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The Surprising History of the Shaker Kitchen

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At Bear and Woods, people come to us for all styles of bespoke kitchens. One of the most popular we’re asked about is the Shaker kitchen. A design classic, the Shaker kitchen is known for its minimalism, classical proportions, and elegance – but it has its origins in a very strange place: an 18th Century religious sect.

The Quakers

The first Quakers lived in England in the mid-1600s. It was a time of huge social upheaval; the English Civil War tore the country apart, and at its end, King Charles I was executed. As common people began to question the establishment and their society, a number of dissenting Christian groups emerged, breaking away from the Church of England to pursue a different form of worship. One of these groups was the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Preaching the Gospel, they stressed the importance of having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 

Shaker Kitchen History

Although the early days of the Quakers were frought with danger and controversy, by the 18th century they had established small communities in Britain and North America. At this time, the Quakers were moving away from zealous spiritual expression. This caused a small group in Northwest England to break away from the Quakers and form the Wardley Society, led by James and Jane Wardley.

The First Shakers

The Wardley Society were commonly known as “Shaking Quakers” due to their passionate worship services, during which they believed they received messages from the spirit of God. They preached that the end of the world was near and encouraged people to repent and renounce their sins before the second coming. As they grew in numbers, they became The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – but the name “Shaker” stuck. 

As more people joined the Shakers, the sect started to be mobbed, stoned and imprisoned. In 1774, a number of prominent Shakers sailed from Liverpool to colonial America, escaping persecution. Before the end of the century, they had established a number of new communities there, with the first forming in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.

The Shaker Lifestyle

The Shakers followed a simple way of life. Practising communal living and equality between men and women, their homes were known for their simple architecture and furniture. The Shakers believed that every object in a house should have a purpose, and considered any kind of decoration unnecessary. They created proportionate, practical furniture that was made to last.

The traditional Shaker style kitchen was built around square-framed doors with an inset panel, built from cherrywood and maple. These were left bare or painted with a matt finish – the Shakers kept to a heritage palette of red, warm yellow, dark blue and dark green. Walls were finished in bare white plaster, with peg rails hung at head height. Kitchen utensils and other objects could be hung up on these, making it easy to sweep the bare floorboards. Reflecting their communal lifestyle, Shakers ate at a trestle table with long benches.

Shaker Kitchen History

The Shaker movement met its end following the American Civil War. As pacifists, they refused to fight on either side – much like the Quakers in Britain, who were conscientious objectors in the First and Second World War – and struggled to find converts as a result. This was fatal, as the Shakers practised celibacy and had no children to continue their traditions. Although the Shakers are all but gone, their way of life is now a notable design movement, and Shaker kitchens are a perennial favourite.

At Bear and Woods, we can create a bespoke Shaker style kitchen for your home using authentic crafting techniques and solid wood. Whether you want a traditional look or something with a modern edge, book a design consultation to talk to one of our experienced kitchen designers.

For more Shaker kitchen inspiration, follow our board on Pinterest.

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