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The bentwood box was originally a working box for storage of dry items, but today used more as a decorative item. The Shakers originally used the boxes for storing kitchen ingredients and small items and parts for the shop. They stored easily, as a smaller one could be put inside an empty larger one as in a Matryoshka-style nest; many smaller boxes could be stored within the space of the largest box. The idea of buying a complete set of seven or eight graduated size boxes was a luxury that was out of the reach of most nineteenth-century households, as each size cost about a full day's pay and the larger ones even more.
The boxes were attractive to many besides the Shakers and their "fancy work" was sold by the thousands. The boxes were made in various shapes and sizes, with their oval shaped ones being most popular. Box making was the leading symbol of Shaker life and one of their most productive business enterprises. Loop handles were added to some varieties to make it easier to carry lighter items like eggs and sewing thread. Many times the boxes with handles were used to carry items to and from the market. Certain styles of boxes came with a single handle attached to the side that was used as a "dipper" scoop for different quantities.
The Shakers were not the originators or inventors of these bentwood boxes, but did refine their style and standardize shapes and sizes. According to master box-maker and Director for Collections and Research at the Shaker Museum (Mount Lebanon) at Old Chatham, New York, Jerry V. Grant, likely Shaker brothers from many of their communities already made the wooden boxes on a limited scale in the mid-eighteenth century. They started making their boxes on an industrial scale at just a few of their communities about 1799. These were Canterbury, New Hampshire; Alfred and Sabbathday Lake, Maine; Union Village, Ohio; and their New Lebanon Shaker Village. They first started making boxes for sale to the outside world in New Lebanon around 1798 - 1799 which was just over 20 years from the time they came to New York from England.
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