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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything


The most expensive Shaker handiwork I’ve ever seen is one of these boxes. I look at the auction records for Shaker items from time to time, and I see their magnificent sewing tables and desks going for real money, as collecting the items has gone to its logical conclusion and only museums and the hardcore speculator can afford most of the genuine big articles.

I found an example of two small boxes like the one pictured, with their lids, that were auctioned in 2003. They are a very bright yellow. Shaker items are often assumed to be from a sort of rich but drab palette of colors, but most of that is because of the passage of time. They were routinely painted screaming yellow and lipstick red and a really jazzy salmon color, among others, but they fade to more sedate hues.

The two small boxes? $42,250. No, really. $42,250. But that’s just one. The other was $34,500.

There’s a handsome Shaker cupboard in the same auction report. Five drawers below with two big doors above. It looks like it’s made of cherry. It’s really big, really fine, in excellent shape as far as you can tell from the picture, and went for $12,500. Why so much for the little box?

Because it’s perfect, and sublime. When you can make an art photograph out of your object, you’re generally on to something.

I have lots of books about Shakers. In one, there’s a fellow named Delmer. Can’t recall his last name. He’s in Maine, and he’s making those boxes about a hundred years ago. He’s standing in front of a pile of them that goes up to the ceiling behind him. He’s in a barn, not a mobile home, so “up to the ceiling” means something.

The boxes were utilitarian. They were for a humdrum purpose. And Delmer made them over and over, and tried to make every one perfect. He hurled thousands of them into the maw of the world, which used them and wasted them or lost them or whatever happened to them all in the intervening years. And there were hundreds of Delmers.

Now they are precious. They are rare because there were so many and they were so cheap there was no reason to save them. And they are fantastically prized for their rarity. But there’s something more; lots of ugly things are rare.

If you woke Delmer up from his eternal slumber, and lied to him and told him they were all lost, and so no one could testify to the effort and care and art and mystery he put into them, I bet he wouldn’t care a whit. I doubt he would have changed a thing. He tried to make a perfect thing in his human and imperfect way, and gave it over to a very imperfect world.

I’d like to tell him just how close he got to the sun. But I am not that nice a person, really. I’d have an ulterior motive to give him his posthumous attaboy. I’d ask him what the warmth of that faraway orb felt like on his face; because how many of us will ever know the sensation?

3 Responses

  1. I lived with the Maine Shakers in the winter of 2006/2007, and Sister Frances Carr remembers Br. Delmer Wilson very well. I use to ask her lots of questions about him. She would tell you that he was an old-fashioned Shaker; straight-laced and upright. Even during his last days, he would not allow the Sisters to respond to his final needs. Brother Ted Johnson slept on the floor of his bedroom and attended to Br. Delmer in his last days. During Br. Delmer’s life, he made not only wonderful boxes, but other wooden items. The tables we eat at in the dining room were made by Br. Delmer. (He’s still a very important part of daily life at the village.) He drove the Village’s first car, took fabulous photos, was a first-rate orchard overseer, built a wonderful cabin on Sabbathday Lake, could fix anything broken, and was generally a well-rounded person in mind, body, and spirit. He didn’t like waste, however, and would not have been happy having any of his work spoiled by lack of care. This was a man who would call the Sisters to his side of the dining room to remove toast crumbs from the butter before he would take it. Lack of care in all things was not his style. He was, truly, an old-fashioned Shaker. His influence is still much felt throughout the Village today. He passed, by the way, from this life, in 1961.

  2. Here’s a Shaker quote. Maybe it will explain.

    If it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to make it.

    If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its usefulness or necessity.

    And finally: If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.

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