Folk Furniture of
Canada's Doukhobors,
Hutterites, Mennonites,
And Ukrainians

John Fleming,
Michael Rowan

(University of Alberta Press)
Many years ago, I owned a Folkways recording titled Songs of the Doukhobors. I recall it as a series of repressed wails, a chorus out of the wild. Anyone who lived in the Northwest, as I did at the time, knew that when the Doukhobors wanted to protest (government, taxes, the local authorities), they stripped off their clothes, set their belongings on fire, and danced about, singing these wonderful songs. At least that was the rumor.

It was as a response to "Manifest Destiny" from south of the border that the Canadians, in the late part of the 19th Century, set about populating the western part of their country with the likes of the Doukhobors. People from Eastern Europe were encouraged to pack up their old kit bags and migrate to the central and western parts of Canada. According to the editors of Folk Furniture, these were people who had an "urgent desire ... to find a homeland in which to live according to their spiritual beliefs and customs.

    The geographic similarity of Canada and Russia, two great northern spaces, may have been a further unconscious inducement to make such a trip into the unsettled lands and uncertainties of a country still in formation.

These were, they conclude, not "merchants or professionals, nor aristocrats or bourgeois,"

    but peasants with a strong sense of the land and systems of spiritual belief closely tied to natural and uncomplicated values.

Folk Furniture contains over a hundred photographs of the simple furniture of what some would call a simple people. In keeping with this "simplicity," the tables, chairs, cribs, benches, spoons, boxes and storage chests are presented here unadorned, complete with cracks, scratches, gouges, flaking paint, and fading colors.

At first I thought the authors might be putting us on, that they had gone through some junk yard, found thrown-out tables and chairs and whatnots, made dour photographs of them and then made up a pseudo-historical/critical commentary to go with these mythical, all-too-innocent sticks of furniture. But the text and the pictures here are of a piece, and the artlessness and simplicity of the tools of daily living are presented with a harsh wonder that is astonishing. Simple decoration includes colors that are understated and a modesty that bespeaks a world of piety.

It is not without scholarly fault: The authors try, sometimes almost too diligently, to seek out all the roots of the styles represented in the photographs:

    The cabriole leg set at a 45° angle to the skirt of a table, the curves of shaped and fielded panels, the scalloped skirts of armoires and tables, and the moulded or cut-out cornices of cupboards and dressers all each the distant profiles of the Louis furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The narrative of Folk Furniture recounts in some detail the spiritual beliefs and lifestyles of the religions, and relates the immigrants coming to (and, in most cases, prospering in) Canada. The Mennonites (also known as the Anabaptists) were successful because they often took "the unpromising and treeless lands which others had shunned for more wooded areas, and turned those flat spaces into prosperous farms. One critic of the time wrote,

    The Mennonites are most desirable emigrants; they retain their best German characteristics, are hard-working, honest, sober, simple, hardy people. They bring money into the country, and can settle in a woodless place, which no other people do."

The Hutterites, on the other hand, originated in Moravia, believed in the complete separation of state and church, and shared property and an austere communal living system which deëmphasized the individual. They were also militant pacifists, and sought a conscious return to "the forms of early Christianity."

None of the religions escaped persecution once the followers took up residence in the Americas, and with the Hutterites, their refusal to participate in military service during the Spanish-American War forced many to move from the lower forty-eight to join their bretheren in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

As we leaf through this, is it possible that there can be a luxury in such simplicity? If so, it is reflected in this delicious volume. Unfortunately, with the many subdued and understated color plates, we could not do justice to the originals on-line, so we had to satisfy ourselves with the two plain black-and-white reproductions above. May the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and all their brethren forgive us.

--- Louis Armour, MA
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