Friendly Societies

A New Discovery About an Old Photo

89_34DS2One of the most exciting parts of my curatorial work is discovering new information about objects in the National Heritage Museum’s collection. Recently, I took a closer look at this photo, which the Museum purchased back in 1989. When it was acquired, the image was cataloged as one depicting a group of African American members of the Order of the Eastern Star, the Masonic auxiliary group for female relatives of Freemasons. It has been identified this way in our database ever since.

But, as part of our current photo digitization project (see our post about it), we were able to take a closer look at the photo.  The initials on one subject’s collar – “I.U.O.M.” – along with the memory of another James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) photograph that was recently up for auction, made me realize that this group is not Masonic at all. They are undoubtedly members of another fraternal organization, the Independent United Order of Mechanics.

This group is not as well-known as the Odd Fellows, the Elks, the Moose or the Knights of Pythias. In fact, before we purchased an apron (at right) and collar associated with the group in 2007, I had never heard of it and it isn’t listed in my standard reference books. But, now that I am aware of IUOM, it helped me correctly identify this image.2007_029_2DI1

As I explained in a previous post, the Independent United Order of Mechanics formed in England in 1757 as a Friendly Society, a type of mutual benefit society that also served ceremonial and friendship purposes. The IUOM became established in the United States in 1910 and membership is open to men and women, boys and girls, of “high moral and ethical standards, who believe in “A Supreme Being” who rules and governs the Universe.” In this photograph, several of the group’s values are painted on the wall in back: Brotherly Love, Relief, Truth, Secrecy, Fidelity, and Benevolence.

Both this photograph and the one sold at auction were taken by well-known New York photographer James Van Der Zee. Sought out by the famous and not-so-famous alike, Van Der Zee maintained a studio in Harlem starting in the 1920s. In addition to individual portraits, he worked to record middle-class black life in Harlem, including photos like this one of fraternal groups and activities.

Do you recognize the location where this photo was taken? Do you have other photos or regalia associated with the IUOM? If so, leave us a comment below!

Independent United Order of Mechanics Group, 1928, James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), New York City. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Special Acquisitions Fund, 89.34.

Independent United Order of Mechanics Apron, ca. 1920, probably American. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Purchase, 2007.029.2.

The Independent United Order of Mechanics

2007_029_2DI1 Here at the National Heritage Museum, we get pretty excited about lesser-known fraternal groups.  The apron seen here is a recent acquisition, which was originally used by a member of a little-known group - at least it wasn't listed in our standard reference books and it wasn't represented in our collection.

The apron was worn by Torrance Ashby (1897-1966), as a member of the Independent United Order of Mechanics, a group that is still active.  Ashby joined Star of Cambridge Lodge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1920, when he was about 23 years old.  When he died in 1966, the apron, along with a collar and his membership certificate passed to his son, Deighton Ashby (1935-2006).  We are pleased to have all three items in our collection.

The Independent United Order of Mechanics formed in England in 1757 as a Friendly Society, a type of mutual benefit society that also served ceremonial and friendship purposes.  Reportedly, a schism between two local English Masonic lodges spurred organizers to found the group.  In the 1800s, the Order spread to the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and Canada.  The IUOM became established in the United States in its present form on January 3, 1910.  Membership is open to men and women, boys and girls, of "high moral and ethical standards, who believe in "A Supreme Being" who rules and governs the Universe."  Membership embraces all races, creeds and religions; indeed, the group has a tradition of a strong African American membership, which included the original owner of the apron, Torrance Ashby.

The group's motto is "Friendship, Truth and Love," suggesting some additional inspiration from the Odd Fellows.  Members aim to practice and promote justice, philanthropy, charity and benevolence.  They look after the welfare of their members and are active in their communities, particularly in healthcare and in education.

The apron is silk with a design printed on the front in black.  Bright pink and green silk, along with gold trimming are added as borders.  A close look at the apron suggests that Ashby's wife or another female relative made it at home.  One of the brown elasticized "ties" stitched at the corners has a clasp reading "Gem Golf Garter," suggesting that the maker repurposed the garter for the apron ties.

Independent United Order of Mechanics Apron, ca. 1920, probably American, National Heritage Museum purchase, 2007.029.2.

New to the Collection: Ancient Order of Foresters Frog Mug

Frog Mug front Freemasonry is often acknowledged as the first fraternal organization to come to American shores.  But, it is far from the only group that crossed the Atlantic.  This mug, marked “Ancient Order of Foresters,” also represents a group that started in England and came to America.

The mug, which the National Heritage Museum recently acquired, was made in England in the 1830s or 1840s.  Known as a “frog mug,” the vessel has a ceramic frog inside that would surprise the drinker as he drained his beverage.  This charming joke was put on by a number of pottery manufacturers during the 1800s.

The Ancient Order of Foresters dates back to 1790 in England, when it was known as the Royal Ancient Order of Foresters.  According to the group, their object was “to unite the virtuous and good in all sects and denominations of man in the sacred bonds of brotherhood so that while wandering through the Forest of this World they may render mutual aid and assistance to each other.”  Initially, members had to prove themselves in combat before gaining admittance, but in 1843 the group dropped this requirement.  Scholar Victoria Solt Dennis has suggested that this may have served as a “primitive health check" since "a candidate who could acquit himself creditably in a mock fight was probably reasonably fit to work and support himself.”

In 1834, the group had a schism and changed its name to the Ancient Order of Foresters.  It also changed its ritual and introduced new signs and passwords.  Although the Order came to the United States in 1832, it did not take strong hold until the 1860s.  Today, the group remains active in England as the Foresters Friendly Society.2009_012DP3

Despite the prominent inclusion of the Foresters name on the mug, it bears a verse from a decidedly Masonic song: 

Ensigns of state that feed our pride,
Distinctions troublesome and vain,
By Masons true are laid aside,
Arts free-born sons such toys disdain.
Ennobled by the name they bear,
Distinguished by the badge they wear.

This verse is part of “The Fellow-Craft’s Song,” which appeared in Anderson’s Constitutions, a governing document for Freemasonry, when it was published in 1723.  Did the potter make both Masonic and Forester mugs and just make a mistake about which verse belonged on this piece?  Or did the Foresters appropriate the song?  We may never know, but it does seem strange that such a clearly Masonic verse would appear on a mug for a non-Masonic fraternal group.


Victoria Solt Dennis, Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies: Their Badges and Regalia (Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 2005), 114-123.

Albert C. Stevens, The Cyclopedia of Fraternities (New York: E.B. Treat and Company, 1907), 221-229.

Ancient Order of Foresters Frog Mug, 1834-1850, England, collection of the National Heritage Museum, Museum purchase, 2009.012.  Photographs by David Bohl.