I first encountered the Shakers on Fifth Avenue, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Gallery 734 to be precise. Wandering among the exhibits on a wet Sunday afternoon, I chanced upon the Shaker Retiring Room, a serene space antithetical to the vast and cacophonous city that lay a few dozen yards from its bare white walls and scrubbed pine floor. On display were a cast-iron stove, a washstand, a small bed, a writing desk, built-in wooden cupboards and a rocking chair. It was a room that reflected order, purity, simplicity and calm.
Of course, the primary reason for its inclusion at the Met was the elegant wooden furniture. The Shakers believed that craftsmanship of unadorned utilitarian objects could be a form of worship, and today the refined minimalism of their style appeals to many of those influenced by modernist aesthetics. A description of the room informed me that it dated from the 1830s and came from the Shaker community of Mount Lebanon, New York. Impressed, I decided that I would visit surviving Shaker sites when the opportunity arose. But years passed and I never did. Until now.
During the golden decades of the Shakers, from 1820 until 1860, there were around 6,000 members of the community, spread among settlements that stretched from Maine to Kentucky. A dissident Christian group, the original Shakers had been led from England to New York State by Ann Lee in 1774. The group’s name derived from members’ habit of trembling violently during religious services when they felt themselves to be in the presence of the divine. The Shakers’ aim was to create Utopian religious communities, governed by the so-called Millennial Laws, which prescribed celibacy, equality between the sexes and the communal ownership of property.