Odd Fellows

A Tale of Two Trivets

75_24S1 While living in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, my future husband and I were browsing through an antiques store and saw a cast-iron trivet that we liked. Neither of us had ever owned an iron trivet, or had a particular use for one, but this one had at least three qualities to recommend it. First, since we were both studying history and historic preservation, we liked old things. Second, since we were new to the state of Pennsylvania, its Pennsylvania German folk art style charmed us. And third, as starving graduate students, it was pretty much the only thing in the store that was cheap enough for us to buy. Manufactured in the mid-1900s, it was a commonly reproduced design and it didn’t have a high value.

Over the years, I continued to buy iron trivets at the occasional yard sale or antiques store, and also purchased a reference book that described their history and the companies that made them. I even bought a few on eBay. I ended up with a couple of dozen trivets that wouldn’t impress a serious collector, but they still charm me quite a bit. I love the folk art patterns, the stars and whirls and geometric designs, the flowers and birds, the solid heft of the cast iron. Some of the trivets are painted with bright colors, and evoke the vibrancy of Pennsylvania German art forms such as hex signs and fraktur.Cathy's trivets  (The photo below shows my collection.)

When I began volunteering at the National Heritage Museum, I was happy to discover that the museum’s collection includes some wonderful trivets. Many trivets made in the 1800s and 1900s were not only decorative, but also featured commemorative designs that honored famous people (such as George Washington and Jenny Lind) or organizations such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Several of the Museum’s trivets feature a combination of Masonic symbols with traditional shapes and forms. The example above, manufactured by the John Wright Company of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, includes the Masonic square, compasses, and “G,” perhaps the most common Masonic symbol, representing reason and faith. On this trivet, the symbols appear within a horseshoe shape, a common trivet motif that signifies good luck. Manufacturers of cast-iron trivets would often reuse popular shapes and patterns – such as the horseshoe – while changing a small part of the design to meet a new need, such as to create a commemorative piece for a particular group or audience. These mid-1900s trivets were often more popular as decoration rather than as functional pieces and were made with short legs to facilitate being hung on a wall. My grandparents had several trivets that I remember hanging in their summer cottage.

Another cast-iron trivet in the Museum’s collection (seen at right) also features a square, compasses, and “G,” along with an archway and a five-pointed star. This one most likely dates to the late 1800s, based on the length and shape of its legs, its cast mark, and its weight. Older88_5DI1 trivets often had longer legs (more than one inch), depending on their intended use, and although often ornamental, were made primarily to hold hot objects such as pots and clothes irons. Some, like this example, were shaped specifically for a clothes iron: wide at one end and tapering to a point at the other.

The fact that foundries regularly produced and marketed Masonic trivets suggests the popularity and influence of Freemasonry in American culture over many decades. Trivets can also be found bearing the symbols of other fraternal and social organizations including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

I still have my own two dozen iron trivets in a box in the garage. I stopped collecting years ago because I didn’t have a place to display them.  I also began to realize the folly of collecting something that weighs as much as … um … a box full of cast iron. But I still find them to be a fascinating bit of Americana.


Rob Roy Kelly and James Elwood, A Collector’s Guide to Trivets & Stands. Lima, OH: Golden Era Publications, 1990.


Top: Masonic Trivet, ca. 1950, John Wright Company, Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum collection, Special Acquisitions Fund, 75.24. 

Middle: Cathy Breitkreutz's collection of trivets.  Photograph by Cathy Breitkreutz.

Bottom: Masonic Trivet, 1880-1900, American, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Harriet G. Ward, 88.5.

Can you help us solve this mystery?

2006_010a-eDP1 Mystery Jewels Recently, the National Heritage Museum acquired a set of fraternal jewels, which you can see here (click on the picture for a closer look).  The five jewels appear to be part of a set.  They are made out of the same metal and have identical pins at the top, with a crescent moon and a five-point star resting on clouds.  Each jewel has a different pendant hanging from the top piece: a harp, crossed gavels, scales, an open book and a lantern.  They were found in Connecticut, although it is not known if they were originally made or used there.

The jewels do not show any engraving or inscriptions to help us identify the group that initially used them so we are seeking more information.  Have you ever seen anything similar?  Do you know of a fraternal or Masonic group that uses these symbols?

In the May 2009 issue of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s The Northern Light, we published a picture of these jewels and asked the same questions.  Prior to this, we received suggestions that the jewels might be from the Daughters of the Nile or the White Shrine of Jerusalem, but comparisons to symbols and jewels from those groups are not conclusive. 

Northern Light readers wasted no time in contacting the Museum with suggestions.  One reader noted a comparison between the star and crescent on the jewels and at the Odd Fellows cemetery in Ennis, Texas.  While similar, the mystery jewels differ significantly from other Odd Fellows jewels in the National Heritage Museum collection.  For another reader, the symbols on the mystery jewels called to mind the moon and star seen on jewelry for members of the Dramatic Order of Knights of Khorassan, a group related to the Knights of Pythias.  But comparisons between our mystery jewels and the symbols for this group did not turn up a conclusive match.  Still another reader suggested that the jewels might be associated with the Moorish Science Temple of America.  We welcomed all of the suggestions and continue to search for the answer to this mystery.

If you have any ideas, please write a comment below and let us know.

Set of Jewels for Unidentified Fraternity, 1880-1930.  Museum purchase, collection of National Heritage Museum, 2006.010a-e.  Photograph by David Bohl.

A Surprisingly Popular Print!

84_28t1 One of my favorite tasks as Curator of Collections is answering inquiries from the public.  I’ve been surprised by the number of questions I receive about an 1884 print titled “Rock of Odd Fellowship,” which appears in the Treasures section of the National Heritage Museum website.  The lithograph shows many of the common symbols associated with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternity, along with portraits of two of its leaders and scenes of members pursuing the group’s charitable activities: educating orphans, visiting the sick and burying the dead.  The group is still active today.  Most of the inquirers are looking for information about the print’s history, and are curious about its value.  While museum policies prohibit me from commenting on the value of objects, I have investigated the history of this print, and have decoded some of the symbols and images it shows.

Originally founded in England in 1745, the American branch of the Odd Fellows was organized in Baltimore in 1819 by Thomas Wildey (1782-1861), who is pictured on the print at bottom center, as well as on a separate engraving seen here.  Born in England and apprenticed as a coach-spring maker, Wildey later worked as a coachmaker and came to the United States in 1817.  The other man shown in the center of the print is James L. Ridgely (1807-1881).  Ridgely was a lawyer in Baltimore who joined an Odd Fellows lodge there in 1829.  He was Grand Secretary for the group from 1841 until his death, as well as an author of some of its rituals. 79_35_2di1_cropped_3

By 1907, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows had almost one million members.  All members contributed to a fund that was used to assist sick and distressed members, as well as their widows and orphans.  In 1851, the group’s female auxiliary, the Daughters of Rebekah, was founded.  Like Freemasons, Odd Fellows must profess a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being.  You may recognize some of the symbols that appear on the “Rock of Odd Fellowship” print: the all-seeing eye that reminds members that the omniscience of God pierces into every secret of the heart; the heart and hand signifying that work should be performed from the heart; three pillars representing faith, hope, and charity; and the three-link chain, symbolizing the chain by which members are bound together in Friendship, Love and Truth.

The print was published in Boston in 1884 by T.C. Fielding (who was a Past Grand, or head, of the Odd Fellows in Massachusetts) and the lithographer was Frederick T. Stuart (1837-1913).  I’ve been trying to learn more about these two men and to understand why the print was produced at that time.  1884 was the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the United States, so this print may have been part of the celebration of that anniversary, but I haven’t found conclusive evidence.  So I ask you – do you have information about Stuart or Fielding?  Do you know why this print was published in 1884?  Have you come across one of these prints in your own life?

Rock of Odd Fellowship, 1884, F.T. Stuart, artist and T.C. Fielding, publisher, Boston, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum, gift of Mrs. Harold F. Price, 84.28.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Thomas Wildey (1782-1861), 1843, John Sartain (1808-1897), engraver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum, Special Acquisitions Fund, 79.35.2.