Today, when Shaker simplicity of craftsmanship seems to define the modern American design sensibility, it's easy to forget how revolutionary their designs were in the 19th century. One has only to read English writer Charles Dickens' observations of a visit to a Shaker village in 1842 to get a sense of the outright hostility that the Shakers often provoked. "We walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs," he wrote, "and the time was grimly told by a grim clock, which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest."
Although criticized for his dismissive, curmudgeonly observations of the American scene, Dickens did speak for the nascent Victorian tastes of Europe at that time, which valued elaborate and ornate design styles, the antithesis of Shaker simplicity. Dickens could have been referring to the hand-painted face of a Shaker wall clock. He probably didn't notice if it was a key-wound, weight-driven brass movement inside the cabinetry. Neither did he pay much attention to its finely crafted cabinetry. For he quickly moved on to critique the chairs, saying that it would be better to sit on the floor rather than incur the "smallest obligation" to any of the six or so stiff, high-backed examples that he saw in the room.
Over the centuries the famous and the storied have journeyed to Shaker villages, whether out of curiosity, or admiration, or simply to admonish the Shaker way, not to mention their celibacy. We offer an oftentimes humorous collection of quotes from other notable people who have regarded the Shakers with raised eyebrow. These observations give us a window into how the Shakers were regarded during their heyday. In a mute, but powerful retort to these comments, we offer a selection of images by photographer Paul Rocheleau of Richmond, Massachusetts, of the crafts and furnishings in the collections of the Hancock Shaker Village.