Shaker Boxes

Back before plastic, before tupperware and baggies, people still needed a way to store tea, spices and other small items. Bent-wood "pantry boxes" were used for this purpose because they were strong and light.

Long handles could be added to make them easier to carry, whether to market or for collecting eggs.

This usefulness appealed to the Shakers and they adopted the style. However, as with other items, they soon modified it for their own needs and preferences.

Shakers disliked ornate and ostentatious work, preferring instead the creed that "beauty is utility." Despite this emphasis on practicality, they created work that was carefully and gracefully made. This care resulted in work that was both useful and beautiful.

Their boxes were no exception, and they soon refined the joinery into the now-familiar "swallowtail" fingers on the sides.

(It is said that they had the swallowtails pointing to the right to represent their wish to always move in the right direction, that is, with dedication to God.)

Boxes also became one of their "fancy work" items. That is, an item they made to sell to the larger community.

Shaker products were popular among non-Shakers because of the consistently high quality of their goods. Shop owners would put signs in their windows to advertise the Shaker products they carried as a way to draw customers.

Thus bent-wood boxes became Shaker boxes and were valued because of the Shaker connection.

The made mostly oval boxes which they sold in nested sets - another modification that added to the efficiency of the boxes.

But they also made carriers with handles, round "dippers" (basically a box with a handle on the side that was used as a scoop for measuring dry goods), sewing boxes and other bent-wood containers. Today, Shaker boxes are valued as much for their beauty as their utility.

And now that you've learned a bit about their history, perhaps you'd like to learn how to make one yourself.

The photos of the Shaker carriers (top of the page) and the Shaker dipper (just above) are from Shaker Style: Form, Function, and Furniture, by Sharon Duane Koomler, Courage Books, 2000.

This is an interesting and informative book and I recommend it to people who are interested in learning more about the Shakers.



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