When asked about the highlights of my trip to America in October 2019, people are generally surprised when I tell them, without hesitation, that one was exploring the history and lives of a religious sect, commonly known as “Shakers”.
But let’s backtrack, I knew very little about the Shakers before arriving at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky – just that they are pretty much defunct and that they were celibate (somewhat explains the defunctness!). Founded in England in the late 18th century, the Shakers (officially the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) made their way to colonial America and established several villages throughout the eastern part of the country. Though the religion was never far-reaching (records show that during its peak in pre-Civil War America, there were close to 6,000 believers) the Shaker legacy lives on in their furniture and architectural designs that continue to inspire the world over.
Because of their lifestyle and simple wooden domestic designs, it’s often assumed the Shakers were conservative in their outlook but they were actually amazingly forward-thinking for their time. They believed in racial and gender equality – to the extent that female religious leadership formed a foundation of the religion whereby two men and two women oversaw the administration of the villages (something that our society would benefit from implementing now).
Wandering through the restored houses at Pleasant Hill, home to the third-largest Shaker community in the United States between 1805 and 1910, what I saw was that the Shakers were organising innovators. In most rooms, along the walls ran evenly spaced out peg rails, a simple space-saving solution to hang furniture and tools on the walls when not in use to make cleaning easier, to store clothing, to allow for rooms to have multiple uses, and keep the space free of clutter.
By all accounts, the Shakers worked smart and hard. They are credited with inventing some of the earliest washing machines, as well as the circular saw, dump truck, flat broom and clothespin. The quality of the products that they left behind are of such a high standard because such work was considered to be an act of prayer, and on top of that, the completion of daily household activities like cleaning and cooking were “a path to enlightenment”. It was this aspect that I found truly beautiful as you could really feel while walking through the buildings that there was care taken, attention to detail given and appreciation for all things involved in everyday life.
As my family and I explored the village, we felt at ease and very calm. A sign said that “Shaker communities were highly structured to avoid physical and spiritual chaos. Everything was organized, purposeful, neat and efficient.” I don’t think it matters where you are on the spectrum of religious belief (if anywhere), there is something to be gained from an organised house and I appreciate that the Shakers lived with that in mind. Members often crafted their own possessions and did so with the kind of care that today we’d call “mindfulness”.
The Shakers possessed a strong drive towards efficiency and invention. This ambition led to new ways of thinking that found the Shakers ahead of their more worldly contemporaries. Innovations, adaptations and recycling were as important to physical life as renewal and progress were to spiritual life. It’s the resourceful, creative and efficient ways that the Shakers lived – that struck me the most and that I felt echoed in my work of helping people manage their homes and lives today.
As was often pointed out, the Shakers embraced technological advances and generated ideas that show that if they were still existing today, they’d continue to be inspiring. Throughout the displays were examples of items being repurposed which ensured that everything was used to its utmost extent and waste minimised. Practicality guided their decisions, and problems were met with creative solutions (Pleasant Hill Museum Sign).
“The Shakers were an intentional religious community seeking to create a world that reflected their conceptions of Heaven, a place of divine perfection.” (Pleasant Hill Museum Sign). Often my clients are looking to make their homes feel like their own slice of heaven, that supports and nurtures them in order to better deal with whatever life brings.
The other wonderful thing about this experience was that we stayed onsite at the Shaker Village. It made it a very immersive experience and further allowed us to slow down and appreciate the community’s legacy. Spread out across 13 restored Shaker buildings each guest room is fitted with Shaker reproduction furniture and original hardwood floors. We spent three nights and two full days learning, eating good food, and resting. When it was time to leave I whole-heartedly agreed with BBC News considering it a top hidden travel destination.
The Shakers guiding principles of simplicity, utility and honesty spoke to me on both a personal and professional level. I adored this part of my trip and was reminded of how much it means to me that my base, my home, is a support system rather than something that drains my energy. If home feels far from that for you, please reach out – I’m happy to have a chat and see what we can do to turn it around for you.