Shaker-style pantry box

Shaker box tower
Shaker pantry box molds

The Shaker-style pantry box is a round bentwood box made by hand. Such boxes are "associated with Shaker folklife because they express the utility and uniformity valued in Shaker culture."[1]


The bentwood box was originally a working box for storage of dry items, but today used more as a decorative item. The Shakers originally used the boxes for storing kitchen ingredients and small items and parts for the shop. They stored easily, as a smaller one could be put inside an empty larger one as in a Matryoshka-style nest; many smaller boxes could be stored within the space of the largest box. The idea of buying a complete set of seven or eight graduated size boxes was a luxury that was out of the reach of most nineteenth-century households, as each size cost about a full day's pay and the larger ones even more.[2]

The boxes were attractive to many besides the Shakers and their "fancy work" was sold by the thousands.[2] The boxes were made in various shapes and sizes, with their oval shaped ones being most popular. Box making was the leading symbol of Shaker life and one of their most productive business enterprises.[2] Loop handles were added to some varieties to make it easier to carry lighter items like eggs and sewing thread. Many times the boxes with handles were used to carry items to and from the market. Certain styles of boxes came with a single handle attached to the side that was used as a "dipper" scoop for different quantities.[3]

The Shakers were not the originators or inventors of these bentwood boxes, but did refine their style and standardize shapes and sizes.[1] According to master box-maker and Director for Collections and Research at the Shaker Museum (Mount Lebanon) at Old Chatham, New York, Jerry V. Grant, likely Shaker brothers from many of their communities already made the wooden boxes on a limited scale in the mid-eighteenth century.[4] They started making their boxes on an industrial scale at just a few of their communities about 1799.[4] These were Canterbury, New Hampshire; Alfred and Sabbathday Lake, Maine; Union Village, Ohio; and their New Lebanon Shaker Village.[4] They first started making boxes for sale to the outside world in New Lebanon around 1798 - 1799 which was just over 20 years from the time they came to New York from England.[2]


Shaker boxes showing their distinctive characteristic elongated "swallowtails"

Shaker oval boxes are constructed using swallowtail projections on the box during the shaping process.[2] These projections are incorrectly referred to as "fingers" or lappers.[2] The swallowtail projections were added for practical purposes in the construction as they allowed the wood to expand and contract without splitting during temperature and humidity changes.[5] Most of the boxes were made by the Shaker religious leaders, the male Elders.[2] However, the oval bentwood box had no special religious significance and in fact was being made in Europe over a century before the Shakers even existed.[2]

Their particular style of oval "Shaker boxes" had certain technological steps to assemble. The various parts had jigs and fixtures to assist in making. For example the outside elongated "swallowtails" had templates for tracing their distinctive shape. The steamed rims were put around a form called a "follower" until they dried to develop their permanent shape. They had machines aid with other parts to help in mass production. In 1829 they built a new machine shop where the machinery was operated by a twenty-six foot diameter water wheel. They were known to have bought newly invented machines that assisted in making certain board pieces that were created by hand up until then.[4]

Shaker boxes were traditionally finished with milk paint made from milk casein, tinted with earth pigments. Milk paint is incredibly durable, lasting 100s of years when used indoors.[6]


Brother Ricardo Belden making oval boxes in a workshop at the Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts in 1935

The Shakers' annual production of boxes in 1830 was 1,308. That increased yearly until their peak year of 1836, when they produced 3,650. There was an economic crisis in 1837. Also at this time inexpensive tin and glass containers were becoming available. In spite of these difficulties, Mount Lebanon improved its machinery and had its "golden age", producing some 77,000 boxes between 1822 and 1865. However after the American Civil War the production fell to only hundreds annually.[4]

Usage and sales

Shaker oval boxes were made to hold various small dry items like spices, herbs, thread, buttons, and powdered paint pigments.[1] The Shaker Office Deacons kept annual sales accounts starting in 1805.[4] The records show boxes were mostly sold individually, however some "nests" were sold of the graduated boxes. For many years the prices were given in pounds, shillings and pence.[4] For example the smallest boxes sold for one shilling two pence and the largest ones were four shillings.[4] The "nests" sold for various prices indicating they were not a standard quantity of boxes. The records started using the word "oval" to describe the boxes in 1814.[4] An advertising insert to the Shaker chair catalogs of the mid 1870s gave eleven sizes for their "Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes".[4] By the mid 1880s the nest of boxes eliminated the two largest and two smallest ones. The "nest" was then seven.[4]

1990s lidless Shaker sewing carrier equipped with a pail handle

Shakers cease actual production

Mount Lebanon had delegated the manufacture of boxes to hired men by 1900.[4] George Roberts, who was a hired woodworker for the Shakers since 1916, bought all the box making tools and machinery from Mount Lebanon in 1943 to set up his own box business, ending the Shakers' production of these boxes at New Lebanon.[4] That ended the box business for the Shakers except for some still being made at Sabbathday Lake.[4] Beginning in 1994 Sabbathday Lake began making "sewing carriers" - internally cloth lined Shaker boxes with sewing necessities sold to the tourist industry, that continues into the twenty-first century.[4] These unique lidless Shaker boxes came equipped with a pail handle.[2] That revival business of thousands of these sewing box carriers even distributed back to the Shakers of Mount Lebanon and Alfred, Maine.[4]

The concept continues to be meticulously honored by modern woodworkers, who are aware of the difficult process involved.[7][8][9][10][11]

See also




    1. 1 2 3 Bronner, Simon J (2015). Encyclopedia of American Folklife. Routledge. pp. 11151116. ISBN 1317471954.
    2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Steege, Gwen (1990). Simple Gifts / 25 Authentic Shaker Craft Projects. Pownal, Vermont: Storey Communications. pp. 1, 2. ISBN 0882665812.
    3. "Shaker Boxes". Wooden-Box-Maker. Kate Taylor Creative Woodworking. 2014. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
    4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Miller, M. Stephen (2010). Inspired Innovations. UPNE. p. 7779. ISBN 1584658509.
    5. "Tidbits about Shakers". Brent Rourke. 2000. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
    6. "A brief history of milk paint". Naturally safe Historic Paints since 1974. The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co., Inc. 2015. Retrieved August 6, 2015. Paint has been used by mankind since before recorded history, first as decoration, and much later as a protective coating. The oldest painted surfaces on earth were colored with a form of milk paint. Cave drawings and paintings made 8,000 years ago, even as old as 20,000 years ago, were made with a simple composition of milk, lime, and earth pigments. When King Tutankhamen's tomb was opened in 1924, artifacts including models of boats, people, and furniture found inside the burial chamber had been painted with milk paint.
    7. Wilson, John; Pintar, Eric. "Background to Oval Boxes and the Shakers". Charlotte, Michigan: The Home Shop Retrieved June 4, 2015.
    8. Wilson, John (August 2003). "Building Shaker Oval Boxes". Popular Woodworking. (135): 3241. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
    9. Handberg, Ejner P. (October 1, 2007). Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture. 3 (1st ed.). Countryman Press. ISBN 0881507776. ISBN 978-0881507775.
    10. Tilson, David J. "Making Shaker Oval Boxes Second Revision". Retrieved June 4, 2015.
    11. Wilson, John; Pintar, Eric. "2015 Catalog of Shaker Box Supplies" (PDF). Charlotte, Michigan: The Home Shop Retrieved June 4, 2015.

    Further reading

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