Ellsworth Kelly’s lozenge-shaped oval box

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box, Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

When the hammer fell on lot number 130 on Sunday, August 5, 1990, at the Willis Henry Auction held on the grounds of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, the successful bidder set a world record for the highest price paid at auction for anything made by the Shakers. What made the audience come alive as much as the price on that hot humid afternoon was that the winner of the lot was talk show host and actress, Oprah Winfrey. The piece, a small pine three-drawer counter in red paint was the cover lot on the auction catalog. Oprah Winfrey was not the only well-known personality who made significant purchases that day. Several dozen lots earlier, a reddish-orange bentwood box was purchased by the artist Ellsworth Kelly and his future husband Jack Shear. While Oprah’s three-drawer counter was unique for a few years for its price, the bentwood box was thought to be a unique example of Shaker workmanship for its unusual shape. Most of the lidded boxes the Shakers made by bending thin strips of steamed wood were oval in shape. Although the ovals vary from box to box from nearly round to extremely elongated, this box is not oval at all. Rather, it is more of a rectangle with rounded ends – what Ellsworth Kelly later called “lozenge-shaped” – but in every other respect it was made like thousands of other Shaker oval boxes. 

Six years ago, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear decided to give their collection of two-dozen Shaker pieces to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. That gift was received by the Museum in 2016 and this spring, from March 24th through May 13th, pieces from the collection, accompanied by a selection of prints by Kelly, will be exhibited at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, New York. In preparation for the exhibition the Museum staff is conducting additional research on the Shaker pieces that will be exhibited. The unique box is included in the exhibition and has been the target of the staff’s research for the past few days. 

The auction catalog identifies the box as having been made at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It is not clear if this attribution came from the consigner of the box, or if it was, at the time, the auction house’s best guess at its origin. In either case, more investigation was in order. The bottom of the box bears what appears to be a three-line inscription, which, were any of it still legible, might answer all questions about who made the box and where and when. Until that technology can be accessed, the information remains elusive. 

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840

Bentwood Box (interior), Alfred, ME, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.3a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

As is the case with the construction of most Shaker boxes, the bent sides of the box and its lid are made of maple and its top and bottom, the heading as the Shakers called it, are made of pine. The three over-lapping fingers on the box and the single finger on the lid are fastened together with copper tacks. The heading is secured to the bent rims with iron headless tacks. The box is painted inside and out with a reddish-orange paint – no wood is left exposed. There are a few design features, other than its unusual shape, that are notable. The ends of the overlapping fingers point to the left. This characteristic is most often found on boxes that were made at the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine. Shaker oval box makers often smoothed off the heads of the tacks used on the fingers to keep anything from catching under the head and pulling the tack out. On this box, the heads of some of the tacks show marks – small parallel grooves – left by a file. These marks on tack heads are most often found on boxes made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. In a similar manner, the use of iron rather than copper headless tacks to secure the heading in the box rims is often associated with early boxes made at Canterbury. 

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim)

Oval Box (detail of edge of overlapping rim), Canterbury, NH, ca. 1850, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1954.6743.1a,b. Staff photograph.

Given these construction and design characteristics, a good case can be made for this box originating in the shops of the box-makers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. However, an oval box in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village led to a reconsideration of this conclusion. That oval box has a label glued to its bottom that reads, “This box was made by Ebenezar Freeman of Alfred in his 82d year of age, and by him presented to me Aug 26th 1861. Mary P. Vance.” Ebenezer Freeman turned sixty-one on July 12, 1861, beginning his 82d year. The box is the work of an accomplished box-maker and it is likely that he made a number of boxes in his lifetime. This box has a distinctive feature that is usually found on Canterbury boxes – the rims of the box and the lid had their edges rounded before they were bent and tacked. This creates a double hump on the edge of the rims where the two ends overlap, shown in the picture to the left. Boxes made at Mount Lebanon, for example, had the rims sanded to a single round edge after the rims were bent and the overlap tacked. This observation raises the question as to whether the Alfred oval box-makers were either taught by the box-makers at Canterbury or if someone who knew how to make boxes was transferred from Canterbury to Alfred. Either of these options would explain why the tacks securing the fingers appear to have been smoothed with a file – they learned that from Canterbury. It may also suggest that the fingers on Alfred boxes point left instead of right to intentionally set them apart from those made at Canterbury. 

As the decision was being made to attribute the  Kelly / Shear lozenge-shaped box to the Alfred community rather than either Sabbathday Lake or Canterbury, the existence of a second box of this unusual shape came to light. This box, nearly identical in size and very similar in its color and the shape of its fingers, is in the collection of the Shaker Museum at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This box is attributed to the Alfred Shakers and as far as anyone knows has been in the community at Sabbathday Lake ever since or even before the Alfred community closed and its members relocated to Sabbathday Lake in 1931. The box in the collection at Sabbathday Lake is pictured on page 17 of The Human & Eternal: Shaker Art in Its Many Forms published in 2009 by and available from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum. 

For now, and for the for exhibition at the Jeff Bailey Gallery, the attribution of this box will remain with the workshops of the Alfred, Maine Shakers. All are welcome to come and see it face to face this spring. 





The earliest oval boxes: A conundrum

The simple oval-shaped bentwood box ranks high on the list of iconic objects associated with the Shakers. These boxes are pleasing to the eye and the hand. They are often colorful, painted in reds, oranges, greens, blues, browns, and yellows. They were typically made in more than a dozen different sizes ranging from around two inches long to well over a foot, and many of them were made to nest one inside the other. In addition to their varied physical attributes, these boxes served a variety of uses: in the kitchen and pantry they held salt, flour, baking soda, sugar, herbs, and spices; in the sisters’ workrooms they held sewing notions; and in the brothers’ workrooms they held tacks, nails, screws, dry paint pigments, and on and on. Many of the oval boxes used by the Shakers are inscribed with the names of those users as well as names of the makers, dates, and descriptions of how they were used. All of these attributes make these boxes particularly interesting to collectors and particularly useful to the Shaker Museum in telling Shaker stories.

Craftsmen in any Shaker community may have made boxes for use in their community, but not every Shaker community had an industry that produced boxes for sale to the outside world. The Shakers at Mount Lebanon, Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake, Alfred, and Union Village did, at various times, produce boxes in quantities great enough to make notable sales to the outside world. Around 1850, Brother Isaac Newton Youngs at Mount Lebanon collected information on some of the industries at Mount Lebanon – including the oval box industry. He noted that at Mount Lebanon, boxes were first made for sale at the Church Family around 1799, making this one of the earliest Shaker businesses. This continued until after the Civil War when the business was moved to the Second Family. There it was carried out with varying success into the 1930s. Between 1822 and 1865 over 77,000 boxes were made at the Church Family. Much fewer were made at Mount Lebanon after 1865. Other communities with box industries did so in a manner close to what had been established at Mount Lebanon, but none of them matched the quantity of boxes made. Brother Delmer Wilson at Sabbathday Lake continued making boxes into the 1950s and some boxes were made by Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in this century.

While oval boxes may seem complex their manufacture is pretty straightforward. Shakers called the bent parts of the box the rims. The flat boards fit into the rims were called the heading. The narrow arch-shaped overlapping ends of the rims were called swallowtails (often just called “fingers”). Box rims were bent to shape using steam and a shaping form. They were tacked through the swallowtails to keep them bent in an oval shape. To do this copper tacks were driven through the swallowtails to secure the rims. When dry, the heading was cut to fit into the rims and secured with points – small copper, iron, or wooden wedges driven through the rim into the edge of the heading. No glue was used to secure the parts together. Most of the thousands of boxes the Shaker made followed this formula. Though the shape of the swallowtails and the pattern the craftsman chose for nailing them to the rims may differ, the choice of copper, wood, or iron points may be determined by available materials, and the skill with which the boxes were finished may vary widely, the construction of these boxes is predictable.

There are a small number of oval boxes that have been attributed to the Shakers by their general appearance that diverge in several ways from the standard boxes described above. They are sometimes called “tucked-finger” boxes for a reason that will soon be apparent. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has five examples of these boxes in its collection; they have several distinctive characteristics that easily identify them:

  • First, the shape of the oval of the box is a very rounded compared to the more elongated elliptical shape of most Shaker boxes.

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes

    Comparison of Shape of Oval Boxes, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.5a,b (left); 2016.5.6 (right). Staff photograph.

  • Second, the narrow ends of the swallowtails, rather than just being tacked down, are inserted through small slots in the rim and then tacked to the rim – therefore, “tucked-finger.”
  • Third, the tacks at the end of the swallowtails are the only copper tacks used in the boxes. All of the rest of the fasteners used to secure the swallowtails are wooden pegs.

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800

    Detail of Inserted End of Swallowtail, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fourth, the fastening of the rims to the heading is done with wooden points. This is done in an unusual pattern. Usually, points are spaced fairly evenly around the box rim, but on these boxes five to eight points (depending on the size of the box) are used to secure the heading just to the left of the center of the rims. These are in addition to the points that are spaced evenly around the rest of the rim.

    fig 5

    Detail of Points Fastening Box Rim to Heading, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • Fifth, the pine heading material used in these boxes is generally of very tight-grained old-growth pine.

    fig 1

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

  • And sixth, a number of these boxes are decorated or have remnants of decoration. Boxes can be painted a single color, painted to have a fancy grain pattern, painted with floral or other designs, or painted with a scene.

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800

    Oval box, Origin Unknown, ca. 1800, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1967.16047.1a,b. John Mulligan, photographer.

Several of these divergences in construction and materials from the common boxes made by the Shakers suggest that these boxes were made quite early – the use of tight-grained pine and the frugal use of copper tacks may indicate the boxes were made at a time when old-growth pine was still standing on Shaker land and when the making of copper tacks was a laborious and expensive process. The extra effort of inserting the ends of the swallowtails into the box rims suggests that the makers did not fully understand that this was unnecessary to make the boxes structurally sound. All of this, plus the general scarcity of these boxes, points to the possibility that these boxes were the earliest products of the Shakers’ oval box makers – the prototypes of what would become the iconic Shaker oval box.

A problem with these observations emerges with the realization that none of these boxes, to date, has a solid provenance connecting it directly to the Shakers. This, then, is the challenge: to try to establish a clear connection between extant examples of these boxes and the Shakers. Four of the five boxes in the Museum’s collection were collected in New York State in the general vicinity of Watervliet and Mount Lebanon but not directly from the Shakers.

As always, we appreciate observations and comments that might help with a better understanding of the origin of these boxes.


Sticks and scraps: A handle pattern survives

Pattern for the Handle for Large Carriers

Pattern for the Handle for Large Carriers, Church Family, Sabbathday Lake, ME, ca. 1950s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2017.4.1.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon’s founder, John S. Williams, Sr., often collected things that others ignored – Shaker things that others left behind or probably kicked aside. It was perhaps his time on the Board of Trustees for the Museum of the American Indian in New York City where he absorbed a cultural anthropologist’s approach to collecting rather than that of a fine arts curator. However it developed, Williams made it a point to acquire not only fine examples of the Shakers’ work, but the tools that they used and the scraps that were left behind as well. The museum hold a variety of scraps – bits and pieces of metal from the Shakers’ forges; uprights, weavers, handles, and rims from the basket-makers’ shop; pieces of cloth from the cloak workshop; bottles and corks from the medicinal business; leather from the shoemakers; bone from the button makers; and various pieces of unfinished work from the oval box shop. While these scraps have meaning in the course of researching these various industries, once in a while they play a part in a larger story. Such is the case with a thin 17 3/8″ long, 5/8″ wide stick that was acquired from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

fig 3

Brother Delmer C. Wilson in his Oval Carrier Workshop, Church Family, Sabbathday Lake, ME, ca. 1911, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1956.8025.1. “Presented by Brother Delmer Wilson of Sabbathday Lake, Me. Brought to Museum by Eldress Gertrude Soule & Sisters Mildred Barker and Ethel Peacock of Sabbathday Leke, Me., in May (23), 1956.”

The “stick” may have been picked up accidentally with other bits from a workshop or may have been a deliberate gift from its maker that later became mixed up with other non-distinct parts. The stick has an inscription carefully written on both sides with a fountain pen: “Sample of handle from large box – Made by Delmer C. Wilson. Do not destroy.” Brother Delmer Charles Wilson was born in Topsham, Maine, in 1873 and came to live with the Shakers as a boy of eight. Brother Delmer was a skilled mechanic and woodworker. In 1894 two sisters at Sabbathday Lake took two oval carriers that they were given at Mount Lebanon, lined them with cloth and most likely the fittings to make them into useful sewing boxes, took them to the Poland Springs Hotel, and sold them. This began a brisk market of selling all the old oval boxes that could be rounded up and renovated. In 1896, Brother Delmer began making new oval carriers for the sisters to line and fit out for sale. His work on carriers is well documented in an article that appeared in the Shaker Quarterly (Volume 15, Winter, 1987 and Volume 16, Spring, 1988) based on his journal “Carrier Notes,” and summarized by John Wilson. Brother Delmer died a few weeks before Christmas 1961 but had continued to make some carriers and boxes most of his life.

The Museum holds a number of examples of Brother Delmer’s carriers – mostly lined and fitted out for sale. Some were purchased fresh out of Brother Delmer’s workshop by John Williams at the Shaker store at Sabbathday Lake. The sample for the handle – as stated – is meant to give the precise size for the handles for Brother Delmer’s large carriers and, in fact, does exactly match the handles on large carriers in the Museum’s collection.



Photography begins as part of $750,000 grant-funded digitization project


Set-up for collection digitization, March, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon

In 2016 Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon received a $750,000 grant from The Henry Luce Foundation to create an online digital catalog of its collections. Work has been ongoing entering data about the museum’s object, archive, and library holdings and in March of this year, photography of the collections began. Boston-based photographer John Mulligan spent a week at the Shaker Museum’s Old Chatham campus, and photographed about 300 objects. He will continue this work one week per month over the next year, producing high quality digital images of the collection.


Oval boxes waiting to be photographed as part of the digitization project at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, March, 2017.

Planning for photography began in February. Though staff at the museum have long created reference images of objects as part of the process of cataloging, it is not practical (or even, perhaps, desirable) to capture a high quality image of every piece in a collection that numbers over 56,000 objects. Staff had to ask: Which objects should be photographed by the professional, and for which do in-house images suffice? A number of factors come into play.

First the collection must be considered in terms of broad categories defined by both form and function. From these, objects are selected that comprise representative examples of the type. For example, included in the category of case furniture are chests of drawers, blanket chests, cupboards, and tailor counters.  The range of activities associated with hat manufacture are represented by hat and brim molds, bonnet molds, patterns used to cut pieces of woven material into bonnet sections, and samples of woven straw and palm leaf. A survey of hand tools would include a selection of woodworking tools such as planes and cutters, metalworking tools such as punches and casting patterns, and leatherworking tools such as awls and shoe lasts.

Within specific object types, a number of criteria are considered as well. In examining each of the museum’s 75 or so oval boxes, the first group of objects that were photographed, staff asked: what is the significance of this object, or what story can it tell in terms of provenance or association? Special attention is paid to pieces with inscriptions, particularly names, such as the box labeled “Frederick W. Evans 1857” on the lid header. Does the box have particular aesthetic value in its paint color or finish, or type of wood used, when compared to the others? Is it unusually well executed when the cut of the swallowtails, the pattern or placement of the tacks, or the fit of headers to the rims are considered? It’s also important to be sure that as many Shaker communities as possible are represented, so that eventual visitors to the museum’s website can compare boxes made at Mount Lebanon, NY, Canterbury, NH, Sabbathday Lake, ME, and more.

The goals of the photography project are the same as that of the digitization project overall: to provide a powerful research tool for students and specialists of Shaker history; to facilitate access and promote loans and exhibitions of the works and objects; and to ensure that visitors to the website can explore the museum’s rich holdings from anywhere in the world. The project is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2018. Stay tuned to the museum’s blog to keep abreast of new developments.