This radical religious sect had an outsize impact on American culture
In New England, farming museums and historic sites spotlight the Shakers’ influence on architecture, agriculture, and design.
When the Shakers arrived in New York City in 1774, their particular blend of English heritage, industriousness, and devout Christian worship immediately branded the religious sect as outsiders. Rumors and myths bubbled up: the group was austere, cult-like, and eschewed technology, with an unsustainable celibate lifestyle. It’s no wonder that, even at its 1800s peak, the group remained small, just 5,000 people in 19 communities.
Yet the Shakers have had an outsize impact on American culture. Now, a pair of former Shaker settlements on the forested borders of Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York, along with an ambitious upcoming museum, provide new ways to examine the group’s legacy—as well as to dispel misconceptions. It all demonstrates the tenacious spirit of ordinary people attempting to live extraordinary lives.
From their wide-ranging inventions (including textiles, furniture, and farm equipment) to precisely engineered architecture, Shaker culture is as durable as the stone foundations that punctuate the Northeast American landscape. “Here’s this radical religious group,” says Jennifer Trainer Thompson, director of Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “And yet they have this enduring influence.”
To explore the group’s innovations and inspirations, travelers can head to the bucolic farmland and small towns of New England. Amid stark-yet-stunning historic barns and museums of pristine crafts, it’s easy to see why how the Shaker’s “simple gifts” had such a big impact.
Division in the church
The Shakers diverged from mainstream Quakerism near Manchester, England, in 1747. The group’s name comes from its ecstatic worship practices, including trembling, dancing, and speaking in tongues. Members of the sect emigrated to America in 1774 to escape persecution, eventually settling in the wilds of what is now Albany, in New York State. Groups split off, establishing communities as far south as Florida, north as Maine, and west as Indiana.
Predominantly farmers, the Shakers were highly entrepreneurial. They invented the flat broom, circular saw, and the wheel-driven washing machine. They ran a thriving seed-distribution business. They’re perhaps best known for a style of iconic, clean-lined furniture and cabinetry that’s still popular today. Shakers employed sustainable environmental methods—ensuring safe water, harnessing water power, and practicing what is now known as regenerative farming—hundreds of years before the term entered the mainstream lexicon.
Their conservative appearance—neck-to-ankle dresses for women and three-piece suits for men—belied a socially progressive agenda. Communities of “brothers” and “sisters” were divided into “families,” each one run by a man and woman. All members had equal status, with Black converts treated the same as whites. Although biological families could join, men and women lived separately under the group’s vow of celibacy.
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Many Shaker museums currently highlight the group’s focus on equality and sustainability, but Jerry Grant, director of research and collections for the Shaker Museum in Chatham, New York, believes another theme makes the community relevant today. “It’s a hard thing to put yourself aside for the good of all. We are certainly sorely lacking that right now,” he says.
Searching for heaven at Mount Lebanon
On a ribbon of valley winding through the Taconic Mountains in New Lebanon, New York, the group established Mount Lebanon, the first official Shaker community, seat of religious authority, and holiest site. It flourished until the early 1900s.
The remaining Shakers vacated the village in 1947, but an “aliveness” lingers. “We created an environment that was conducive to the spiritual, and that remains intact today,” says Brother Arnold Hadd, one of two remaining practitioners at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, the country’s only operating Shaker village.
The largest portion of Mount Lebanon, a National Historic Landmark, is occupied by the Darrow School. It incorporates many Shaker concepts into its curriculum, including purposeful hands-on work. “Community is the biggest theme here. That’s what the kids talk about after they graduate,” says head of school Andy Vadnais.
The campus sprawls over 365 acres of grassy fields with mountain views. Visitors can tour many of its 17 Shaker structures, dating back to the late 1700s. The barrel-vaulted library, built in 1785, is one of New York State’s most important examples of vernacular architecture. A former meeting house, it has three entry doors—one on either end for Shaker brothers and sisters, and one in the center for “the world.”
Across a pond lies a high-ceilinged, barnlike structure for tanning leather, another Shaker side hustle. The building’s stellar acoustics are showcased during summertime Tannery Pond Concerts of classical music.
Up the road are the Ruins at Sassafras Farm. When Carol Reichert and Jerome Shereda purchased the 78-acre property in 2020, only the Brethren’s (men’s) Workshop and the Chair Factory, both remnants of one of Mount Lebanon’s eight “families,” were recognizable.
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After clearing decades’ worth of tree branches and debris, the couple unearthed the largely intact stone foundation of an 8,000-square-foot barn; a long-buried icehouse; the ruins of the Sisters’ Workshop; and a dam with a diminutive waterfall.
A new trail system leads through the woods and to the Shaker cemetery, where an estimated 40 souls are buried as they lived: as a community. A single monument carved with the word “Shakers” marks their final resting place.
Reichert and Shereda have put nearly $2 million of their own capital into Sassafras Farm, which opens this summer as a museum, overnight lodging, and performance space. “We would like people to leave with a more expansive view of the Shakers’ contributions to American life,” says Reichert. “This is an incredible part of our history, by a group of spiritual people who created monumental things.”
A showplace for Shaker life
A 15-minute drive away in Chatham, New York, the Shaker Museum holds the world’s largest collection of the group’s furniture, medicinal preparations, and farm equipment. Founded in 1948 by John Stanton Williams, Sr., a Manhattan stockbroker-turned-gentleman farmer, the museum displayed thousands of artifacts in his barn. (When it first opened, the museum’s admission was 75 cents.)
Today, the museum owns 18,000 objects, but has little display space and can only be viewed by appointment. That’ll change in 2024, when a new, $18 million headquarters will transform and expand a Victorian-era hotel with displays on Shaker history and exhibits on how the sect still impacts art and design.
Executive director Lacy Schutz can’t wait for visitors to see unusual artifacts including a platform shoe created for a sister with a leg-length discrepancy and a 19th-century rocking chair repurposed into a wheelchair. “Among the Shakers’ core values was a belief that everyone should be able to participate fully in his or her community, regardless of physical ability and age,” she says.
Modern interpretation at Hancock Shaker Village
Seventeen miles across the border in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, on a broad 750-acre plain, Hancock Shaker Village preserves 20 impressive historic buildings. Some are still in use today on the property’s working farm. The most recognizable is a majestic round stone barn with a corn yellow cupola, built into an embankment in 1826.
Last summer, a newly cleared trail to the village’s South Family site revealed, for the first time in 60 years, the foundations of six other buildings, including a maple sugaring house and an additional banked barn.
In the still-standing village buildings, exhibits examine both historic Shaker life and how contemporary artists and designers are inspired by it. “[The Shakers] believed you didn’t just make a chair. You made it to the best of your ability,” says Thompson. “When we look at the perfectly turned wood, the beautiful proportions, the simplicity where there’s nothing wasted, we have a visceral response. They embodied their religion in a physical object.”
Vintage items from a collection of 22,000 objects include clean-lined chairs, efficient farming tools, and hooded womens’ cloaks so sleek that 19th-century fashionistas adopted them. Changing exhibits on simple, Shaker-influenced design—James Turrell ceramics, Tory Burch clothing—showcase how the group’s passion for well-made, simple things lives on.
Beyond their profound influence on objects and architecture, the Shakers’ forward-thinking views on inclusion, equality, sustainability, and community provide lessons for the modern world. “These are issues we are still grappling with, and it’s tremendously meaningful to look back to this small group of people endeavoring to get it right,” says Schutz.