• courtesy LUMA
  • Shaker chairs on pegs

Of all the religious sects in the world, there is probably none more American than the United Society of Believers, or Shakers, who combined mysticism and a utopian vision with Yankee ingenuity, talent for entrepreneurship and PR, and excellent design sense. The Loyola University Museum of Art is currently showing three exhibits of their art, music, furniture, and architecture, collectively known as “Shaker in Chicago,” the first major exhibit of Shaker art, architecture, and artifacts here.

“The Shakers wanted to recreate what they thought heaven on Earth would be,” says Pam Ambrose, the museum’s director. “That was one of the tenets of Shakerism.” It also provides the title for the first of the three exhibits, “As it is in heaven,” which features Shaker art and music from the mid-1800s, the so-called “Era of Manifestations” when both Shaker membership and mysticism were at their height.

Mother Ann Lee, the first Shaker, taught that anybody could experience the Second Coming by forswearing a life of sin for a life like Jesus’s, with all the simplicity, celibacy, and manual labor that implies, and that you could reach a state of religious ecstasy through dancing. (Hence the enduring nickname Shakers.) She and her followers were not very popular in their native Manchester, England, so in 1774, they emigrated to New York State and began proselytizing throughout the northeast. By 1840, at the height of the movement, there were an estimated 6,000 Shakers in 18 cooperative villages in the northeast and midwest, identified by white x-shaped crosses that warned visitors to keep out on the Sabbath.

Celibacy aside, Shakerdom had its appeal. In Shaker villages, everyone lived communally, contributing to the chores and general upkeep. Men and women lived separately—every Shaker building has two entrances and two staircases to keep the sexes from mixing—but governed equally.

“Day-to-day life was very prescribed,” says Ambrose. “You knew your place. It took worry and concern off people.” As Mother Ann Lee used to say—and Shakers liked to repeat—”Hands to work and hearts to God.” Work was a way of worship.

“You could come into the community without knowing much about the life and you’d be taken care of,” Ambrose continues. “You’d be guaranteed a well-fed and semicomfortable life.” The Shakers took care of one another even in old age: the exhibit includes an adult-sized cradle to rock the elderly and infirm to sleep.

(That’s not say all Shakers lived in a constant state of heavenly love and delight. One man named Charles Brown hid a secret message beneath the cushion of a stool that read, “Deliver me from hell on earth.”)

The Shakers were not Puritans. They used music and dancing to work themselves into ecstatic states and encouraged mystic visions. Some of these manifested themselves in gift drawings and sacred sheets, usually done by young women, who were considered “instruments” of spirituality. Only about 200 still exist, and a few are on display at LUMA. They are extremely detailed, with intricate patterns. Sometimes there’s writing. Some of them look like maps or architectural plans for a garden or a (heavenly?) city.

  • from The Andrews Collection at Hancock Shaker Village
  • A Shaker gift drawing: The Tree of Life, “Seen and painted by Hannah Cohoon. City of Peace Monday July 3rd 1854”

“If I were a Shaker woman,” explains Ambrose, “I would give you a gift drawing as a way to say, ‘Be loyal to the spirit of God.’ But they’re hard to interpret. They were writing in tongues. There was more esoteric symbolism. The Shakers definitely communicated—there are hundreds of journals—but they very rarely talk about the gift drawings. They didn’t want to be viewed as eccentric.”

Instead, in 1843 they sent out an explanation of their beliefs to world leaders, the 450-plus-page manifesto A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book: From the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of the Earth (a copy of which is also on display). “It was a PR vehicle,” says Ambrose. According to an article in the exhibit catalog by Christian Goodwillie, a professor at Hamilton College, the Sacred Roll was “a dud,” vastly outclassed by The Book of Mormon. The production process also contributed to the early death of one of the (non-Shaker) printers.

The Shakers’ songs, which outlined their beliefs in singable form, were a far better and more accessible way of spreading their message. Their most famous hymn, “Simple Gifts” (which, it is true, owes much of its popularity to Aaron Copland, who incorporated it into his Appalachian Spring and Old American Songs suites) plays on a continuous loop in the exhibit space.

But the best PR of all was the things they made and sold. The two other “Shaker in Chicago” exhibits, “Gather Up the Fragments” and “Order in All Things” highlight Shaker furniture and architecture respectively.

  • courtesy LUMA
  • A Shaker cabinet with oval boxes.

Shakerdom was, scholar M. Stephen Miller notes in the exhibit catalog, was an odd mix of communism and capitalism. By the mid-1800s the Shakers started to realize they couldn’t live self-sufficiently, or even by barter. They would need to find a way to earn money. So they began manufacturing goods and selling them to the World, their term for anyplace outside their communities.

Evidence of various Shaker entrepreneurial endeavors fills most of the display space at LUMA: packaged seeds and herbs, oval wooden baskets, sap buckets, men’s hats, “Dorothy cloaks” for women, and, most of all, furniture.

“The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair,” wrote the Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton, “is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”

It’s not clear if that was why Shaker furniture appealed so strongly to modernist designers, starting with Frank Lloyd Wright—maybe at first it was because its simplicity was such a refreshing contrast to Victorian ornateness. Whatever the case, you can see the influence of Shakerdom on midcentury modern and Danish modern design—and also, in its most debased form, Ikea. (One of the great trademarks of Shaker furniture was its excellent construction. Shaker craftsmen didn’t use glue, or a million cheap little nails that bend whenever they come in contact with a hammer.)

“They were incredible inventors,” Ambrose says. Everything was designed not just to be beautiful, but also practical. Benches and chairs could hang on pegs on the wall when no one was using them. The drawer on a sewing table opened from both ends so two people could sit at opposite ends and have access to it. There aren’t a lot of wardrobes because Shakers preferred to use built-ins for storage. That made rooms easier to clean.

But the Shakers were, as Ambrose puts it, “not inflexible.” They manufactured rocking chairs in eight different sizes to appeal to customers in the World. Each community had its own signature embellishment to identify their work. And during the 1880s, they began adding Victorian flourishes, such as brackets and cupolas, to their buildings.

After the Civil War, the Shaker population started to die off. Since reproduction was not an option, the Shakers attempted to repopulate by adopting war orphans. Most of them did not take to Shaker life, however, and left as soon as they could. By 1900, less than 800 Shakers remained, and four of the 18 villages had closed and all their assets had been sold off. (The Shakers preferred to sell their buildings to other religious orders, which may be why so many still exist today.) Twenty-five years later, just 250 Shakers remained, in six communities.

  • courtesy LUMA
  • A Shaker dresser

Ironically, around the same time Shakers and their furniture were becoming more rare, non-Shakers began appreciating their sense of style and, to a lesser extent, their way of life. Faith and Edward Deming Andrews were the first and most acquisitive collectors; their collection makes up most of “Gather Up the Fragments.” Frank Lloyd Wright was also an admirer.

There have been periodic revivals in Shakerdom over the past 100 years, but right now, the world population numbers three. They live in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Sister Frances Carr and Sister June Carpenter are in their 80s; Brother Arnold Hadd is the youngster at 56. There’s video footage of them in the exhibit, talking about their lives and beliefs. Periodically, some younger people express interest in joining them, but, says Brother Arnold, once they realize how much work is involved, they leave. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers now depend on volunteers to keep the community going.

But, as Brother Arnold writes in the exhibit catalog, “Shakerism continues to have a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. . . . It values human fulfillment highly and believes that we fulfill ourselves best by being nothing more nor less than ourselves.”

“Shaker in Chicago” runs through 4/26 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 N. Michigan, 312-915-7600, luc.edu, $8, free Tuesdays. See website for schedule of public talks and dance performances.