The Shakers have been a presence in the U.S. since 1774, when the first nine Believers in this religious sect emigrated from England. Industrious and always striving for perfection, the Shakers believed that work was a form of worship. They made things that were practical, efficient, and beautiful.
By the 1850s, in their so-called Classic Period, Shaker woodworkers had attained high levels of skill and perfected their unique designs. Christian Becksvoort, author of The Shaker Legacy (Taunton) and Shaker Inspiration (Lost Art Press), offers this summary: “The concepts of simplicity, unity, and functionalism merged to form outright works of art.” He adds: “No single piece of furniture illustrates the Shaker union of grace and form better” than the round stand shown here. It’s Becksvoort’s faithful reproduction of an original made in about 1850, most likely at the Shaker community of Mount Lebanon, New York. Similar stands can be seen on display at the Hancock Shaker Village museum, in western Massachusetts.
Today, we’d call a piece like this an occasional table or an end table. At first glance, the stand seems very simple: curved legs fit into a turned post with a round top attached. But as you look more closely, small but important details emerge. The legs (known as spider legs) are not just cutout shapes; they taper gently along their length.
The bottom end of the post is ever so slightly narrower than the curved section, creating a thin shoulder for the legs to rest against. The top edge of the leg follows an S-curve that blends smoothly into the curve of the post. The already-thin top has a bullnose profile that makes it appear even thinner. On the underside of the top, a crosspiece adds stiffness and is drilled at its center to hold a round tenon turned on the top of the post. Typical of the subtle detailing that characterizes many Shaker pieces, the ends of the crosspiece are curved, and broad chamfers disguise the piece’s thickness.
This stand is Christian Becksvoort’s reproduction of a Shaker original. You can see similar stands at the Hancock Shaker Village, in Massachusetts. Like the original, this is made of cherry. It’s 25" high, 18" in diameter.
The candle stand’s cleverest feature isn’t apparent until you turn the piece upside-down. That’s when you’ll discover the joinery detail that makes this piece as strong as it is beautiful (see drawing). Each leg has a long dovetail that slides into a matching socket cut in the base of the post. Small flats cut on each side of the socket provide a firm resting place for the dovetail shoulders. These sliding dovetail joints terminate at a shoulder on the post that creates a subtle shadow line while also strengthening the leg-to-post connection. It’s impressive joinery work, hidden from view.
The stand shown here is made from cherry, but the Shakers were happy to use any wood that was readily available and easy to cut and carve. Their favorites included pine, birch, cherry, maple, ash, and walnut. While built-in cabinetry and case pieces were often painted, furniture like this stand was typically finished with varnish or shellac.
- Shaker artisans were skilled innovators. Among their many enduring inventions: the circular saw, devised in 1810 by Sister Tabitha Babbitt.
- Prior to the Civil War, the Shakers had as many as 4,000 followers. Today, only two remain.
- Decades before architect Louis Sullivan wrote that “form ever follows function,” the Shakers followed a similar rule: “All work done...ought to be faithfully and well done, but plain and without superfluity. All things ought to be made according to their order and use.”
- Today, Shaker life and lore are preserved at eleven different museums, spread out from Maine to Kentucky.