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Renwick Gallery Examines Mount Lebanon Community in "Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life"

Contact: Smithsonian American Art Museum's Public Affairs Office AmericanArtinfo[at]
American Art's Web site:
Recorded information: (202) 633-8998

"Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life," an exhibition featuring furniture and decorative arts from Mount Lebanon, the first and most prominent Shaker community, will be on view March 19 through July 25, 1999, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

This exhibition offers an opportunity to see objects created by Mount Lebanon residents for their own use and for sale "in the World," illustrating the principles of fine craftsmanship, order, and simplicity embraced by the Shakers. The fifty-seven objects are grouped into several sections, such as Workshops, Industry, and School, that represent the community's daily activities. Founded in New Lebanon, New York, in 1787, the settlement was the spiritual center of the sect, which at its height in 1840 boasted six thousand members living in eighteen communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Kentucky, and Florida.

"This Shaker exhibition is unusual in that it presents the Shaker aesthetic within the context of the vibrant community that created it," said director Elizabeth Broun.

The show assembles objects to reflect the utopian "simple life" of the Shakers. A sister's retiring room displays a bed, hooked rug, high chest of drawers, footstool, rocker, and dress. Saws, tools, and a cabinet are exhibited in a section on Shaker workshops. Innovative and successful tradespeople, Examples of the goods that Shakers marketed through their stores and mail-order catalogues to the outside world—including chairs, sewing kits, herbal remedies, seeds, textiles, boxes, and baskets—illustrate their role in the community and beyond.

Shakers were celebrated for their functional, unadorned, and well-crafted furniture, that reduced the elements of a piece to its essentials. They did not consider the products of their craftsmanship to be art but instead a palpable expression of their faith. In the words of one Shaker sister, "It was religion that produced the good tables and chairs."

In a communal settlement where time ordered all aspects of life, clocks were prominent features. A tall clock from the Church family dwelling dates from 1806 and was created by one of the first generations of Shaker craftsmen. While design influences from the outside world are evident, the elimination of superfluous ornamentation on the tall case reveals the essence of the new Shaker aesthetic, where simplicity was key.

A massive tool cupboard made around 1840, when Shaker design was at its purest and most abstract, carefully fits form to function. This shallow cupboard, designed to store woodworking tools, is unusual for its size, asymmetrical layout, arrangement of doors, and use of contrasting colored finishes.

A cloak from a design standardized in the 1890s illustrates how simplicity pervaded all Shaker products. Widely referred to as "Dorothy cloaks" after their originator, Sister Dorothy Durgin of Canterbury, New Hampshire, the hooded garments were a specialty of Mount Lebanon seamstresses. Available in several colors, cloaks were standard dress for Shaker sisters, and fashionable with "non-believers" as well; Mrs. Grover Cleveland wore a gray Shaker cloak in 1893 to her husband's second presidential inaugural.

The Shaker movement began in England and moved to the United States in 1774. Led by Mother Ann Lee, the group members were called Shakers because of their early ecstatic worship practices, which included shaking, frenzied dancing, shouting, and singing. Although they separated themselves from society, Shakers embraced the latest technology in their attempts to create, as they put it, "heaven on earth." Their communities like Mount Lebanon are considered among the most progressive and successful of modern attempts at communal living. However, their numbers dwindled rapidly by the close of the nineteenth century, and only a handful of Shakers are living today.


Focusing on the Mount Lebanon Collection, a soft-cover book, Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship, complements the show and is available in the museum shop for $25 (or $20 for Smithsonian American Art Museum members). The 179-page book includes essays by Timothy Rieman and Susan Buck, and numerous color plates.

The exhibition is supported in part by the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.

Public Programs

  • March 28 Gallery Talk, 3 P.M. Renwick senior curator Jeremy Adamson leads a tour of the exhibition.

  • March 18, 25; April 8, 10, 22; May 13, 27; June 10, 17 Video (continuous), 10 A.M. –3 P.M. The Shakers: Hands to Work, Heart to God,an overview of Shaker life, produced by Ken Burns, 1991; 75 min.

  • April 10 Family Day at the Renwick, 1–4 P.M. Craft demonstrations and workshops, including the making of Shaker boxes and baskets, and performances using a wide variety of musical instruments. Highlight events for the entire family, tours of "Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life" and "Dominic Di Mare: A Retrospective."

The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is dedicated to exhibiting American crafts of all periods and to collecting twentieth century American crafts. The Renwick is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, near the Farragut Metrorail stations. Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, closed December 25. Admission is free. Recorded information: (202) 633-8998. Public information: (202) 357-2700; (202) 786-2393 (TTY); (202) 633-9126 (Spanish).