The National Heritage Museum recently received a gift of four stereocards titled Skeleton Leaves and showing the same leafy arrangement shaped like a Masonic square and compasses symbol. One of the cards is shown here (for more on stereocards, see our previous post). I was struck by how quintessentially Victorian this image seems and became curious about the story behind the image.
According to the card itself, the publisher was John P. Soule of Boston. Soule was born in Maine in 1828. City directories for Boston from the late 1850s tell us that Soule was a partner in the firm of Rogers and Soule, Printsellers. Soule’s partner was none other than John Rogers (1829-1904), the sculptor whose “Rogers Groups” would become popular decorations in many Victorian homes. By 1859, Soule was identified as a “photographist” in the Boston directory. He went on to publish a number of stereocards in the 1870s, including this one. In 1888, Soule moved to Seattle; he died in 1904.
The Masonic symbol shown on the card is perhaps the most recognizable sign of the fraternity. The square and compasses represent reason and faith. The letter G in the center stands for God, geometry, or both. While this symbol was used on all sorts of objects during the late 1800s – from furniture to ceramics – this representation is done in a specific medium – that of skeletonized leaves (also called “phantom leaves” or “phantom bouquets”).
Instructions on how to pursue this type of project were provided in numerous late-1800s household guides and ladies’ magazines. For example, the March 1870 issue of The Lady’s Friend reprinted directions from an 1867 issue for skeletonizing leaves “at the special request of new subscribers.” The writer acknowledged the popularity of this activity, “These Phantom Bouquets are more beautiful than could be believed by those who have not seen them…We had not thought that anything so dainty and airily graceful could be preserved in this way.” To make one of these arrangements, the leaves were gathered while green and then soaked. The “green matter” had to be rubbed off the surface of the leaf, leaving the “fibrous network” or skeleton of the leaf. Once the leaves were thoroughly dry, they could be bleached and then formed into an arrangement.
This stereocard notes that an I.L. Rogers registered the image at the Library of Congress in 1873. Reportedly, a Mrs. I.L. Rogers of Springfield, Massachusetts, patented an improved method for skeletonizing leaves in 1877. While we were particularly interested in this image because of its Masonic content, a number of stereocards were available during the late 1800s showing other arrangements of “skeleton leaves,” primarily non-Masonic and decorative.
Have you ever tried skeletonizing leaves? Do you know more about Mrs. I.L. Rogers? Do you have a stereocard showing a “phantom arrangement”? If so, let us know in a comment below!
“John P. Soule Family,” https://familystacks.com/custom/views/fam/S02.htm.
The Lady’s Friend 7 (March 1870): 202-206.
Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1866.
Skeleton Leaves, 1873, John P. Soule (1828-1904), Boston, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Ronald T. Labbe, 2010.076.1.