Trestle Table With eastward benches in cherry


Shaker your plate

A brief history of shaker Trestle tables and dining


‘Tis a gift to be simple begins the 18th-century Shaker hymn. While we may be more familiar with Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” we note his embellished arrangement surrounding this pure melody as it dances throughout the orchestra. But at the end, he strips away the futility of adornment, and we bask in the simple leading line. This fluid lyricism permeates the Shaker way of life and gives no better assessment of an aesthetic that has influenced much of our furniture-making. 

The oldest known American-made table is a sixteen-inch single board trestle table, now housed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The concept of a removable board on a double or triple pedestal base originated in medieval times. The trestle-style dining table is perhaps one of the oldest and simplest furniture forms in existence; the Shakers raised this form into a work of art.


black and white photographs of shaker furniture: chairs, table and bench

Images and drawings from How to Build Shaker Furniture by Thomas Moser


The work of the Shakers was a study in simplicity and unadorned beauty. Their legacy is characterized by clean lines, the absence of superfluous decoration, and the sturdiness of construction rather than delicacy and ornamentation. As most joined the community as adults, they drew on the skills and the tools they had acquired from the “world,” thus developing a Shaker style. Each community had slightly different variations on a chair or table; they were resourceful and used what they had to make a functional piece of furniture and created an aesthetic in the process.

The evolution of the Shaker furniture style runs concurrently with the development of the American country furniture style. In cities, large shops produced grand-style furniture with exotic hardwoods and inlays, but rural families needed a table they could gather around and eat from, not a status symbol. The period between 1820 and 1850 was the Shakers’ golden age of design, during which pure forms spilled forth. Forms light in expression, well balanced, and not excessive in any regard were produced for domestic and communal use.


Wishbone Extension Table and Eastward studio chair, black and white photograph of Shaker dining hall with long table and backless bench

Black and White Image: Winter, William F. Shaker Furniture The Craftsmanship of an American Communal Sect, by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, 1964, pg. 66


The beds, cupboards, boxes, and other goods of the Shaker cabinetmaker were for the use of the entire community. Few pieces of furniture created by the Shakers represent their communal existence better than the large trestle tables and backless benches in the dining hall. The long communal trestle tables were crafted of locally sourced maple, butternut, or pine, four boards wide, with breadboard ends and simple, yet sturdy trestles.

The members of the Shaker Family would gather together at noon to share dinner, their most significant meal of the day, in a large dining room. As they entered the room, they would exchange quiet greetings, and before they sat, they stood to give quiet thanks. The dining hall would remain vastly silent during the meal, with only murmurs offering thanks as they passed dishes.


Eastward studio chair in front of a table with typewriter and cherry trestle table


The dining hall was lined with trestle tables on either side of the room as the men and women would dine at separate tables. Long benches accompanied each table, and side chairs accommodated additional seating, but no chair would be placed at the head of the table. The trestle table design allowed them to join tables on end to create a longer table for visitors or as new members joined the community.


trestle table wit ladderback chairs in black and white with a selection of Moser chairs

Black and White Image: From the first Thos. Moser Catalog


Tables were set simply with pewter, wooden, or plain ceramic dishes. The meals and preparation strengthened the relationships and mindfulness of the community. Food came from their well-stocked pantries and bountiful gardens and retained the simple, uncomplicated, wholesome but hardy vigor that wove its way through all aspects of a Shaker life. According to Mother Anne’s instruction, “One should never put silver spoons or table cloths on. Let the tables be clean enough to eat from without cloths.” (Shaker Your Plate: Of Shaker Cooks and Cooking. Sister Frances A. Carr, 1985) While the meals were often brief and silent, gathering together to share a meal remained a central tenet of everyday life within the community.  


Shaker Trestle Table and Chairs in Black and white and two eastward side chairs hanging on shaker pegs

Black and White Image: Masterpieces of Shaker Furniture by Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, 1964, pg. 42


Today, the last remaining active Shaker community consists of three members at Sabatthday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine. They continue to carry on the traditions of those who came before them. At 7:30 am, the great bell rings to summon all to breakfast, followed by prayer and work around the grounds in the morning. At noon, the dinner bell rings, and they join in sharing a meal at a trestle table, where so many of their brothers and sisters shared quiet thanks and wholesome meals before returning to the fields, workshop, or kitchen to gather once again when the supper bell rings at 5:30 pm.






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