A Brief History of Shaker Boxes

In a time long ago, before plastic bottles, containers and bags, people needed a way to store household items such as flour, sugar, coffee, tea, herbs, sewing notions, nails, etc.

Shaker Style oval boxes by Bill KellerBent wooden boxes called “pantry boxes” were used for this function. The boxes were lightweight and made from local material. Although practical and functional, these common storage boxes were often crudely made and prone to warping and splitting.  

American Shaker communities began making wooden boxes in the 18th century. Shakers disliked ornate and pretentious work, preferring the creed that "beauty is utility."

“The Shakers' dedication to patience, hard work and precision resulted in objects that were both useful and beautiful. The graceful swallowtail design of the band is an example of combining function with beauty”

The oval shape may have partially developed for economic reasons. A twelve-inch circular box requires a twelve-inch board, but a twelve-inch oval box can be made from a nine-inch wide board.

Early boxes were made using hand tools; later on, the Shakers used circular saws to cut the top and bottom bands, tops, and bottoms of the boxes. The top and bottom bands were usually made of maple and the bottoms and tops of quarter-sawn pine. Pieces were soaked in hot water or steamed until they became pliable and could be shaped around a wooden mold and held together by small copper (or other metal) nails. Boxes were made in uniform graduated sizes.

Today the boxes are used more as a decoration or accent item; adding an “old time” touch to the modern environment.

There is conflicting information as to whether or not the Shaker’s made trays. Perhaps what we consider trays were simply the cover or lids of the Shaker Oval Boxes they made. Regardless, over the years, Shaker style oval trays have been made. They are used as serving trays, centerpieces among other things.