Shaker Oval Boxes and Carriers (revised April 26, 2020)
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing or more commonly known as Shakers made numerous types of wooden containers. These were made for a variety of uses – storage, measures, dippers, metal screened sieves, covered boxes, seed display boxes, popular boxes (made from strips of popular tree wood) and several other types as well. Perhaps one of the most famous types of containers is the oval box. The oval boxes were made for their own use, however, sometimes they were produced in large quantities in which they were sold in a few select villages.
Although the Shakers did not invent the oval box, which has a long history in America and Europe, they did refine it using it throughout their communities starting around 1790's. Originally called nests of boxes as they were sold in sets. Since 1833 the boxes were called oval boxes. It was also around this time that they became standardized in sizes. By 1834 the boxes were numbered by graduated size. Number one size boxes use to be the largest, however, the numbering system changed over the years with sizes today ranging from #0000 to #20. The most common sizes today are Numbers 1-5. They were also not the first to make the pointed joints that they called “swallowtails.” Typically, they were found in the kitchen for storage of tea, grains, sugar, flour, spices, herbs, etc. In the workshop they were used to hold tacks, nails, screws, glue, etc. They could also be found in the clothing departments for holding sewing notions. Shakers preferred the oval shape possibly to make more efficient use of shelf space. Prior to the 19th century they rarely made things with extra detail or decoration; instead they made things for intended uses.
They made a wide variation of boxes. Some were made round with no lid which were typically filled with sawdust and used as a spittoon. While the oval box was turned into handled carriers with or without lids, the fancy sewing baskets were popular in the 1900's. The interiors of the boxes were padded and lined with silk damask fabrics. Sewing baskets also featured pincushions, beeswax, and needle-cases that were attached to the box interiors with ribbons. They were developed by a sister at Sabbathday Lake community and sold at Poland Springs Resort, other Maine resorts and their own shops.
In 1877 they began to adopt the metric system. The community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine was producing metric wooden measures that were licensed by the Boston Metric Bureau. Small measures were made from blocks of turned wood while the larger ones were round with a wood bottom.
Shaker craftsman had differences in making the oval boxes. Swallowtails or fingers (referred to as lappers) normally pointed to the right, on rare occasions they pointed to the left. Often times the left pointing fingers are indicative of the community at Alfred, Maine. The beveling of tops and bottoms are different among the communities that made boxes. Canterbury box makers beveled the tops and bottoms by 5 degrees while Sabbathday Lake fitted the tops and bottoms without a bevel.
When identifying the community that ovals are from, the subtle differences in the size and shape of the oval will help to determine what community the oval was made in. New Lebanon ovals are more elliptical and less round. Maine and New Hampshire ovals are rounder due to being less elongated. There was no standardized sizes or numbering systems. Sabbathday Lake increased sizes by the inch, for example, a #2 would be 3", #3 = 4", #4 =5", etc. Other communities increased sizes by the inch on the 1/2", for example, a #2 would be 3 1/2", a #3 would be 4 1/2", #4 would be 5 1/2", etc. Additional ways to tell what Shaker community made the oval box are by marks or stamps, nailing patterns, machine marks, finish, shape and length of fingers and types of wood. By 1834 sizes were standardized.
Shaker oval boxes or their round boxes are lightweight and made from locally sourced materials most commonly maple bands and quarter-sawn pine tops and bottoms were used. Round boxes were most commonly filled with sawdust and used for spit-boxes. Although examples with cherry, hickory, ash and oak sides are known. Birch was sometimes preferred over maple by the Maine and New Hampshire communities. Very rare are cedar tops and bottoms. Mount Lebanon has a box dated 9 September 1867 that has a basswood top that was made by Brother Daniel Crossman. Brother William Perkins, who joined the Mount Lebanon Shaker community in 1890, also made boxes and is noted to have made two box tops with a carved name on one and initials on another for two different sisters.
Initially all the work was done by hand. As technological improvements became available the Shakers would adopt them. According to Shaker's, "The Manifesto" Volume XX, September 1890, No. 9, History of the Church of Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., the manufacture of oval boxes began as early as 1800. At first the rims were cut from the log in a common saw mill, which did the work very imperfectly. In 1829 they built a new machine shop where the machinery was operated by a 26" diameter water wheel. The heads were planed by hand. In 1830 a buzz saw did the work of cutting out the rims and in 1832 they started to use a water-powered planer to plane the rims.
After cutting the wood to size, they were soaked in hot water or steamed until they became pliable at which time they could be shaped around a wooden mold and held together by small copper or wrought iron nails. Copper tacks were preferred as they would not rust. Occasionally iron tacks would secure the swallowtails. Securing the pine tops and bottoms were done with copper or iron "points" to the side bands. The iron tacks and points are traditionally found on very early oval boxes.
The Shakers discovered that a straight seam held with a series of nails did not allow for shrinkage. Therefore, the edge of the lap tended to buckle between the nails or split at the nails. The use of fingers prevented splits allowing the wood to breathe without warping or buckling at the joint. This became the standard of production among Shaker oval box makers so that boxes made in 1820-1830 have the same form and durability as those made more than a hundred years later."
Oval Carriers were made in the same fashion. Many of the historic examples found have handles on the outside of the carrier. Ash was the preferred wood for shaker handled carriers. Sizes ranged from 4 x 5 ¼ x 3 ¾ inch and up. The oval carriers can be found in a number of configurations – open, lidded, or split top lids.
Oval boxes and carriers were made in numerous sizes from approximately 3” long to 15” long. Some boxes up to 23” in length have been seen. Boxes were made in uniform graduated sizes. They were made from the 1790’s to the early 1960’s. Around 1833, sizes were standardized and numbered; eleven as the smallest. Some of the boxes were painted and original paint remains a significant factor in the value of Shaker boxes.
Shakers stained or painted most of their oval boxes in solid colors from the 1790's; then in 1845 there was a revision to the Millennial Laws which directed that oval or nice boxes may be stained reddish or yellow. Boxes made after the Civil War were more commonly varnished. A wide array of pigments were used: (common) chrome yellow, yellow ocre (French yellow), Venetian red, red lead, (rarer) Prussian blue, Verditer, chrome green (which is a combination of Prussian blue and chrome yellow) which were the mellowest hue and rarely Spanish brown. Boxes and carriers from Maine display darker hues. After 1900 paint was rarely used as a finish on ovals and carriers. Other boxes had natural finish on them – varnish or shellac. They preferred thin paints and transparent stains that did not obscure the grain of the wood.
When the Shakers finished their boxes or lidded carriers they frequently painted them when the lid was on. When you take the lid off that would reveal a band of unfinished wood around the top. This was done to prevent a fully painted body from becoming sticky in humid weather thereby binding the already snug lid to the body.
Mount Lebanon oval boxes were the first made for sale by the Church Family around 1799 making this one of the earliest Shaker businesses. The commercial production of oval boxes occurred at Alfred and Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Enfield and Canterbury, New Hampshire and Mt. Lebanon, New York. Mt. Lebanon was the largest producer of oval boxes making 24,500 between 1822 to 1836. Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio had a short run of oval box making lasting approximately six years from 1841 till 1847. This was due to a lack of profit from the boxes. Although many of the Shaker communities made oval boxes Hancock did not go into production of oval boxes. Instead they purchased them from other Shaker communities. Around 1804 Hancock started receiving Mount Lebanon oval boxes.
Community elders would often make these boxes when not dealing with the leadership duties of the community. In 1822 Dorcas Wilson, a widow from Topsham, left her two sons at Sabbathday Lake Shaker community. Several years later she returned to retake custody of her sons, Delmer (1873-1961) refused to leave his Shaker home. Delmer became a valued member of the community. His interests and skills were vast, including woodworking, farming, mechanics, photography and painting. In 1896, Brother Delmer started making swing handle carriers to be sold as sewing boxes. That year he made approximately 30 round cherry handle carriers. The sisters would then line each carrier in satin and add sewing accessories, which was inspired by Eldress Elizabeth (Lizzie) Noyes. Delmer Wilson was one of the most prolific Shaker Oval Box makers and one of the last (through the 1950's) Shakers to make oval boxes. He made thousands of carriers and over boxes during his lifetime. On rare occasions he used gumwood. Today the craft is kept alive by numerous craftsmen.
With a minimalist design Shaker style is timeless, classic yet modern remaining this way for over three centuries. A graceful swallowtail design of the bands contributes function and beauty. Amazingly these boxes are very strong and will support over 250 pounds when placed on top of the box. Two phrases sum up Shaker Oval Boxes – “Beauty in simplicity” and “form follows function.”
Some key points:
The information contained in this article is based on historic facts and not modern day craftsman making Shaker Oval Boxes or Rounds. As more information is obtained, I will be adding to this article.