Connecticut’s Enfield Shakers

March 21, 2018 · Collections ·

“Shakers, Their Mode of Worship,” lithograph published by Kelloggs & Comstock, Hartford, 1850-51. CHS collection

The Shakers are a religious group that got their name from the vigorous shaking movements made while worshiping. With roots in England, the first Shakers, led by Mother Ann Lee, came to America in 1774. The Enfield, CT Shaker Community (not to be confused with the Enfield Shaker Community in New Hampshire) was established in 1792 and remained in existence until 1901. The membership in the Shaker religion was at its peak in the mid-1800s with about 4,500 Shakers in 19 different communities, in New England, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

The Shakers were pacifists and their organizational structure was egalitarian. They were also celibate and lived communally. The Shakers demonstrated their devotion to God through the work they did with their hands, and created beautiful furniture, textiles, and other small household items. They also meticulously constructed and cared for their buildings and gardens.

Although they lived simply, the Shakers were innovative, adopted new technologies, and invented laborsaving tools and methods. Despite living communally, they understood the importance of earning enough money to sustain their activities, and actively marketed their consumer and agricultural products.

This spring, in conjunction with the 45th Connecticut Spring Antiques show, the CHS is mounting the exhibit From Their Hands and Lands: Artifacts from Connecticut’s Enfield Shakers. This exhibit, co-curated with Shaker authority and collector M. Stephen Miller, will highlight items made and grown by the Shaker Community in Enfield, Connecticut.

On display in this exhibition, visitors will see both traditional and unusual Shaker forms. Items on view include a worktable signed by Brother Abner Allen, a pair of sewing desks reunited after many years, and kitchen towels made by Sister Sophia Copley. Also included in the exhibition is a three-legged stove, a form invented by the Shakers, and an early candle stand with a screw top to raise it up and down, likely made for use in a workshop. Visitors will also see broadsides advertising the variety of flower and herb seeds available from the Shakers in the 1840s and 1850s, as well as packaging for the food items they sold.

In addition to artifacts from the CHS collection, this installation will include items from the M. Stephen and Miriam R. Miller Collection, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Shaker Collection from the Special Collections Department of the Hamilton College Library. This exhibition is on view from March 23 to May 26, 2018. To learn more about the history of Enfield and the Enfield Shakers, visit the Enfield Historical Society.

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