When I was little and shared a room with my sister, I yearned to have a room of my own. I was 19 when that dream came true, and oh, what a room it was, in an early 19th-century Shaker building in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
My room was a classic Shaker interior, with built-in cupboards and drawers, a peg rail around the walls, and rare sliding shutters. Everything overhead and underfoot was the work of Shaker Brothers who had used local pine, maple, and birch and a combination of hand tools and water-powered machinery in an efficient and sophisticated system of man-made ponds and mills behind the village. After a century and a half of continual use, the pegs were firm in their sockets. The drawers slid smoothly with a slight tug on the single center pull. The whole effect was one of spaciousness, airiness, and lightness. This room was worth the wait.
By the time I arrived at Canterbury in 1972 as a summer guide in the museum, the Shaker Society had long since flourished and faded. The Canterbury Shakers were established in 1792 as the seventh of what became 19 principal settlements in America. When I came, the half-dozen Shakers who lived there— all in their 70s, 80s, and 90s—were one of the last two Shaker families in existence. (The other was Sabbathday Lake in Maine.) The Sisters were delightful—energetic, humorous, and unstintingly kind. There were no Brothers at Canterbury. The last one had died in the 1930s and the women joked that they had "worked those poor men to death."
While woodworking had passed into history with the last of the Brothers, the Sisters held the work of the "old Shakers" in high regard. A lifetime of using Shaker desks, tables, work counters, chairs, and cupboards had given them a hands-on appreciation of the qualities that have earned Shaker design respect worldwide: strength, lightness, and a simple Tightness of proportion. Ergonomic? You bet. We held our breath whenever the fragile but unstoppable Eldress went up and down the stairs with her bad knee and cane, but the breadth of the steps, the gentle rise, and the sturdy, elegant handrail kept her upright and safe.
"Hands to work and hearts to God," a homily of Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee, was a road map for good life. My Shaker friends are gone now, but their work endures as testimony to the beauty and wisdom of that simple message.
June Sprigg has been studying the Shakers for most of her life, and she was Curator of Collections at Hancock Shaker Village between 1979 and 1994. Her latest book with photographer Paul Rocheleau, Shaker Built, is published by Monacelli Press. She lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
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