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January 2010

Museum Receives Smithsonian Community Grant To Support “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” April 3-June 27, 2010

Jim_Henson_and_his_characters The National Heritage Museum announced today that it has received a grant from the Smithsonian Community Grant program to support the upcoming exhibition “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” opening April 3, 2010. This competitive grant was awarded to assist in the development and implementation of all aspects of the show from educational programming to promotion.

“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” opens at the Museum on April 3, 2010 and will remain on view through June 27, 2010. The exhibition features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that illustrate Henson’s talent as a storyteller and visionary. It offers a rare peek into the imagination and creative genius of this multitalented innovator and creator of Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and other beloved characters. Among the variety of exhibition objects are puppets, and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson’s early career and experimental films.

The Smithsonian Community Grant will allow the Museum to present an array of educational programming. Says Hilary Anderson Stelling, Director of Exhibitions and Audience Development, “We are thrilled to be able to bring this wonderful exhibition to New England. The generous support from the Smithsonian Community Grant program allows us to offer visitors a rich selection of programs related to the exhibition from activities for families, to lectures exploring his little-known work in television commercials. There are a lot of Henson fans out there. Our programs will give people of all ages a chance to further understand his creativity and contributions.” For more information on the exhibition and related programming, please visit our web site.

The Smithsonian Community Grant program, funded by MetLife Foundation and administered by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), is used to strengthen the connections between museums nationwide and their communities. The grants allow exhibitors to enhance current program offerings or to create a new program suited to the topic of the SITES exhibition that they will be hosting. Grants up to $5,000 are awarded based on criteria that each exhibitor must meet. For more information on Smithsonian Community Grants, visit www.sites.si.edu or email sitesgrants@si.edu.

 “This is an excellent opportunity to encourage our exhibitors to engage their audiences in new and exciting ways,” said Anna R. Cohn, SITES director. “We are pleased with this tremendous show of support from MetLife Foundation and we recognize the impact that their support will have for museums and their visitors.”

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 55 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. For more information, including exhibition descriptions and tour schedules, visit www.sites.si.edu.

Do You See Dead People?

85_80_25cS1 The National Heritage Museum collection includes over 1,500 photographs from the 1840s to the present featuring people, places, and events, many of them Masonic in nature.  One of the most intriguing photographs in the collection is shown here.  It depicts a man who faces the camera.  Above his head is a ghost-like figure of a woman.  Called “spirit photography,” images like this one were often created by unscrupulous photographers who claimed that they had captured the likenesses of deceased loved ones.  W.H. Mumler of Boston, who took this photograph, produced this type of image for eight years, claiming all the while to be uniting the dead with the living.  However, other photographers worked to debunk Mumler’s claims, even publishing descriptions of techniques that could be used to make these pictures.  Photographers used additional living people as part of the process, not visitors from the spirit world.  Honest photographers sometimes used the “ghost” techniques for sentimental or humorous reasons, without claiming that they were in contact with the spirit world. 

Part of photography's appeal for mid-1800s Americans was its newness and its realism.  The sitters could see themselves, and their friends and family, as they really were, not through the painter’s brush or artist’s pencil.  Frenchman Louis Daguerre is credited with inventing a process to chemically record images in 1839.  This product was named for its inventor and the daguerreotype was born.  By the 1860s, cartes-de-visite like this one were invented, allowing the photographer to print an image on paper.  One of the keys to the popularity of these photographs was their compact size.  While many portraits from the 1700s and 1800s were painted to be framed and hung on the wall, a carte-de-visite could be carried in a purse or a pocket. 

A handwritten note on the back of this photograph provides not only helpful information about the identity of the sitter, but also tells us that the subject was hoodwinked by his photographer.  The inscription reads “Portrait of Theo. Ross 33º Taken by a Spiritualistic Photographer + he made Ross believe that was his wife’s spirit standing behind him.”  While we may find it hard to believe that Ross could have believed such a story, it helps to understand that the photo was taken at a time when Spiritualism was sweeping the nation.  Spiritualism was a religious movement aimed at proving the immortality of the soul by establishing communication with the spirits of the dead.  Historians have suggested that Spiritualism’s popularity was a response to the widespread economic, social and cultural changes taking place in America in the mid-1800s.  (See our post on a Masonic quilt by spiritualist Jane Haight Webster).

Theodore Ross was born in Duchess County, New York, on November 23, 1827, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, at a young age.  He was made a Mason in Cleveland’s Iris Lodge No. 229 and became a member of both the York Rite and the Scottish Rite.  He received the Scottish Rite’s 33º on May 23, 1862.  At some point, Ross moved to New York City, where he passed away on May 30, 1875.  But, his photograph remains, allowing us not only to connect his appearance to his life story, but also highlighting a fascinating part of the story of photography in America.


William Culp Darrah, Cartes de Visite in Nin[e]teenth Century Photography, Gettysburg, PA: W.C. Darrah, 1981.

Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America, New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Theodore Ross with his wife’s “spirit,” 1862-1875, W.H. Mumler, Boston, Massachusetts, Collection of the National Heritage Museum, 85.80.25c.  

How Many Symbols Can You Identify?

Stained Glass Window photo by David Bohl WEB SIZE The stained glass window located in the National Heritage Museum’s lobby, pictured here, is one of the treasures of the collection.  Installed shortly before the Museum opened in 1975, it conveys the vision of not only its artist, but also of the Museum’s founders, linking Freemasonry and patriotism as a contribution to the bicentennial of American independence. 

Crafted by noted stained glass artist Dr. Rudolph R. Sandon (1916-1992), of Painesville, Ohio, the window was a gift to the Museum in 1975 from the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, Illinois.  Measuring approximately 12 feet high by 16 feet wide, it includes 1,800 pounds of glass (which is one inch thick) and 600 pounds of sand mixed with epoxy.

The window is divided into twelve sections, each with specially selected Masonic and American symbols.  For example, at the top left, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha, is paired with a 13-star American flag.  Alpha symbolizes “the beginning” and the 13-star flag represents the beginning of the United States of America.  Another section shows the Masonic square and compasses with the letter G in the center, which is one of the most commonly used symbols.  The square and compasses symbolize reason and faith, while the G is understood to represent geometry (specialized knowledge required for stonemasons, which reflects the traditions that inspired Freemasonry as we know it today) and/or the Great Architect of the Universe, a non-denominational phrase for God that is frequently used in Freemasonry.

The stained glass window is featured on the Museum’s website where we recently unveiled an interactive version.  Found on the Masonic History Resources Portal, you can mouse over the symbols to learn what they mean.

Masonic stained glass window, 1975 Dr. Rudolph R. Sandon (1916-1992), Painesville, Ohio, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, Illinois, 74.11.  Photograph by David Bohl.

A Letter Home from Mecklenburg, Virginia, 1849

A2009_78_1_scan_web_version In the 1840s, the Northern and Southern United States were still quite distinct regions, both socially and economically. The South focused on agriculture, and was still very rural.  The North developed larger cities and various industries.  Plantation life and slavery dominated the lives of Southerners.  A newly acquired letter in our collection (see image at left), dated July 8, 1849, captures the rural life of pre-war Virginia from a Northern point of view.  The author of the letter, N. H. Hubbard, was a Northerner (from Massachusetts) who visited Mecklenburg County in southern Virginia, and wrote a letter home to his brothers and sisters.

The letter contains a description of a Masonic funeral, a "barbacue" in the woods, and a hunt on horseback with hounds.  Hubbard expresses amazement at all of these activites, as they were quite different from his life back in Massachusetts.

First, Hubbard described the Masonic funeral. He writes that the funeral took place "under a large arbor built in the front yard, the house was also full so we took seats in the arbor."  He reports that there were about 100 Masons from 4 different lodges who marched in procession two-by-two for the Masonic funeral of a Mr. Parish.  He describes the Masons as dressed in white aprons, white scarves, with a piece of white fabric around their hats.  The account continues, "The grave was not in the field, a short distance from the house and was surrounded by posts, with a rope, passing around them, so as to form a large circle." Hubbard and the rest of the spectators stayed outside the rope. The Masons marched into the circle headed by a man carrying a large Bible and then stood in a ring around the open grave. Four Masons placed a black piece of board in the shape of a coffin in the grave.  Another read from the Bible and talked to the other Masons.  Then "they put in a white lambskin aprin [sic], which they said was an emblem of innocence." The Masons circled the grave and each one threw in a piece of cedar, an emblem of faith according to Hubbard's account.  And, in fact, Hubbard was correct: The cedar tree is known for its long lasting qualities and is considered a symbol of eternity in Freemasonry

Hubbard further recounts the Masonic funeral, explaining that the Masons at the funeral "all stood in a ring again, and clapped their hands first over their heads, and then across the breast, then down at the side, repeating it 3 times."  This "salute" is known as the public "grand honors," and is still used in Freemasonry today. Finally, one Mason from each lodge threw a spade of earth on the grave and they all took turns until it was filled. 

In addition to the Masonic funeral, Hubbard also describes other local events, including a July 4th "barbacue" held in the woods by the Virginians he was with. This was a new way of celebrating Independence Day to this Northerner.  First a large ditch, or pit, was dug "as long as your school house" and 2 or 3 feet deep.  Next, hickory poles were laid across it.  Finally, the sheep, lambs, and shoats [piglets] were dressed whole and spread across the poles to roast. They were then rubbed continuously with butter, pepper, salt, and vinegar. Live red coals from a nearby fire were "shoveled in under the meat to keep it roasting."

And finally, another activity that Hubbard describes in his letter home is the gentlmen's hunt.  He writes that these Virginia hunters, with horns around their neck and shoulders, took a pack of hounds with them out to hunt.  When the hunters wanted to call their pack of hounds together, they would blow the horn.  Even though there were several packs of hounds out, each dog responded to its own horn as well as its name.  While this method of hunting was traditional in the South, it was quite novel to this Northerner.

Image caption:

Autograph Letter signed by N. H. Hubbard to his Brothers and Sisters, Mechlenburg county, Virginia, 1849.  Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A2009/78/1.

The Charlton Masonic Home

Charlton Masonic Home Overall During the late 1800s, the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts began to consider establishing a home for sick and aged Freemasons and their families in the state.  The Grand Lodge was motivated by larger social trends.  Prior to the Civil War, caring for the sick and the elderly was a family's responsibility.  After the war, concern for the problems of old age increased.  Families were not working together on their farms as much anymore, and more people began working outside their homes for pay, making the care of the sick and the old difficult.  Between the Civil War and World War I, the number of homes for the aged increased, retirement pension programs were established, and old age annuities began to be offered by insurance companies and by fraternal and mutual benefit societies.

Fundraising for the Massachusetts Masonic Home began in earnest in late 1907.  In December 1908, the Grand Lodge purchased the old Overlook Hotel property in Charlton, Massachusetts, located near Worcester in the central part of the state.  The photograph below shows Grand Lodge officers signing the purchase paperwork.  This photograph is part of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection housed at the National Heritage Museum.Charlton Masonic Home Ownership

By early 1911, the Grand Lodge had raised $148,290 from 30,000 Masons (about half of the state’s membership) and felt that they had sufficient funding to open the Home.  The dedication took place on May 25, 1911, with a crowd of 3,000 in attendance.  The Grand Master addressed the crowd, reminding them that “the establishment of the Home to-day is the result of no recent inspiration, but has been the growth of years.”  Over the next 100 years, the Charlton Masonic Home grew, with room for more and more beds added over the decades.  Known today as the Overlook Masonic Health System, the Home continues to flourish.

Left: Postcard, Bird’s-Eye View of Charlton Masonic Home, ca. 1911, National Heritage Museum, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, A96/066/6102.  Right: Signing the Papers for the Transfer of the Charlton Masonic Home, 1909, G. Chickering, probably Boston, Massachusetts, Courtesy of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.7185.

Masonically Inspired: Order of United American Mechanics and the Knights of Pythias

97_019T1 AOUM print By 1900, over 250 American fraternal groups existed, numbering six million members.  Many of these groups looked to Freemasonry for inspiration in creating their rituals, their symbols and their structure.  Two of these groups – the Order of United American Mechanics and the Knights of Pythias – show Masonic influence in the colorful prints reproduced here.  The National Heritage Museum collection includes hundreds of prints like these, which are invaluable sources to study Masonic and fraternal history, as well as American history and culture.

Founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1845, the Order of United American Mechanics was a patriotic, social and benevolent fraternity that aimed to help native-born Americans find employment, and to assist members’ widows and orphans and members who could not work.  The group’s mission reflected the resentment that some American workers felt toward immigrants who were hired at lower wages.  Its emblem, shown at the print’s center (at left), consisted of a square and compasses – similar to the well-known Masonic symbol – around the arm of labor.2000_027DI1 Pythias Print

The print at right is titled The Brotherhood of Pythianism.  The Knights of Pythias was founded in 1864 in Washington, D.C., to renew brotherly spirit in the wake of the Civil War.  Founder Justus H. Rathbone (1839-1889), possibly the man depicted at the top of the print, was a Freemason.  Like Freemasonry, the Knights of Pythias awarded three degrees through rituals.  However, the Knights’ rituals followed the story of the friendship of Damon and Pythias, rather than the building of King Solomon’s temple.  This print prominently displays the group’s motto, “Friendship, Charity, Benevolence.”

Left: American Order of United Mechanics, 1870, Strobridge and Company, Cincinnati, OH, National Heritage Museum, 97.019.  Photograph by David Bohl.  Right: The Brotherhood of Pythianism, 1900, The M.C. Lilley and Company, Columbus, OH, National Heritage Museum, Anonymous Gift, 2000.027. 

Another mystery in need of solving: "Tadmore 77"

1994_079_Tadmore_postcard_web_larger Once again, we're calling on our readers to help us out. Most of the time, we're pretty good at identifying even the most challenging items in our collection, but sometimes we're just plain stumped. That's the case with the postcard shown here. So, we're asking our readers whether they might have any leads - or, even better, outright identification - on what group the three women shown on this real photo postcard are affiliated with.

Here's the visual evidence (for a better look, click on the image above and a larger version will open in another window):

All the women are wearing fezzes. The fez on the woman in the center reads "Tadmore 77."

All three are holding banners in their laps. The banner on the left is different from the other two and appears to have the letters P and B as part of an intricate circle surrounding the number 77. The other two banners are identical to each other - on the banner held by the woman in the center, one can read the word "Picnic" as well a possible date - 191?. The last number in the date is obscured by the stick that the banner is attached to.

All three women are also wearing ribbons which may commemorate the event that they are attending. Unfortunately, the text of the ribbons can't be read, even under magnification.

The final visual clue is the pendant hanging around the neck of the woman seated in the middle. The pendant appears to be in the shape of a keystone, a symbol traditionally, though by no means exclusively, associated with the Royal Arch in Freemasonry - but also, of course, associated with Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone State, so the keystone might be related to where this photo was taken and this postcard most likely comes from Pennsylvania (see next paragraph).

Another lead appears on the reverse of the card, which includes the stamp of the photographer presumably responsible for this real photo postcard. It reads "W.D. Rishel, Photo, 319 N. 9th St. Reading, PA."

Here's what we're thinking so far, based on the evidence: These women were possibly at an annual picnic, somewhere in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, sometime in the nineteen teens. But what group were they with? Were these women members of an auxiliary Masonic group? A sorority? A woman's club? A coed fraternal group?

If you have a lead, no matter how slim, please let us know. We'll give credit where it's due if someone helps us identify what group these women belonged to.

Photo caption:
[Three women wearing fezzes, sitting on bench, for “Tadmore 77” event], 1910-1919
Real photo postcard
Museum purchase, 1994/079