Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hancock Shaker Village, part two

The brick dwelling at Hancock Shaker Village was essentially a dormitory where the brothers and sisters of the center family lived and took their meals. So let's start with a dormitory room. At the height of the Shaker villages, up to eight Shakers could share a "retiring room." The number would have declined along with a declining membership. Beds, of course, were singles or what we would call twin size. Early buildings might have a fireplace for heat, which was quickly replaced with small, more-efficient stoves. The stoves might have been of Shaker design, but were purchased from commercial foundries. In the photograph above the wall behind one of the beds is draped with a wall hanging made to reduce drafts in winter. There is a Mt. Lebanon-style straight chair beside the bed and a small wash stand with a towel rack above. The towel rack rests on the ubiquitous pegs. We have a similar one (a reproduction) in our upstairs guest bathroom. A tall chest occupies the far wall.

A second retiring room was billed as a "brethren's room." Chairs are lined up for conversation. I can't help thinking this was done by a female museum curator to take a jibe at the men for having leisure not afforded the Shaker sisters. A chair is hung upside down on the left wall. This common practice was to free floor space for cleaning or just moving around, and to keep dust from accumulating on the seating surface. Against the rear wall is a classic two-drawer blanket chest, a supposed forerunner of the modern chest of drawers. Above it hangs a bed key, used to tighten the beds' rope foundations for greater support. The small mirror on the left wall complies with the requirement that "looking glasses" be no taller than 18 inches nor wider than 12 inches. Narcissism was not a Shaker virtue.

This room is set up to display some of the Hancock artifacts. There is an assortment of rocking chairs, which could have been made at Hancock or other villages. A large chest of drawers sits among a variety of built-in storage units. Built-ins were common in many Shaker villages, but the ones in the Hancock brick dwelling are probably the most numerous and certainly the most diverse. I think they're also the finest. Woven rag rugs sewn together into floor coverings are typical of other sites, as well.

One room was given over to a paint historian who analyzed paint remnants barely visible on some of the woodwork. The result when restored to its original brightness was a shock to many Shaker enthusiasts. But it does make the room look cheerful.

This room is set up as an infirmary. Please keep in mind we're looking at 1840-1850 here. There is what appears to be a primitive walker by the table to the left. Across the room is an adult-sized cradle, used to gently rock the sick person to sooth them. The device in the cradle is a bed warmer, to be heated and placed between the sheets in winter before the bed is occupied. The low-backed rocker next to the cradle was a first for me. I've seen low-backed dining chairs, made to slip out of the way under a table. What's the purpose of a low back on a rocker? Perhaps to keep the attendant from getting too comfortable and neglecting the patient? Two hospital beds are against the back wall, one that can be elevated, the other apparently suitable for traction. Finally, there is a fine one-drawer blanket chest in the back, as well.

One side of the dining room is shown above; there is that much again behind the camera. Eight tables x 8 chairs means 64 members could eat at a time, the sisters on one side of the room and brothers on the other. The chairs are the low-back style designed to slide under the table and out of the way when not in use. Meals would be eaten in contemplative silence during the early years, although the rule was relaxed in later years. I want to point out two architectural features in this room.

Taking a closer look at one of the deep windows, the sides slant inward to allow more light into the room as the sun position changes. Also note the small thumb screws in the frame.  Rather than being counter balanced or propped open, these have a compression strip on each side. Loosen the screws and the window moves up or down, tighten it and the window is held at that height.

A dumbwaiter is built into either end of the room. The dining room is directly above the kitchen and the dumbwaiter transports food and dishes between the two. The narrow door open beside the dumbwaiter provides access to its workings.

This last photo for today brings the period being interpreted to the early twentieth century. Shakers, like the world's people, were not immune to the call of fashion. Both the bed and the bentwood rocker are of Shaker manufacture, but lack the simple, clean lines of classic Shaker furniture. Victorian influence is also visible in the mirror above the sink. We've seen even more extreme examples of Victorian influence at other Shaker villages.


  1. Yet another fascinating piece, full of excellent description and engaging images. I do rather like the upside-down chair - today it would be called an art installation.

  2. A great series Jim. I have tried to get Bill to stop here a number of times. Now I think he will. We went to the Shaker site in Albany where Ann Lee is buried, for a fall craft show on Saturday. I hope to post their remade herb garden photos by this weekend. I enjoyed these last two blogs very much.

  3. Thank you. I had best get busy on it!

  4. They obviously thought a great deal about the function of things, some ingenious ideas here. I do like the simple designs.