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The Shaker Legacy
“Hands to work… Hearts to God”

These notes will become part of a book on the Shakers. The focus of the book will be visual, not historical, so I will be brief. In the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill , Kentucky, there is a plaque which says it all: “ Here is the story of the search for the perfect society by a devout and visionary people.”
Small wonder that Americans, to-day, reading “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” or watching the epic TV series “The Civil War” or even thinking about the conditions women faced in the ‘Wild West’, much less the child labour atrocities at the textile factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, could not but pay homage to ‘The Shaker Legacy’ in 19th century America. They love this way of life, perhaps more than the Shakers did.
Apart from the way of life they created, the Shakers ‘Modern’ outlook was unusual for a religious ‘sect’.They kept up and worked ahead of current architectural design. (Most of which was borrowed from the Greeks, circa 500B.C.) They invented ‘Seed Catalogues’ and sold millions to their neighbours. The circular barn at Hancock Shaker village is one of the “Wonders of the Modern World”. Their chairs were sold from catalogues and department stores in New York and Chicago. In 1880 you might have to pay $ 60 for 4 upholstered Shaker chairs. To-day they would fetch $ 60 thousand at auction.
Their designs had what I call a “Mystic Simpicity”. Chairs hung on wall pegs to facilitate floor space. Kitchen cabinets were ‘built in’ ( Imagine !) Kitchen ovens were built into walls. ‘Flat brooms’ were made by hand. There is almost no end to the brilliance of these visionary people. But there is. Their ‘Achilles Heel’ was their founder , Mary Lee’s edict of celibacy for the cult. When the converts and the orphans dried up, there was no way for the Shakers to survive.
The villages are still there. I hope they will always be there to remind us that good things come at a price and that price is excellence. “The ‘enemy of the best’ is not the ‘worst’, it is the ‘good enough” (Thank you, Voltaire)

© John Dowding, 2005 - 2017. All rights reserved