Review of the Special Interest Morning
led by Richard Cupidi
on March 24th 2018
Richard Cupidi returned to Cranleigh Arts Centre on 24th March to talk to us about the Shakers, whose proper title is The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming. This is a topic close to Richard’s heart, as he was raised in New England, and was first taken to a Shaker community by his grandfather, where he met an elderly Sister who gave him the sweetest apple – the memory of which is still with him.
The essence of the Shaker philosophy was the Simplicity of Life, to be created from scratch. They believed in “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God”. They were founded in Manchester by Anne Lee, who was poor and illiterate; married at 16 she gave birth to 4 children all of whom died young. She joined the Quaker movement, became a street preacher and was frequently jailed for impiety. In prison, she had a vision to establish Heaven on Earth, and to do so meant sharing goods with a dedication to industry, perfection and peace. In turn, this involved celibacy and the separation of the sexes.
Mother Anne Lee was considered by some, and by herself, as the second coming of Christ in its feminine aspect. She emigrated to America in 1774 and founded the first community in New Lebanon, having lost her husband in New York (did he not appreciate the idea of celibacy?!). People were curious, came to visit and some stayed, and as a result the original farm was outgrown, and a new community had to be created. As part of their new life, members would gather to share dancing, which became ecstatic, verging on religious trances - hence the derivation of Shakers, from Shaking Quakers.
Richard displayed a map of the Shaker community at Canterbury, which demonstrated the precise order of the communal buildings. Houses were multiplex and accessible to all. When the school house needed more space, the building was raised and a floor added beneath, rather than taking off the roof and building above – because this was simpler. The Shaker communities continued to spread, and reached 19 in number.
Women shared an equal role in Shaker government, worship and work, a role which was attacked in the outside world, but which proved an attraction to women converts. Their doors were always open to people who shared their spiritual awareness, and they practiced social equality which proved significant to recently freed black Americans.
As regards Shaker art, the most famous is probably their furniture and woodwork. This extended from conventional benches and chairs, to a magnificent arch staircase in the Kentucky meeting house. They produced milk paint (notably Shaker blue) which lasted indefinitely - although initially of interest to commercial paint manufacturers, this interest waned when its longevity was realised! The Shakers produced a large body of original songs, some of which were played to us. When dancing was arranged, the outside world was invited to attend.
As gifts, the Shakers produced “spirit” drawings, which were exchanged between sisters. They had no function other than as a divine contribution. All were based upon the natural world, trees and plants which were God’s creation, and so the natural and spiritual worlds intertwined. Sister Hannah Cohoon created the Tree of Life and a Bower of Mulberries, both splendid but simple paintings, uniform in style.
The Shaker way of making things followed a pattern – form follows function; simplicity; honest and economic; with perfect durability; and the greatest use equals the greatest beauty. They embraced new technology as long as it saved both Shaker’s time and God’s time. They improved what was available and invented what was needed. Although they invented, they never patented, as that would have resulted in commercialism. The design of their community buildings was unique. They were well organised, durable, universal and full of God’s light via transept windows (borrowed light).
As they were self-sufficient, the Shakers developed large gardens, particularly herb gardens, and the Red Barn of which we saw a photograph, was full of drying herbs. The Shakers invented seed packets with full instructions for sowing, and they started the first mail order business.
The Shakers viewed “Life as a theatre of the Divine”.
As ever, Richard Cupidi proved an outstanding speaker, whose grasp of both the subject and his audience, was masterful.
At the end of the first lecture Richard had displayed a picture of a round building and posed the question “For what purpose do you think it was used?” After coffee most attendees were surprised to learn that this rather grand structure had been used as a cow barn! When we were shown further internal and external pictures of this building, it was a revelation as to how well it had been designed. It had four wide doors and windows to capture natural daylight. It was built as a home for cows as the Shakers believed that animals had the same rights as humans. Wagons carrying hay would deliver the hay to an open central cylinder in the building. The cattle which were housed on the first floor fed from this food source and their excrement swept through trap doors in the floor, dropping into the wagons which carried it out to the land to be used as fertiliser. The cows of course were milked while eating the hay.
Examples of their design skills were also illustrated by a double rolling pin and apple corer. Each of their dwellings were almost identical and each room having a row of pegs around the room. From these pegs, curtains could be hung, linen aired, clothes hung, even furniture in order that sweeping could be done quickly and without hindrance. The cooking stoves had internal piping in order that the warmth generated could also heat the air in the room. Built in cupboards and drawers were used for clothing. Beds were on wheels for easy manoeuvrability except in the sick bay, where the beds were designed with rocker bases to soothe and comfort the patients.
Shaker children were all taught to read and write and to also develop some manual skill. Regular exercise was taken. The children of all families were given the option at the age of 16 to remain in the community or leave. Orphans were often brought to the Shakers by the local authorities and were taken in and given the same grounding as other children in the community.
Other examples of their design work were wooden square storage boxes, circular hat boxes all designed with swallowtail joints. Each item designed to last / breathe without warping or buckling. Copper nails were used which would not rust and consequently ruin the wood. All boxes were designed to fit inside one another thus taking up as little space as possible when not in use. They were also the first community to use food labelling.
Their reputation for excellent quality and design became well known and their industries grew. Queen Victoria, for one, regularly ordered and wore a Shaker cape. The ladder back chair was possibly their most successful design however and was sold worldwide. All goods were sold by mail order.
The Shaker communities consisted of hardy, long-lived people. They worked hard and ate well. However as freedom for women grew and with it the opportunities which were opened up, the attraction of such a restricted and celibate community became less attractive and as members died or left they were not replaced. Consequently the Shaker villages / movement died during the 20th century.