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Shaker ladder-back chair

Place Made:
Pleasant Hill Kentucky United States of America
Date Made:
poplar –oak –cotton
HOA 38-5/16″; WOA 18-7/8″; DOA 14″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Unadorned Shaker ladder-back chair with woven tape seat consisting of a solid blue and blue and orange stripe tapes. The blue and orange tape represents twill cotton tapes made during the 1860s and purchased by the Shakers versus earlier tapes, which they wove themselves. “The tapes were not only colorful, but comfortable, durable, and easier to install than cane, rush, or splint. Tape seats were used by the Shakers as early as the 1830s and seem to be a true Shaker innovation.” (Sprigg & Larkin, p.157) The chair is light and angles back slightly, which are common Shaker characteristics. Primary wood is poplar and secondary is oak; back post, front legs being poplar and slats and stretchers being oak. It’s back post are slender with “scribe” marks; joined together by three curved slats, the top slat being approximately 1/4″ larger than the lower slats; the top slat is also the only slat pinned into place. The back posts are topped by ovoid shaped finials. The front legs are simple and taper at the feet. Seven simple stretchers connect the legs.
“The Shaker ladder-back chair typifies the Shaker approach to life and possessions. Typically light but sturdy. No carving or decorative painting to clutter its simplicity; straightforward and unadorned; reveals features intended for comfort and convenience; woven cotton tape, more comfortable than splint or rush; angles back at a slant to provide relaxed seating; light and portable. Shaker chairs were commonly hung upside down, so dust would not discolor the top of the seats. Shaker furniture makers frequently made things in multiples–several dozen ladder-back chairs for a new dwelling, for example, or a pair of washstands, or four small cases of drawers. Such production methods were not only efficient, but they helped to ensure uniformity–a quality the Shaker’s prized in their communal way of life, in which no person should have finer things than another. The finials, or pommels, atop the back posts of Shaker chairs were not merely pleasing to the eye, but also functioned as useful handles for lifting and moving the light, portable chairs. The finial shapes are often a clue to the origin of the chair.” (Sprigg & Larken, pp.155-164)

“The Kentucky Shakers of Pleasant Hill: 1805-1923
The Pleasant Hill Shakers came principally from central Kentucky, and were industrious farmers, first or second generation descendants of the pioneers who settled the Kentucky River frontier in the eighteenth century. They were accustomed to overcoming hardships by using their own canny ingenuity and determination, a self-sufficiency that stood them well in establishing a utopia in the wilderness.
By 1800, Kentucky had 220,000 people in widely scattered settlements. During this time, the state was swept into the Great Revival, virtually becoming a mass encampment. Hundreds of wagons gathered on hilltops; preachers climbed on stumps and shouted their doctrines; thousands of people sang, cried, danced, whirled, fell into trances, barked like dogs, spoke in tongues, proclaimed visions and were saved. Words of the phenomena reached the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York and prompted the proselytizing mission.
On New Year’s Day, 1805, three Shaker brethren left New York heading for the West. Journeying by sleigh and then by foot, they reached Paint Lick, Kentucky on March 3. In their minds was Mother Ann’s vision, “the next opening of the gospel will be in the southwest; it will be a great distance, and there will be a great work of God.”
In August of that same year, Elisha Thomas, Samuel Banta and Henry Banta, asked Shaker missionaries, Benjamin A. Youngs, Richard McNemar and Macham Worley, to give testimony and “open their minds,” thus becoming the first Kentucky converts.
By 1806 believers were scattered throughout the area. They began moving to Shawnee Run where a little community started to take shape on Elisha Thomas’ 140-acre farm; a location one and one-half miles west of the present village. Forty-four members signed the first family covenant. Pleasant Hill came into being when they purchased the nearby hilltop and started building their permanent village.
The venture flourished at an unbelievable rate. By 1823, there were 491 Shakers at Pleasant Hill. They bought more and more of the adjoining land to use as fields and orchards. Their land holding reached approximately 4,500 acres. In 1833, a report states, “We have between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of wheat, rye and oats. Besides our flax and 100 acres of Indian corn, broom corn and potatoes.” There were extensive fruit orchards with 400 to 800 trees planted at one time.
As early as 1816, they were producing enough surplus to begin regular trading trips via the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. The brethren made brooms, coopersware, weaving implements, shoes, tanned skins and raised livestock. The sisters produced woolen goods, pressed cheese, sweetmeats (preserves). Together, they produced medicinal products and packaged seeds.
The Shakers’ devotion to conservation, excellence and productivity led them to develop improved livestock. They purchased a bull from Britain in conjunction with Henry Clay and owned one of America’s largest herds of registered Durham Shorthorn cattle. Shaker brethren were cattle judges at Kentucky’s first state fair and wrote pamphlets for U.S. government distribution. Pleasant Hill became a leading agricultural experimental station.” Information provided by the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill website

Credit Line:
Loan courtesy of Mr. Clifton Anderson.