Shakers reject “foolish consistency”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841.

Shakers numbered things. They numbered rooms for the ease of keeping their domestic life in order, and they numbered products to keep a consistency in manufacture and marketing. In Emersonian fashion, however, their numbering of products did not reflect an overall philosophy of consistency – even within the same community. For example, chairs made at Mount Lebanon were numbered from the smallest size, number 0, to the largest size, number 7, while oval boxes made in the same community at the same time were numbered from the largest size, number 1, to the smallest size, number 11. In a further example of not demanding some “foolish consistency” in numbering products, in the mid-1870s, apparently not finding the largest two or the smallest two sizes of oval boxes profitable, they dropped them from their offering and merely renumbered the remaining seven boxes number 1 for the largest remaining box, to number 7 for the smallest. This may have caused some confusion for customers trying to order number 1 or 2 boxes after the change. 

fig 1

Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer.

This change in the Shakers’ offering of oval boxes apparently came about right around the time when they were launching an initiative to increase the sale of chairs – and oval boxes – through mail order sales from a series of catalogs. The South Family had built a new chair factory in 1872 and greatly increased production and sales. The earliest catalog, dated 1875, includes chairs numbered 1 through 7 with small illustrations by an unidentified artist. On the final two pages, however, there are illustrations of a line of chairs – small to large – created by “Ferguson, Albany.” Hiram Ferguson was a noted photographer and wood engraver in Albany, New York. Although these two pages of illustrations present themselves almost as an afterthought, very soon after another catalog was issued with four pages of Ferguson illustrations, and soon after that, another catalog with six pages of Ferguson illustrations. This last catalog also includes a page showing a stack of seven oval boxes, numbers 1 through 7, offered for sale. While the creator of this illustration is not identified, a separate four-page bi-fold that survives in a very small number shows, along with two pages of “The Shakers’ Upholstered Chairs,” an illustration of “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes.” This illustration of eleven oval boxes, numbered 1 through 11 is identified as having been created by Ferguson.  

fig 2

An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1.

There has been some conjecture as to whether this bi-fold was intended to be issued as a separate flyer to accompany the chair catalogs, or if it was a four-page spread that was at one time intended to be bound with a chair catalog but, for some reason, was not. It seems doubtful that it was intended merely as a separate publication. While there is a page titled, “Directions for Ordering Chairs,” there is no address included, and none of the other chair catalogs are missing this page. It seems more likely that the Shakers engaged Ferguson to create an illustration of their oval boxes and intended to include the stack of eleven boxes in their chair catalog, but decided not to do so. The stack of seven boxes that was included in the catalog was printed with the same printing block that printed the stack of eleven boxes, but the bottom and top two boxes were cut away from the block. This also removed Ferguson’s signature.

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875

“Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.

There are a few possible reasons for this change. In the mid-1870s, Elder Daniel Crosman (1810-1885) at the Church Family was the primary oval box maker for the community. After the devastating fire in 1875, other than making 50 round spit-boxes (spittoons) for the new dwelling that was being built to replace the one that burned, he appears to have had less time than usual to work at boxes. Elder Daniel made at least 11 sizes of boxes at one time; in fact, he made a box he identified as a zero that was apparently larger than a number one. The largest and smallest boxes may have been the least profitable ones to make and, therefore, the Shakers decided to no longer offer them for sale. This would have necessitated eliminating them from the catalog. Whatever the reason, the stack of 11 boxes is not known to have been included in a catalog. 

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875

Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph.

The creation of the images used in the chair catalog could have all been done by Ferguson – a photographer and wood engraver who could also duplicate wood engravings in type metal. The Shakers may have taken oval boxes and chairs to his studio and had him photograph them. From the photograph he would have his wood engravers make an engraved illustration simulating the photograph. The wood engraving was then used to create a mold from which duplicate blocks could be made from type metal. These blocks were then sent to the printer and set on the page with necessary text. For the oval box illustration, this process, minus the wood engraving, is preserved in various collections and is presented here – from photograph, to printing block, to printed page. Of course, if the wood engraving of the stack of oval boxes does survive, that would be an important addition to this discussion. 

Mother Lucy Wright was remembered as saying, albeit in the context of wanting quality rather than quantity in new Shakers, “Numbers are not the thing for us to glory in.” The ease with which the Shakers changed their number 3 oval box to make it a number 1 oval box certainly speaks to their desire to not be distracted by hobgoblins.  


Fig 1: Oval Boxes, South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection. Hiram Ferguson [?], photographer. 


Fig 2: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (p. 13) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 


Fig 3: “Fancy Oval Covered Wooden Boxes,” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875. Private collection.  


Fig 4. “Hiram Ferguson, Designer, Photographer and Engraver in Wood, Bank Building, 448 Broadway, Albany, NY,” ca. 1881, retrieved from: 


Fig 5: Print Block, Eleven Oval Boxes, Hiram Ferguson, Albany, NY, ca. 1875, Collection of the New York State Museum. Staff photograph. 


Fig 6: An Illustrated Catalogue and Price-List of Shakers’ Chairs. Manufactured by the Society of Shakers, R. M. Wagan & Co. Mount Lebanon, N. Y., (cover) ” South Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1875, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1957.10304.1. 


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.