A Brief History of Shaker Boxes

August 11, 2015

A Brief History of Shaker Boxes

The history of shaker boxes started when the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – better known as the Shakers – arrived in New York from England in 1774. Over the next few decades they established a number of communities in New England and eventually westward.

At the time the Shakers were becoming established, round bentwood boxes were being made in numerous countries in various forms. These boxes were common household items used to store any number of dry contents including tea, herbs, grains, sewing supplies and so forth.

Within a couple of decades of arriving in New York the Shakers began to create boxes and carriers for use within their own communities and in some instances created them for sale.

One reference states that the first Shaker created oval box was produced in the 1790’s in either Watervliet (now Colonie) or New Lebanon, New York. In the 1856 “Concise View of the Church of God” Brother Isaac Newton Young of the New Lebanon, New York, community wrote “These (oval boxes) have been manufactured almost or quite yearly, since perhaps the year 1800. This has been a very good little branch of business, tho’ not so extensive as some.”

While oval boxes were made at many Shaker communities the commercial production occurred mainly in the Maine (Alfred & Sabbathday Lake), New Hampshire (Canterbury & Enfield), and the Mt. Lebanon, New York communities. The community at Harvard, Massachusetts also made boxes in smaller numbers.

The New Lebanon, New York community was the largest producer and supplied boxes to communities at Hancock and Tyringham, Massachusetts. In 1836 alone the Mount Lebanon community produced 3,500 boxes. From 1822 to 1836 some 24,250 oval boxes were made at Mount Lebanon.

Box making in western communities was minimal. The community at Union Village (near Lebanon, Ohio) operated a box business from around 1841 until 1847 until it was discontinued because of lack of profit. A few boxes have been linked to other western communities such as North Union (Shaker Heights, Ohio), South Union (near Bowling Green, Kentucky), and Pleasant Hill (near Lexington, Kentucky) although an actual box making business didn’t exist at these locations.

After the Civil War the Shaker communities were not only affected by a financial decline in their various industries but also by a significant decline in the brethren’s membership. In an attempt to compensate for this loss of income the sisters responded by commercializing some of their skills (in particular textiles) by inventing a new product line they called “fancy goods” or “fancy work”. One of the more popular items was a carrier padded and lined with silk or satin and outfitted with sewing accoutrements. Typical accessories included a pin cushion, beeswax, an emery and a needle case.

Box making continued to decline within the Shaker communities in the late 19th and 20th century. A “non-believer” named George Roberts made boxes at the New Lebanon community from about 1920 to 1940 using original forms, however the only boxes being created by a Shaker Brother in the 20th century was at the Sabbathday Lake and Alfred communities. One of the most prolific, and the last Shaker Brother to make oval boxes, was Delmar Wilson. Brother Delmar Wilson made his last oval box around 1955 at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine community.

Today a few craftspeople continue the tradition of creating boxes using techniques and forms developed by the Shakers. To learn more about the history of shaker boxes, as well as the Shakers themselves, please look for the publications referenced below. Also – be certain to sign up for my newsletter to be informed of any new blog posts! Thank you for reading and I welcome any comments that you may have. 

Making Authentic Shaker Furniture by John Shea
Simplicity in Storage, Gregory LeFever
The Shaker Legacy, Christian Becksvoort
Shaker Style: Form, Function, and Furniture, Sharon Koomler
A Celebration of Shaker Ingenuity, by M. Stephen Miller
By Shaker Hands, June Sprigg

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