New Shaker Seed BoxesBy Mark Chervenka
New Shaker Boxes
Most collectors associate the Shakers with products such as furniture, quilts, household gadgets, farming tools and implements. Many may not realize Shakers were responsible for many firsts–such as condensed milk, flat brooms and offering seeds for sale in paper packages. The wooden boxes Shakers crafted to display their seeds in 19th and early 20th century country stores are very collectible. Those Shaker seed boxes have now been reproduced.
New boxes are based on the general appearance of original Shaker seed boxes. New boxes are painted wood with early cotter-pin style hinges. "Shaker" and the names of towns with original Shaker communities are included on the reproduction paper labels.
The particular group of new boxes discussed in this article are in two groups of sizes. One group closely copies dimensions of original Shaker seed boxes with six sizes ranging from 13" x 7½" x 3¼" high to 23½" x 9½" x 3" high. A second group of six boxes is a smaller size never originally made, ranging from 6½" x 3½ x 2" high to 11½ x 4½" x 2¾" high.
Sharen Koomler, Curator, Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA described how the Shakers operated their seed business. "Sisters (female Shakers) would separate seeds and put them into paper package. Brothers (male Shakers) would build the boxes fill them with packaged seeds and sell them to stores and shops. As seed sold out, retailers reordered more packages to refill the boxes. Shakers sold seeds from as early as 1810 through the 1940s."
Although Shaker members built the earliest seed boxes, Koomler said Shakers began buying factory made boxes by the end of the 19th century. Koomler said early boxes have simple butt joints; factory made pieces have box joints (Fig. 9). Most early boxes were generally painted with reddish brown paint, some are known in yellow too. In general, paint was applied to only the outside of the box.
Separating Old from New
Paper labels provide several important clues which indicate a new box. First, many of the large labels are pieced together leaving an obvious seam (Fig. 10); original labels are almost always one piece. Paper labels on the inside lids of old boxes almost always have brighter colors and show less wear than paper labels on the outside front of old boxes. Labels on new boxes are equally bright and clear whether inside or outside. In almost all original boxes, the wood has expanded and contracted over many years. This produces random cracks and splits in original labels glued to the wood. Original labels were lithographed; new labels are printed by inkjet and laser printers.
New hardware also offers important clues. The new cotter-pin hinges, for example, aren't anchored into the wood. Legs on genuine cotter-pin hinges were hammered, or clenched, into the wood (Figs. 3-5). New boxes are assembled by pneumatic nailers using specially designed nails. These nails are automatically driven below the surface of the wood. These nails produce a distinctive unfilled rectangular hole (Fig. 7) along joints.
Interiors of original boxes were rarely painted. All the interiors of this particular group of new boxes are painted. Size is also a clue. None of the six smaller sizes mentioned above were ever made by the Shakers. Just be logical. If a box is too small to hold a package of seeds, it's probably a reproduction.
Koomler said there are a number of people making the new seed boxes. New boxes by other makers may or may not be detected by the guidelines discussed in this article.
Like many other reproductions, most new seed boxes are originally sold as legitimate decorative items. But over time many of these products drift into the antiques market where they cause confusion.