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For a nearly vanished religious sect that peaked in the 19th century, the Shakers have an astonishing grip on the modern imagination.

In the woodworking world, Shaker furniture always ranks in the top three most popular furniture styles (the other two are Arts & Crafts and country , whatever the heck that is). And in furniture stores, they’ll label almost anything “Shaker” to sell it.

Personally, I always had a respect for the Shaker’s design aesthetic, but I didn’t have much of an appreciation for the lifestyle of the brothers and sisters who produced this extraordinary work.

After all, it was a celibate, highly regimented and (generally) alcohol-free subculture. And let’s just say that most career journalists are the anti-Shakers.

But during Christmas I visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill outside Harrodsburg, Ky., and the scales fell from my eyes in a single twirling, pounding full-throated moment.

Late in the afternoon of my visit, I attended a demonstration of traditional Shaker hymns performed in the Centre Family Dwelling, an imposing and impressive edifice to communal life.

I sat on a low bench in the dining area while a lone woman dressed in traditional Shaker garb performed an a cappella selection of hymns. Surprisingly, not all of the hymns were about Christmas; most of them were about the act of work.

And during the hymn about sweeping (yes, sweeping) the performer twirled as she sang, and her feet pounded the wooden floor of the hall in perfect time as the only percussion to her rousing chorus.

As her voice reflected off the high mullioned windows her pounding two-step reverberated through my feet, I could finally catch a glimpse of what attracted thousands of people to Shaker life in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For the disillusioned and disaffected of any era, such a display of vigor and beauty would surely be intoxicating. It was for me.

Celebrating the act of menial work, finding joy in something as mundane as sweeping, finally opened my eyes to Shaker life.

For what we do in our workshops each weekend is similar to what the Shakers strove for every moment of each day. Home woodworkers take an activity that was seen as a hard way of making a living and have turned it into a source of immense joy. We find satisfaction in fitting a door, planing a board, tweaking an assembly.

Many of us relish sharpening our tools or tuning up our machines to perform the work with more precision. We lavish attention on our workshops to make them tidy and efficient.

Imagine if we brought that same level of care and joy to every activity, even the ones outside the confines of our workshops? This was the thought going through my head last weekend as I hummed a tune and swept my shop, my footfalls tapping in perfect time.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Deirdre Saoirse Moen

    Once in an interview, I was asked if I would have a problem doing a task regularly that was typically considered "beneath" a programmer.

    My response was simple: Ghandi spun.

    Not only did Ghandi spin cotton on a regular basis (to help liberate India from imported British cotton), he also invented a Charka, a type of spinning wheel, still commonly used for cotton spinning. He taught enough people to spin that India now exports cotton.

    It’s amazing what small tasks can do.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Not all the Shaker communities were dry. In fact, in John Kirk’s book "Shaker World" he mentions that one community even made bourbon for sale and for the residents.

    And, Kirk states, that until the Millenial Laws were passed after the sect’s founder’s death, celibacy was strongly encouraged but not strictly required. Kirk’s book weaves a story of the Shakers that shows them far more complex than most people imagine.


  • Javier

    Give up wine and woman and only keep the song? Naaah!!!
    Interesting though, I always wondered what drew people
    to that lifestyle.It’s no wonder though that they went

  • Alan DuBoff

    I don’t know about singing hymns, but I sweep with a broom in my shop, so I guess I use shaker dust collection.

    I’ve been meaning to build a new dust collector (i.e., dust pan, and possibly broom handle;-) which would be made out of hardwood.

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