PITTSFIELD -- President Lincoln had a Size 7 Rocker the Shakers gave him when he allowed them to be conscientious objectors during the Civil War.
When he signed the emancipation proclamation, 150 years ago -- when Berkshire men marched south with the 54th Regiment to die on the beaches of North Carolina, and the city held a parade to welcome the 49th regiment to South Street (and the colonel rode because he had only one leg and could not walk), and Elizabeth Melville volunteered at a makeshift military hospital downtown -- the Shakers were here, working in their woodshops.
They would have taken in children orphaned by the war and women left without husbands, brothers or fathers. They likely gave veterans a hot meal and a quiet place to stay, as they often took in people who needed somewhere to go.
Here, in the water-powered machine shop at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, and in the factory barn at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New York, they made chairs.
Through and after the war, the Shakers built an industry, said curator and collections manager Lesley Herzberg at the Hancock Shaker Village. It reached the height of production in the 1870s, and in 1876 a Shaker rocking chair won an award at the Philadelphia Centennial.
And as Shaker chairs grew more popular, they attracted imitators -- and fakes.
The Village has chairs in its collection that look Shaker but are not, Herzberg said.
Shakers began making their own chairs for their communities in late 18th cenury, adapting American styles, making them lighter, adding tilters to the back feet and perfecting the form.
As Shaker chairs became more popular, furniturecompanies began to make and market "Shaker" chairs that the Shakers had not made.
"The Shakers got up in arms about that," Herzberg said. They advertised. They told people, " ‘Come to us. You won’t get the same quality and honest craftsmanship and good price from imitators’."
By 1875, they felt the need to " ‘call the attention of the public’ to the fact that the Shakers owned no chair manufactury except the one at Mount Lebanon. ‘There is none we would accept as a specimen of our own workmanship, nor would we stake our reputation on their quality’," they said bluntly in the press at the time.
So Herzberg has joined in the campaign on their behalf.
She has designed a show on small scale, mixing six real Shaker chairs and six imitations -- and inviting visitors to guess which is which.
"Even people who feel they know Shaker design have come across things that stumped them," said Laura Wolf, director of operations and marketing. "They like being able to figure it out as a puzzle."
Many people first encounter the Shakers through furniture, Wolf said, and still today in modern furniture people will misapply "Shaker" to decidedly un-Shaker designs.
The Shakers used ladderbacks or taped backs, Herzberg explained. The chair backs had finials -- finely shaped and tapered tops to the uprights --and a bar at the top to drape a shawl over.
They had pommels on the chair arms and turnings on the posts, and woven taped seats. The brothers made them, and initially the sisters wove the tapes, she said. She has photographs of Sister Sarah Collins, in "A Promising Venture," Herzberg’s ongoing exhibit of 1930s WPA photographs at the Village, weaving a chair seat in the workshop.
Furniture identifiably from Hancock Shaker Village is rare, Wolf said. The Hancock Shakers did not mass produce furniture to sell; they made it for their own use. They sold seeds, cheese, milk and butter, but rarely woodwork.
They made chairs commercially only in the workshop and chair factory at Mount Lebanon, Herzberg said.
She knows from a journal from the chair factory that the Shakers there also repaired imitation chairs when they were asked to, which may have confused the public still more. They would see the repaired imitations when they visited the Village.
Authentic chairs they made for sale they often painted black and stamped with a number.
So the familiar wooden chairs at Hancock Shaker Village with the brightly colored woven seats may be the kind the Shakers made for themselves, to lean back in after a long day in the fields and the orchards -- and after a full meal -- and sip a cold, sweet drink, tangy with apples or black birch.