Folk Art

Well Matched: Masonic Portraits of Couples

Among the many portraits in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s online exhibition “What’s in a Portrait?” are a number of portraits of couples. Similar to other types of portraiture, these works convey meaning about what the sitters valued. Couple portraits were commissioned by married or betrothed couples to honor their union, or document other family events. Pictured here are two beguiling examples.

Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, ca. 1800.
Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, ca. 1800. United States. Special Acquisitions Fund, 78.47a.

The first example is the charming watercolor above, which at 5 by 8 inches qualifies (somewhat paradoxically) as a large miniature portrait. Depicting subjects identified as Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, the work likely dates to 1800. Although its maker and place of creation are not known, the portrait still conveys information about the sitters: for example, the pair’s union is emphasized—even romanticized—through decorative flourishes such as the entwined lovebirds at the top center of the painting and the identical beribboned wreaths encircling the two images. The importance of Mr. Hull’s identification as a Freemason is also conveyed in the carefully detailed representation of his jewel, sash, and apron.

A second example, from 1804, appears below: two matching paintings by artist Benjamin Greenleaf (1769-1821), who worked in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Depicting Captain Aaron Bird (1756-1822) and his wife, Johanna Glover Bird (1757-1815), these 12-by-16-inch portraits are unified stylistically by their dark backgrounds and the similar clothing of their subjects—dark outerwear with white at the neck anchored by small gold pins. The pin that Captain Bird is wearing, which bears a square and compasses, shows that he was a Freemason. Bird hailed from Dorchester, Massachusetts, and was not only a Revolutionary War lieutenant but also a founding member of two Maine lodges—Cumberland Lodge No. 12 in New Gloucester, and later, Tranquil Lodge No. 29 in Minot.

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Johanna Glover Bird and Captain Aaron Bird, 1804. Benjamin Greenleaf (1769-1821). Massachusetts or Maine. Museum Purchase, 98.064.1-2.

Both of these works also exemplify the American folk art aesthetic in their sharply delineated forms, tidily organized compositions, and overall one-dimensionality of style. For all these similarities, they present contrasting atmospheres. This may be partly due to the artistic media the painters who made them employed. Greenleaf painted the Bird portraits in oil paint on pine board, creating a shiny, nonporous surface. He also selected black and white tones with a stark contrast. His treatment differs from that of the artist who painted the Hulls. This painter employed soft watercolors on light-absorbing matte paper, accompanied by airy imagery of birds and leaves.

You can explore more portraits from the collection on our website while the Museum & Library is closed due to the safer-at-home advisory in Massachusetts. We also invite you to join us on Facebook and check out our other online exhibitions and online collections. As always, we welcome your comments below.

 

References:

Carrie Rebora Barratt. “Nineteenth-Century American Folk Art.” October 2004. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © 2000-2020. Accessed May 19, 2020 at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/afkp/hd_afkp.htm.

Andrew Graham-Dixon. “Man and wife—the greatest marriage portraits in art history.” December 14, 2018. Christie’s, © 2020. Accessed May 19, 2020 at https://www.christies.com/features/Andrew-Graham-Dixon-on-marriage-portraits-9594-1.aspx

 


George Washington Masonic Folk Art

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Cigar band plate, 1890-1920. United States. Gift of Milton and Berry Walter, 2005.006.

George Washington died of complications from an infection at the age of 67, at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, in December of 1799. The American public produced many elaborate and public displays of mourning after Washington’s death. Artists and manufacturers also marketed mourning art and memorabilia in his name. In addition to mass-produced memorial items, unknown individuals often also created memorial folk art to commemorate Washington’s legacy.

Decades later an unknown artist fashioned this glass plate into a Masonic portrait of George Washington using paper cigar bands and cut-outs of Washington. The decoupage plate depicts Washington as a Freemason and celebrates his Masonic connections.  Washington wears a Masonic apron and collar. He is surrounded by Masonic symbols, including the all-seeing eye, columns, and an open bible with a square and compasses. Washington’s likeness and the aforementioned symbols appear to have been cut from a Masonic print. Washington’s stance and Masonic regalia suggest the print was modeled after an 1868 Currier & Ives print titled Washington as a Freemason. This popular Masonic lithograph was copied multiple times in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the mid-1800s, cigar manufacturers began to hire lithographers to produce decorative and aesthetically pleasing artistic cigar labels and boxes for their products.  These labels and boxes featured miniature portraits of historic figures, animals, logos, and landscapes. By the early 1900s, consumers began collecting the cigar labels and sharing information about them in groups like the International Cigar Band Society, founded in 1934. Individuals also started to create folk art using the paper cigar bands.  A popular homemade craft in the early 1900s, “cigar band art,” as it was commonly called, included decorated ceramics, glassware, and jewelry. 

Do you or someone in your family have Masonic related “cigar band art”? Let us know in the comments section below.

To learn more about George Washington memorial art, visit our online exhibition, The Many Faces of George Washington.


New to the Collection: Scandinavian Fraternity of America Sign

2015_066DP1DBBy 1900, over 250 fraternal groups existed in the United States, numbering six million members.  Part of this surge in fraternal organizations during the late 1800s came from the formation of numerous ethnic fraternities.  As immigration to the United States increased, foreigners in this new world sought out their countrymen and joined fraternal groups for social reasons, as well as to partake of the benefits that these groups offered, from help with securing employment to financial assistance for themselves and their families.  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library actively collects objects associated with ethnic fraternal groups.  Recently we purchased this colorful sign at auction.

The sign was originally used by Mayflower Lodge No. 200 of the Scandinavian Fraternity of America.  This is the museum's first acquisition associated with this group.  The sign probably hung where the lodge met.  At the center it shows the fraternity's logo with pyramids or mountains and a golden sun.  Along the sides of the central triangle it reads "Svea / Nora / Dana," presumably representing the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The Scandinavian Fraternity of America was founded in 1915, probably in Chicago.  One source suggests that it was a consolidation of three other organizations, including the Scandinavian Brotherhood of America and possibly the Scandinavian American Fraternity (although another source explicitly says that this one is unrelated).  It was open to both women and men.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to determine exactly where Mayflower Lodge No. 200 met, although it seems likely that it was a New England or even Massachusetts lodge.  The choice of such a quintessentially American name for the lodge seems at odds with a Scandinavian fraternity, but suggests a desire by the members to embrace their new country.  If you have any information about Mayflower Lodge No. 200, or other objects, documents or photos associated with the Scandinavian Fraternity of America, please let us know in a comment below!

Scandinavian Fraternity of America Mayflower Lodge No. 200 Sign, 1915-1945, Fred Hagberg, United States, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 2015.066.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Sources:

Alan Axelrod, The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders (New York: Facts on File 1997), 221.

Arthur Preuss, comp., A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1924), 423.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania website: http://www2.hsp.org/collections/Balch%20manuscript_guide/html/sfa.html.

 


The Mysterious Ladder

94_029DP1DBDo you recognize this ladder? It’s a prop that Scottish Rite Freemasons used during the early 1900s when conferring the 30th degree. Known as the “mysterious ladder,” the words on one side’s rungs call out the seven liberal arts and sciences: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The rungs on the other side, marked with transliterations of Hebrew, reminded initiates of virtues such as understanding, faith, purity and charity. Writing on the sides of the ladder represents love of God and love of your neighbor. These messages, along with the upward-pointing shape of the ladder reminded the candidate of how he could learn and grow as a Mason.

While this particular ladder dates to the early 1900s, the history of its use in the Scottish Rite degrees goes back to the mid-1700s, when it appeared in the 24th degree. Scholar Alain Bernheim has found evidence that this degree, complete with an illustration of the ladder, originated in France in 1750. The Francken Manuscript in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, which dates to 1783, also includes an illustration of the ladder with the text of the 24th degree, then titled “Grand Elected Knight of Kadosh or Knight of the White and Black Eagle” (you can read more about Henry Andrew Francken, the compiler of the manuscript, here). As the degrees were rewritten and reorganized into the present-day system, the ladder remained in what became the 30th degree. Regalia Catalog Ladder 1

Ritual books from 1875, 1904 and 1939 include an explanation of the ladder and required the candidates to mount the steps and climb over it before receiving the degree. The 1904 and 1939 books show a scale drawing of the ladder and indicate its placement in a plan of the room or stage. The ritual explained that “it is the only way of entrance to the Order, and we sincerely trust that the lessons taught on its several steps will make a deep and lasting impression on your mind.” Regalia catalogs in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection from the early 1900s (see illustration on right) offer the ladder “of wood, well made and finished, the proper lettering in both English and Hebrew.” Today, the ladder is no longer used in the 30th degree, but it helps to demonstrate the change from intimate degree ceremonies conferred in the lodge room to elaborate staged degrees during the early 1900s.

Mysterious Ladder, 1900-1910, United States, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 94.029. Photograph by David Bohl.

Ladder illustration from Catalog No. 270, The Lilley Company, 1900-1920, Columbus, Ohio. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.


A Masonic Fire Bucket

81_48S1At the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, we actively collect objects to strengthen and improve our existing holdings.  Our primary strength is American Masonic and fraternal items and we look for things that tell an engaging story, are in good condition and do not duplicate our existing holdings.  In 2014, I was contacted by an antiques dealer who had a fascinating painted leather fire bucket for sale.  The bucket was in nice condition and had a Masonic square and compasses symbol on the front above a pair of clasped hands and the name “J. Beach.”  At the top of the bucket, a painted banner read “Friendship in Adversity.”  On first glance it looked like a terrific addition to our collection. [It was recently (in 1/2016) up for sale again, this time at Sotheby's Americana Week sales in New York City - see it here.]

My first step was to analyze it according to our collecting criteria as described above.  So I searched our collections database to see just how many fire buckets we already have.  Imagine my surprise to find the one pictured here, which the Museum purchased in 1981 – it was almost identical to the photo that the dealer had sent me!  While we are fortunate to have a large storage area at the Museum, space is always finite, so I passed on buying the second one and promptly did some research on the one we already owned.

Antiques are rare and valued for a reason – as time passes objects break, get lost, thrown away and disintegrate.  Yet, before they became antiques, they were often common household items.  While it was surprising to turn up two fire buckets with almost identical decoration, it shouldn’t be unexpected.  During the 1700s and early 1800s, most households had at least a couple of buckets like these ones.  They were often the most effective way to combat a fire.  Local residents could line up and form a bucket brigade passing buckets from hand to hand to try and quench the blaze.  Decorating them with symbols and the owner’s name meant that they would be easy to return when the fire was over. 

Groups of local residents also formed fire companies or societies to assist with fighting fires in their neighborhoods.  It makes sense that these local groups would procure fire buckets with similar decoration – as is the case with these two buckets.  The Museum’s bucket is almost identical to the one that was owned by J. Beach – virtually the only difference is the owner’s name – Z. Stevens – and the date it was presumably made – 1799.  Thanks to an email with a colleague at the National Museum of American History, I was able to determine that John Beach and Zachariah Stevens were members of the Masonick Fire Society in Gloucester, Massachusetts.   

Formed in 1789, the Masonick Fire Society aimed to “be helpful to each other in extinguishing [fires in Gloucester], and in saving and taking the utmost care of each other’s goods.”  The printed “Rules and Orders” go on to require that each member “always keep ready, two good Leather Buckets, and two strong bags.”  Members of the Society were also required to be “an approved Mason.”  Indeed, both John Beach and Zachariah Stevens, who owned the fire buckets, were members of Gloucester’s Tyrian Lodge.  Beach was raised in 1779 and served the lodge as Master in 1802.  Stevens was raised in 1804.

Thanks again to my colleague at the National Museum of American History, I discovered that Stevens was a witness to the “sea serpent” sighted in Gloucester in 1817.  Starting in August 1817 and continuing for the next few years, reports of a strange sea creature off the coast of Gloucester began to circulate.  The accuracy of these accounts was debated throughout the country and never conclusively resolved.  But this rather outlandish tale adds another layer of interesting history to Stevens’ Masonic fire bucket.  And keep your eyes peeled – there may be more fire buckets just like this one waiting to be discovered!

Masonic Fire Bucket, 1799, unidentified maker, probably Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Collection, Special Acquisitions Fund, 81.48.

 


New to the Collection: IOOF Astoria Lodge No. 38 Apron

2015_027DP1DBFreemasonry is widely recognized as the first fraternal group to organize in America.  There are accounts of men meeting together in informal lodges during the 1720s. The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts was formally established in 1733.  As the most venerable group of its kind, Freemasonry served as an inspiration for other American fraternal groups throughout the 1700s and 1800s.  When the Independent Order of Odd Fellows began in England in the mid-1700s, and came to the United States in the early 1800s, it followed the degree structure of Freemasonry and incorporated similar symbols and regalia. 

Among the early regalia items worn by the Odd Fellows were aprons.  Recently, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library acquired this Odd Fellows apron that was originally worn by a member of Maine’s Astoria Lodge No. 38.  Based on the lodge’s history, the apron dates between 1846 and 1862.  In 1846, the lodge was founded in Frankfort, Maine.  By 1849, the lodge numbered 83 members.  The last meeting of the lodge was held on December 30, 1862.  A brief published history of the lodge alludes to its dramatic end, “various causes combined led to the death of the Lodge.  Many of the members moved away, others lost all interest in the order, and a few proved themselves unworthy.  One, who held a prominent position, used a large portion of the fund, leaving worthless paper as security.  This soured and disappointed many, and finally the Lodge ceased work.”

Accompanying the apron is a receipt dated July 1, 1849, documenting that Brother Leonard B. Pratt (1820-1882) paid his quarterly assessments for nine months, for a total of $2.25.  Pratt lived in Bucksport, Maine, near Frankfort, where the lodge met.  Like many Odd Fellows aprons, this one is shield shaped and includes the fraternity’s three-link chain emblem, signifying “the only chain by which [members] are bound together is that of Friendship, Love and Truth.”  Odd Fellows used the red and white colors for regalia worn by the Noble Grand, the Outside Guardian and state Grand Officers.

The apron will be on view in our lobby, starting in February 2016, as part of a small exhibition of some of our recent acquisitions.  We hope you will be able to come by and see it in person.  See our website for hours and directions.  And, if you have seen any similar aprons or know more about Astoria Lodge, please leave us a comment!

Independent Order of Odd Fellows Astoria Lodge No. 38 apron, 1846-1862, unidentified maker, probably Maine, Museum purchase, 2015.027.

 


An Intriguing New York Desk

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Desk, 1860-1880. Whitehall, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 91.012.2a-i. Photograph by David Bohl.

As a furniture form, the desk is for doing business and this example is no exception. Along with large drawers and a lockable cupboard, the craftsman who made this desk fitted its interior with several shelves, pigeon holes and drawers sized for organizing and storing correspondence. He also included two looking glasses on the desk, one on the gallery at the top of the desk and another at the center of the interior.These mirrors may have given the desk’s user a chance to check his appearance, provided him advanced warning of who was approaching him while he worked or--most likely--have helped pick up light in the room.The desk features two drawers that are not obvious to the casual viewer. Behind each of the triangular-shaped decorations flanking the interior mirror, the cabinetmaker concealed two small drawers with rounded bottoms, perfect for storing pens. Giving this type of desk its name is the roll top, wooden slats linked together and mounted to fabric that run through tracks on either side of the desk. These slats form a flexible lid for the desk’s interior. This lid helped keep a study or workplace looking tidy while shielding correspondence from prying eyes.  

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Desk, showing interior, 1860-1880. Whitehall, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 91.012.2a-i.

When the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library first purchased this desk, the seller noted that it had been used by a lumberman in Whitehall, New York, a town situated between Lake George and the Vermont border. This intriguing tidbit of information was not documented, but an element of decoration on the desk may either support it or be its source. The desk’s drawers and edges are ornamented with inlay shaped and shaded to resemble cut logs—objects that would have been meaningful to someone who earned his living in lumber.

Much of the inlay on this desk is ornamental—such as the stripes on the columns in the gallery, the different colored wood highlighting each side of the roll top and the jagged lines drawing attention to the front of the desk, but some of the decoration likely held special meaning for the desk’s owner. In addition to his interest in lumber, he was also likely a Freemason.The cupboard door at the bottom of the desk, pictured below, features interesting Masonic imagery. An inlay picture on it depicts a lodge master—identified by his attributes, a top hat and a gavel—standing on a pedestal flanked by the kinds of columns used in Masonic lodges. Another inlay picture at the center of the cupboard door shows lodge furnishings—a Bible on an altar surrounded by three tall candlesticks.Underscoring these pictures, the craftsman placed a small inlay square and compasses with the letter G, one of the most recognized symbols of Freemasonry, at the bottom of the cupboard door. Adding more to the story, the craftsman joined the legs of the compasses with three chain links—a symbol association with another fraternal group, the Odd Fellows.

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Desk, 1860-1880. Whitehall, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 91.012.2a-i. Photograph by David Bohl.

If you have ideas about this desk and its intriguing decoration, please leave us a note in the comments section below.

References:

John D. Hamilton, Material Culture of the American Freemasons (Lexington, Massachusetts: Museum of Our National Heritage, 1994), 51-54, 65.


New to the Collection: A Miniature Chair in a Bottle

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Miniature Chair in Bottle, 1924, George Barnhart (b. 1851), Liberty, Missouri, Museum purchase, 2015.044. Photograph by David Bohl.

Recently, this small chair inside a bottle caught our eye because it is inscribed on the legs, "Liberty / Odd F. Home / FLT / IOOF / G.G. Barnhart 1924."  We were charmed to add it to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection.  I am pleased to share what I've learned about it so far, but I hope that readers will help us to learn even more about it.

The bottle is only 4 1/2 inches high and 1 3/8 inches square, just to give you a sense of its diminutive size.  Crafting small items like this and placing them in bottles was a popular pastime during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Perhaps the most well-known example is the ship in a bottle.  However, chairs were not unusual.  There are several known examples that show a strikingly similar style to this one and most are inscribed with Odd Fellows initials, or "Odd Fellows Home."  Several also have inscriptions suggesting that they originated in Liberty, Missouri, like ours.

The Odd Fellows Home in Liberty, Missouri, was one of many institutions erected and run by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternity across the United States.  Odd Fellows members are encouraged to visit the sick, educate the orphan and bury the dead, so homes like this, which offered lodging and care for orphans, the elderly and the destitute, fit well with the tenets of the organization.

The first home in this location burned down in 1900 and was subsequently rebuilt.  The "School Building" was erected in 1904; the "Old Folks Building," originally known as the "Old Folks Pavilion," was built in 1907 and 1908; and the hospital went up in 1923.  Given the inscriptions on this chair, it seems likely that it was made by a resident at the Home in 1924.  Further research suggests that the "G.G. Barnhart" named on the chair was George G. Barnhart, born in Missouri in 1853.  According to the 1920 United States Census, he was living at the "Odd Fellows Home" in Liberty, Missouri.

Have you seen other chairs in a bottle like this?  Do they have a connection to the Odd Fellows Home in Missouri?  Do you know anything about George Barnhart's life?  If so, please write a comment below!