At first glance, Shaker boxes feel as serene as Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse. But stacked together, the colorful bentwood boxes buzz, exuding a jumpy vitality more than 200 years after crafty members of the celibate sect first painted them. The eye-popping pigment is a visual treat for design devotees who see the divine in spare Shaker style.
Leslie and Leigh Keno’s first encounter with these storage boxes took place at the Shaker Museum’s annual antiques fair in Old Chatham, New York. It was more than 35 years ago, but Leslie still recalls the sense (and scents!) of excitement when he lifted the lid: "I clearly remember the wonderful aroma—a blend of spices and aged wood. The construction is so perfect that it creates a suction when you lift the lid. It’s almost airtight." The teenage dealer soon learned that the tight-fitting lid and subsequent "suction" was one way to authenticate a Shaker-made box.
Twin Leigh chimes in: "We used to joke that these boxes were early Tupperware for Shakers. And this was our kind of Tupperware."
Photo: Joe Standart
Here, Leslie (left) and Leigh Keno lift the lid to inspect a Shaker bentwood box. The oval boxes held everything, from dried herbs and spices to thread and buttons. "About the only thing they didn’t hold was liquid," says Leigh.
The graduated boxes were stored, also like Tupperware, one inside another. In Leigh’s Manhattan shop, the brothers pull apart a set of boxes like Russian matryoshka dolls. They see beauty in the exposed joinery ("swallowtail fingers") and absence of curlicue decoration. Neither can resist the Gothic arch-shaped pattern formed by the fingers, which are reminiscent of iron strap hinges. "An incredible amount of craftsmanship went into carving each joint," says Leigh.
The Shakers, however, probably hid the joints from view. "In order to read the inscriptions on some of the boxes, the side with the fingers faced the back," explains Connecticut dealer David Schorsch, one of the country’s leading Shaker specialists. "The fingers were designed to help keep the wood from cracking," he adds.
The Shakers, a religious sect, left England in 1774, when Mother Ann Lee and eight followers moved to New England to devote themselves to work and prayer. While they didn’t invent the oval box, crafty Shakers refined the form, with arch-shaped joints, rust-free copper tacks, and nearly airtight lids.
Collectors covet specific boxes based on color, condition, and size, not age. Vibrant lemon-yellow trumps other colors, and buyers pay a premium for original untouched paint. ("You can almost see through the brush strokes," says Schorsch.) Some of the smallest boxes fetch the largest prices. "Almost all boxes fall within the standard range—3-5⁄8 inches long up to 15 inches," he explains. "If a box is larger or smaller, it’s a very big deal." Schorsch once purchased a tiny yellow box ("small enough to balance on one finger," recalls Leigh) for $25,300. It’s now on display at Manhattan’s American Folk Art Museum.
This green box, made by Father Job Bishop (1760-1831), a leader in the Canterbury Shaker community in New Hampshire, has a paper label describing what the box once held: "Spools of winding silk."
Vibrant color adds value. Most prized: lemon yellow, lipstick red, Prussian blue, and emerald green. Most common: plain maple, unpainted.
Thinking outside the box the monogram indicates which way the box was meant to face. The swallowtail-finger side was considered the back of the box.
Antiques addicts on a budget scope out boxes made by the Hersey family, who settled in Hingham, Masssachusetts, in the 17th century. The boxes, recognized by their opposing fingers and mistakenly referred to as Harvard Shaker boxes, offer the best bang for the buck, says Schorsch. Shown here is a nest of four miniature oval boxes that fit in the palm of a hand. The opposing fingers point to maker Samuel Hersey (1783–1876). The largest box is labeled with the maker’s name.
For promising new vintages, tap into the Hancock Shaker Village Web site (hancockshakervillage.org), where you can scoop up a six-stack of delicious cherry boxes for $350.
Shown here is a plain box.
Color: unpainted maple
Tacks: brass (some missing)
Size: 3 1⁄2 inches long
Date: circa 1875
For comparison, here is a painted box, which is considerably older and more valuable than the plain box in the previous image.
Color: original yellow paint
Tacks: copper, with patina
Size: 3 1⁄4 inches long
Date: circa 1835
To see more:
- Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
- Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham, New York
- David Schorsch, Woodbury, Connecticut
- Courcier/Wilkins, Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts
- Canterbury Shaker Village, Concord, New Hampshire
- Willis Henry Auction, Marshfield, Massachusetts
Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno
Photography: Joe Standart