Portraits of Two Members of Shackamaxon Lodge No. 343, Independent Order of Odd Fellows

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Portrait, 1851-1857. Thomas H. Newcomer (ca. 1827-1896), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Special Acquisitions Fund, 96.027.2. Photograph by David Bohl.

Sometime between 1851 and 1857, two members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Shackamaxon Lodge No. 343 had their portraits taken by daguerreotypist Thomas H. Newcomer (ca. 1827-1896) of Philadelphia. Though the subjects of these portraits in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library are unidentified, the images offer clues about the circumstances under which their portraits were taken.

An impression in the velvet-covered inner covers of the cases of these photographs reads “T. H. Newcomer 316 N. Second St. Philada.” This mark helped identify the artist who took these photographs. According to directory listings, Newcomer pursued his business at 316 N. Second St. from about 1851 to about 1857. In 1852 a newspaper advertisement extolled Newcomer’s virtues to readers, encouraging them to: “Remember the merits of Newcomer’s pictures…Newcomer, who takes such fine portraits. Newcomer, who has a fine reputation as an artist. Newcomer, whose prices are cheap. Newcomer, who is very celebrated.”

The subjects of the photographs are posed in the same manner at the same studio. Each is seated on a chair facing the camera in front of a plain background, resting one elbow on a small table covered with a light-colored textile woven with a dark floral pattern. Both wear similar regalia, a dark collar trimmed with bullion and decorated with light-colored stylized leaves, flowers, and vines, along with a light-colored apron trimmed with ribbon and bullion. At the center of each apron is painted a five-pointed star, a banner bearing the lodge’s name, and a lodge number, “No. 343,” in reverse. Through the combination of the lodge number and the legible letters of the name visible in the portraits, the lodge associated with these aprons appears to be Independent Order of Odd Fellows Shackamaxon Lodge No. 343. Warranted in 1849, this lodge met in Philadelphia.

Regulations outlined in I. O. O. F.: Digest of the Laws of the Independent Order of Odd-Fellows, published in Philadelphia in 1848 (reproduced in “A Secret Society Exposed: Daguerreotypes of American Odd Fellows,” cited below), detailed how, with their regalia, Odd Fellows conveyed to one another information about the degrees they had achieved and the offices they held in the organization. For example, a Noble Grand (the presiding officer of an Odd Fellows’ lodge) was identified by a “Scarlet collar, trim’d with white or silver.” The same

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Portrait, 1851-1857. Thomas H. Newcomer (ca. 1827-1896), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Special Acquisitions Fund, 96.027.1. Photograph by David Bohl.

regulations noted that a Past Grand (a past presiding officer) could wear a “Scarlet collar…and aprons, either White trimmed with Scarlet or Scarlet trimmed with White.” These regulations also noted the symbols associated with the identifying badges, called jewels, worn by each officer. The jewel of a Past Grand took the shape of a star with five points.  

Although the subjects of Newcomer’s two portraits are not identified and do not wear jewels of office, it is very likely that they were past presiding officers of their lodge. In the portraits, they wear collars in the colors recommended for the office. The aprons in which they chose to be portrayed are also in the colors outlined for Past Grands and the star featured at the center of each of these aprons was a symbol associated with the office. It is very possible these photographs were taken to memorialize the status of these members of Shackamaxon Lodge No. 343 as former leaders of the group. The direct gazes of both men and their carefully held poses hint at the pride that they may have felt as leaders among their brethren.




“Markets,” Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia, PA), 1/25/1852, page 2.

Michael P. Musick, “A Secret Society Exposed: Daguerreotypes of American Odd Fellows,” The Daguerreian Annual 2009/2010, 2011, 173-210.


Thank you to:

Robert Brown, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library research volunteer

Justin Bailey, Grand Secretary, Pennsylvania Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows

Pollie and James Henry Thomas and the Household of Ruth

Pollie Thomas postcard
Pollie Thomas, 1908-1914, Benjamin Ami Blakemore (1846-1932), Staunton, Virginia. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, A2018/053/005.

Pencil inscriptions on the back of these two photographs in the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives identify that they portray Pollie Thomas (1888-1976) (at left) and her husband, James Henry Thomas (1869-1929) (at left, below). The Thomases lived in Staunton, Virginia. A copy of the "By-laws and Rules of Order Rose of Sharon Household of Ruth," published in 1915, signed "Sister Pollie Thomas," shows that Pollie Thomas belonged to this organization. A further inscription on the back of her portrait notes that she held the office of “Worthy Recorder,” or secretary, of the group.

Membership in the Household of Ruth was open to wives, daughters, and other relations of men who belonged to the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Based in England, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows granted a charter to a group of Black men who wished to form a lodge in New York in 1843. In the United States, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was an African American organization.

Established in the United States in 1858, the Household of Ruth was a women’s auxiliary associated with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The organization granted degrees to both men and women. The group that Pollie Thomas belonged to, Rose of Sharon, No. 79, received its warrant in 1876. The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows lodge in Staunton, King Hiram No. 1463, where Pollie’s husband was likely a member, received its charter a few years before, in 1871. When he died in 1929, James Henry Thomas’s obituary noted that the Odd Fellows, the Household of Ruth, and the Lilly of the Valley Lodge of Elks, No. 171 conducted portions of his funeral service.

More examples of archival material related to African American fraternal groups in the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives can be viewed here, on our digital collections site.


"Thomas Funeral," The News Leader (Staunton, VA), 7/13/1929, 2.

Charles H. Brooks, The Official History and Manual of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America (Philadelphia, PA: Odd Fellows Print Journal, 1902), 115, 141.


Henry Thomas postcard
James Henry Thomas, 1907-1929, J.A. Haack, Washington, D.C. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts, A2018/053/007.


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.



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


"What's in a Portrait?"

Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Patriarchs Militant, 1870-1900 United States Gift of Jacques Noel Jacobson Jr., 86.60.4.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library invites you to explore our new online exhibition, “What’s in a Portrait?,” now available on our website. This exhibition includes paintings, prints, and photographs from the gallery exhibition, "What's in a Portrait?," which will be opening at the Museum & Library in the coming months.

Since the formation of organized Freemasonry in the early 1700s, many men have taken pride in their association with it and other fraternal groups. In the 1800s and 1900s, many Masons commissioned portraits of themselves and, in them, chose to be presented as members of the fraternity, wearing jewelry or regalia that identified them as Masons. Some of these portraits marked personal achievements, such as election or appointment to a lodge office. Other images celebrated lodge events, like a new slate of officers or a summer excursion. "What's in a Portrait?" features portraits from the collection that help tell the story of the many people who participated in and shaped Masonic and fraternal organizations in the United States for over two hundred years.

The Museum & Library is currently closed to the public due to a state mandated stay-at-home advisory. We will keep you posted about Museum re-opening dates via our website, Facebook, and Instagram. In the meantime, visit our website to see more online exhibitions and collections.  If you have any questions or comments about "What's in a Portrait?," let us know in the comment box below or email us at [[email protected]]--we would love to hear from you!