is more anomaly than template. The 1826 barn may testify to Shaker innovation as “the first truly round barn built in America” (p.76), and it may indeed have been inspired by neoclassical forms, but the Hancock community had to hire outside masons to construct the Round Barn, and no other Shaker communities followed Hancock’s example. The typical Shaker barn was a long, rectangular structure of multiple levels, laid out on the northern boundary of the physical complex where it helped serve as a windbreak from northern winds for the livestock paddocks on the southern sides of the barn.

Kirk most certainly does hit the mark in chapter 5 when discussing the geometry of Shaker dance formations and the remarkable visual floor cues that have been documented to at least three of the Shaker meetinghouses—those at Watervliet, Harvard, and Canterbury. In his relentless and thorough search for design sources, Kirk also offers here an interesting hypothesis about the origin of the idea for a curved ceiling in the 1824 New Lebanon Meetinghouse. After noting that the design has similarities to the work of Benjamin Latrobe and is clearly in the vocabulary of neoclassical design, Kirk looks to a nearby Masonic hall as the specific source for the curved ceiling. In this reference, and later in the book when he seeks design sources of spirit or gift drawings, Kirk suggests that Masonic symbols and ideas worked their way into Shaker thinking, most likely from converts who were formerly Masons. Masonic symbolism is an important and generally overlooked topic. The importance of their art and architecture in England and America, particularly in the century between 1750 and 1850, and the remarkable spread of Masonic influence have been highlighted recently in James Stevens Curl’s well-illustrated The Art and Architecture of Free Masonry (1993).

Once again, the potential Masonic source is a tantalizing idea that needs further investigation, but ultimately it may not yield much of significance for understanding the nature of Shakerism or Shaker design. The Masonic order and its rituals were for men only and were designed to mystify and obfuscate understanding for the uninitiated. The Shakers were, in spirit at least, fundamentally anti-Masonic, since they sought to bring gospel order to the world in fulfillment of the millennium.

The heart and soul of The Shaker World lies in chapter 6, “The Classic Objects,” and in chapter 7 “Color and Varnish: History and Worldly Practices, and Shaker Use.” It is in these chapters that Kirk makes his most original contributions to American art history generally and to furniture study in particular. After noting that the Shakers made objects that look like those made in the world, and had objects made for them by non-Shakers, he settles down to treat those Shaker-made objects with what he calls “the look” of Shaker. These “classic” objects “are imbued with the unique qualities of the sect’s design attitude. They exhibit an ethos so powerful that they stand out as new: original in intention and appearance” (p. 82).

For Kirk, these classic objects convey a “variety of expressions” responding to variations in the Shaker experience. It is here that Kirk departs most markedly from Edward Deming Andrews’s concept of Shaker perfection in furniture. Kirk accepts the basic premise that the Shaker look is the result of a living, changing process rather than a static definition of perfection. The classic objects in Kirk’s eye, nevertheless, exhibit five characteristics consistently: They are “ordered,” “stretched,” “fragile,” “rugged,” and “improvised” (p. 83). We must give John Kirk credit for trying to break molds and stereotypes, but is this appropriate language for academic art history? To push the reader even farther, Kirk throws all types of Shaker products into the pool for consideration—furniture, textiles, stoves, ladders, brooms, and buildings.

The key to understanding this section of The Shaker World is the word “look.” John Kirk’s forte is his skill at looking at things. To his credit, in this book he has also made a major intellectual effort to understand the Shakers on their own terms. The footnotes are often entertaining (at least for those with a penchant for the obscure and arcane), helpful, and extensive in range and volume. As impressive as the research may be, however, the central fact is that John Kirk sees details that others miss. The danger, of course, is that he may also be reading his fertile imagination into the analysis of the material. Caveat emptor!

Based on the Shaker love of order, as expressed in grids, numbers, and the power of rhythm and repetition, Kirk establishes the characteristic of “ordered” in Shaker life (pp. 83–100). The second characteristic is “stretched”—an exaggerated elongation of buildings, corridors, walkways, peg rails, dining tables, and so on—which underscores the special significance of the “long line” for Shakers. Kirk links this linear proclivity to the linear progression of the Shaker spiritual journey, but the link is asserted rather than documented (pp. 100–108).

The third characteristic of the classic Shaker look lies in the “fragile” nature of products, which are “consciously precious” (p. 115). Kirk is quite original here (but I think ultimately misleading) in describing one of the features that has been most appealing to collectors of Shaker things—a lightness of design that is revealed in the thinness of lapboards, small tabletops, woodenwares, and ladder-back chairs. Kirk attributes this fragility largely to the fact that the objects were made primarily for Shaker use, and that the Shakers operated under injunctions to exercise care of all things so as to preserve them throughout the millennium (pp. 108–14). In fact, the lightness in weight and thinness of materials—in oval boxes, for example—is due to the use of high-quality, quartersawn, hardwood. The Shakers sought durability, not fragility.

The fourth characteristic—“rugged”—appears at first to be contradictory to fragile, but it is the same principle, namely, preservation for long-term use of objects of everyday use or hard labor such as tools, agricultural implements, and walkways. Granite walks were more expensive to lay than boardwalks, but the granite walks had no foreseeable replacement time. Wooden shovels were by definition consumable, but adding a metal edge to the blade greatly extended their lifetimes (pp. 115–19).

The fifth and final characteristic of the Shaker look is what Kirk calls “improvised.” This feature involves the ability to design to fulfill a specific need and to convert from one use to another (pp. 119–23). This practical “make do” attitude leads to some ingenious devices that served Shaker community enterprises and improved the efficiency of daily living. For some reason, this characteristic fails to engage Kirk’s full attention. He sees these products as proof of Shaker practicality, efficiency, and ingenuity, but he regards the products as exceptional answers to specific needs. This characteristic of customizing is, I think, more central to the Shaker ethic, if not to their aesthetic, than Kirk acknowledges. The principle is certainly applicable to Shaker buildings and their adaptation over time, but buildings are not featured in this book.

After describing what he feels are the five characteristics of the classic Shaker look, Kirk summarizes recent discoveries about the Shaker use of paint and varnish. Once again, he butts heads with the Andrews myth. Andrews’s books are filled with the austere black and white photographs of William Winter. In words and pictures, Andrews emphasized Shaker form, detail, and construction in an effort to depict his “religion in wood.” Many of the objects that Andrews collected and sold had already been stripped of color by the Shakers to make them more appealing to buyers from the world, who seemed to want glossy finishes highlighting the natural wood. In chapter 7 on “Color and Varnish,” Kirk deals a knockout blow to the Andrews/Winter team, with considerable help from conservator Susan L. Buck, who provided much of the testing and technical information for this chapter.

Kirk’s essay on color is the single best summary of this topic, and it is bound to stimulate new research. As Kirk notes, “it is now hard to visualize how colorful the Shakers’ world was throughout most of the nineteenth century” (p. 129). Kirk naturally sees a strong connection between the use of color in neoclassical architecture and furniture and among the Shakers. To this connection he overlays information about the Masonic use of color, once again assuming that the Shakers borrowed ideas about color from both the Masons and the rural vernacular neoclassical usage around them.

The bulk of chapter 7 is devoted to Shaker use of color, introduced by the Shakers own explanation for the meaning of colors in a document accompanying the 1843 gift drawing of the “Holy City,” in a very specific quotation by Calvin Green of New Lebanon, and in other Shaker manuscripts. Kirk wants to find meaning in the Shaker use of color, but the quotations themselves do not help answer the question about whether or not the Shakers assigned meaning to specific colors. For example, in the three separate Shaker sources quoted in Kirk’s book, blue signifies water in one, heaven in another, and “the color the devil hates” in the third.

Whatever the meaning, there is consistency in the Shaker use of color, and scholars are beginning to understand the particular Shaker color code of the 1815–1860 era. Although serious research on Shaker color is still in its early stages, Kirk has done justice to the subject, and the information he presents is generally unknown in the wider world of American decorative arts scholarship.

The bulk of the chapter on color is devoted to sections on the Shaker use of the following colors: blue and white; blue; yellow; yellow, red, and orange; red; black; and patterned surfaces. In each section he includes information on furniture, woodenwares, clothing, and textiles, with all too few references to building exteriors and interiors.

Kirk and Susan Buck greatly advance knowledge about the Shaker use of color. They show that the Shakers rarely used casein-based paint, that they used the best pigments available commercially, that they generally mixed their pigments as did people in the world (with lead), and that they used varnishes sparingly and for specific purposes. Kirk is not willing to speculate on whether Shaker furniture was painted to match interior woodwork in order to create an en suite effect.

Chapter 8 on the “Era of Manifestations, 1837–1850: Angels, Purges, Gift Drawings, the Narrow Path, and Sexuality” is the book’s weakest link. Once again, Kirk deserves credit for trying to strike down stereotypes and offer fresh interpretation. Unfortunately, this chapter interrupts the flow of the book and seems to be a collection of miscellany that does not easily fit anywhere else. Clearly the “Era of Manifestations” is an important episode in Shaker history and may have been difficult to leave out of a book on The Shaker World, but Kirk’s primary contribution to this complex spiritual era among the Shakers is to suggest that Masonic design motifs appear frequently in the two hundred known spirit drawings of the era (pp. 166–68). The similarities here are too striking to dismiss as coincidental, but Kirk does not really answer the obvious question of how the artists of the spirit drawings (principally young women of the Shaker communities) would have known these symbols and motifs.

Chapter 9, “After 1860: ‘Very Much Like the Inhabitants of the Section of the Country Where They Reside,’” is another collection of miscellaneous topics gathered under a general umbrella of chronology. Kirk, like most observers, sees an inevitable movement of the Shakers toward accommodation with the world in terms of practice, such as the introduction of musical instruments, and in terms of design, such as the Victorianizing of Shaker furniture and interiors. He follows in the footsteps of Jean Burks’s pioneering work on Victorian Shakers, and like Burks he avoids a pejorative tone. He advances her work in some specific areas, for example in the fact that the Shakers made chair cushions for sale to the world as early as 1834 (p. 200), and provides additional visual and documentary records of Shaker practice after 1860 (pp. 220–23).

The most original subsection of this chapter is Kirk’s very informative treatise on the ingenious ways the Shakers marketed their past to benefit their communities. They were, on the one hand, remarkably open to change, yet creative in perpetuating their past. Unlike Colonial Williamsburg and other twentieth-century creations that made up a past that never really quite existed, the Shakers kept alive and exploited an image of a real past while living differently in the present. By “living in complexity, yet showing visitors simplicity” (p. 223), the Shakers doctored their past for public consumption, generated pride among the remaining Shakers, and to some degree provided justification for what the Shakers were doing in the twentieth century.

This topic of self-generated marketing deserves an entire book. All one can say here is that Kirk has struck a rich vein of truth in opening up this topic, which will hopefully encourage other scholars. The role of the Shakers in contemporary life needs to be placed in the context of wider cultural studies such as Michael Kammen’s The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1993) and Dona Brown’s Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century (1995).

The last chapter of The Shaker World is an essay on “The Twentieth Century: Myth Makers, Revisionists, and a Comparative Awareness of Perfection.” Here Kirk returns to the seminal role of the Andrewses in creating a myth of Shaker perfection and to important early collectors such as Charles Sheeler, who freely used Shaker objects and buildings as sources of inspiration. He traces revisionist scholarship of the last twenty-five years, starting with the Winterthur thesis of Mary Lynn Ray (and her subsequent article in Winterthur Portfolio 8 [1973]), the book Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975 (1976) by Dolores Hayden, and recent work by Jean Burks and Tim Rieman.
The book closes with a mini-essay comparing the Shaker aesthetic with certain contemporary artists, such as Donald Judd, who share a common impulse to “communicate by essentials” by reducing design to minimalist form and treatment (p. 248). In Kirk’s view, the ultimate Shaker masterpiece is a minimalist, pinkish-red chest of drawers with sixteen drawers (p. 250, fig. 261; see also fig. 80).

How can we take measure of John Kirk’s achievement in The Shaker World? Certainly it is the most ambitious and comprehensive revisionist work to date, so Kirk’s impact on Shaker studies will be monumental. Where does The Shaker World fit into the larger field of scholarship? Its impact on religious studies, communitarian studies, social history, women’s studies, and architectural studies will be minimal, but these were not the fields Kirk was trying to plough. His goal was to bring the Shakers into the canon of American decorative arts scholarship and to write the definitive design history of the Shakers. This reviewer believes he may well have accomplished the first goal, but certainly not the second; nevertheless, no serious student of the Shakers, or American decorative arts, can afford to ignore John Kirk’s The Shaker World.

Scott T. Swank
Canterbury Shaker Village

American Furniture 1998