What comes to mind when you hear the term, ‘Shaker’? Here in the UK, recognition is pretty much restricted to a no-frills, functional but elegant form of design. Our Cotswold cottage has a Shaker-style kitchen that we love. But we have to admit that our knowledge of this religious community and the origins of the furniture in the heart of our Oxfordshire home was severely lacking.
And so, on our recent autumnal trip around New England, we jumped at the chance to visit a preserved hamlet – Hancock Shaker Village – on the Massachusetts/New York border near Pittsfield. And it turns out that the history and beliefs of this community are both intriguing and thought-provoking.
The term ‘Shaker’, is short for ‘shaking Quakers’. The shaking element of the name comes from the trembling, whirling and shaking that occurred during worship, as the congregation were filled by the Holy Spirit. By all accounts, services, which could last for hours on a Sunday, were a full-on workout, with some of the involuntary movement channeled into dancing.
Formed in Manchester in northern England in the mid-18th century, the Shakers fled religious persecution and set up a number of communities in New England. They sought the freedom to live, work and worship according to their key religious tenets – celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. The Shakers also believed in racial and gender equality, simplicity and pacifism. To that extent, we found ourselves form a strong respect for the Shakers – and an honesty in their belief in celibacy. Let’s face it. It’s not the most effective way to grow a religion.
The Hancock Shaker Village is a really great example of a living museum. We saw wood-working machinery being operated by a water turbine, which in turn was fed by Shaker-built pipework from a nearby hill. Volunteers were tending livestock and crops using similar techniques to that of the Shaker community in the mid-1800s. Surprisingly colourful dwelling, worship and working buildings have been left furnished as if the occupants have just left to tend the fields or see to the community’s laundry.
We visited on a beautiful sunny day in early October. The leaf colours were beginning to turn, Halloween was just around the corner and the last of the year’s harvest was being collected. It’s easy to imagine it was just the sort of day that the Shakers would have been thankful for. And we’re thankful that we know a little bit more about this unique community and their influence on our English kitchen.