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Research gives names to unknown artisans.
David Rowley, Freegift Wells, Amos Stewart, Orren Haskens, Eli Kidder … have you ever heard of these guys?
They were Shaker cabinetmakers, the names behind one of the most united and influential movements in American furniture making. One would think they would have been completely anonymous, like most carpenters of that era, but a remarkable project by Shaker scholar Jerry Grant, undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s, gave birth to these and other craftsmen – 27 people. absolutely fascinating – in Furniture makers Shaker (1989).
Grant drew heavily from the Shakers’ journals, discovering detailed descriptions of their woodworking and finishing techniques. You won’t find much of this technical information in this book, but you will find a number of well-written stories about a range of celibate artisans who worked under aesthetic and philosophical constraints other than those of today. Grant writes:
Although the Shaker artisans worked for the good of the community rather than for personal progress, in many cases they were strong individuals. Many were holy in their devotion; some had strong carnal appetites for the things of this world … Some of their intense personal endeavors [to remain true to Shaker ideals]… They were in vain. Some of the master craftsmen left the Society, while others remained Shakers for life.
The Shaker style has evolved over the years, but at its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was a pure form of a straight federal style popular in the world outside the utopian Shaker villages. Remove the inlay, simplify the molding, use only local woods, and you have the foundation for many Shaker pieces. Of course, all of this was done in the name of a higher cause. Grant relates an eloquent example: “In the summer of 1840, David Rowley removed unnecessary brass pulls from drawers and replaced them with wooden ones, which were deemed, through spiritual communication, more appropriate to the life of the Shakers.” Imagine building to please those customers!
A lot of the Shaker pieces weren’t signed, so how do you know who did what? Well, how they were done. One way is to see how. Grant writes of an unusual method of interlocking drawers which can be traced back to the work of Abner Allen and Grove Wright, of Bishop Hancock. On more than thirty pieces, these craftsmen tapered the sides of their drawers, making the sides narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. This meant that the wear surface on the bottom of the drawer was wider than normal, and thus presumably would last longer, while the top of the side would have a more delicate appearance. Dovetail cutting for tapered sides is significantly more difficult than straight sides.
A few years ago, I found a chest in a flea market whose drawers were made like this (right). The sides of the drawer are pine and, although their lower edges are 3/4”Wide, they are rather worn. The trunk was covered in black paint and cost very little. Under the paint were beautiful birch boards, sporting large, tight knots and sensual horse grain. The chest lines were very simple, but not like any Shaker piece I had seen. Clearly, the manufacturer had fallen in love with an unusual wood.
Who made this piece? Did Allen or Wright train this guy? Could it have been a young man who left the sect because his “carnal appetites” were too strong? Reading Shaker Furniture Makers makes me wish we all left something more of our work behind us, because someday, somewhere, someone might be wondering, “Who was that guy?”
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