In a Portrait Studio, Worn with Pride: Prince Hall Freemasonry, Order of Eastern Star, and Real Photo Postcards in the Early Twentieth Century

In celebration of Black History Month and the long history of Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library wanted to highlight a striking new acquisition of a real photo postcard of a Black man standing between two women, with all three wearing Masonic regalia. The man wears a dark suit with a jewel of office pinned on his chest and a Past Master’s apron—identifiable by the common motif of a square and compass with the legs of the compass connected by an arc. The two women are in white dresses, white high heeled shoes, and white stockings. The younger woman, to the right of the man, wears two sashes, one on either shoulder. The one on the left shoulder is more visible, with a band of color running through it, a cockade on the top. The other sash is less visible, although the darker colored folds are clear to see by her waist near the hem of her dress. Any identifying features of the regalia are difficult to discern. Do these sashes mark her as a member of the Order of Eastern Star? The older woman, to the left of the man, was clearly a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, as evidenced by her five-color star apron. Though the picture is black and white, the red, blue, yellow, green, and white in the star are easy to visualize. With her proudly displayed apron, she also wears a necklace, earrings, and a white pin in her hair.

The postcard has no date, no location, nor any hint to the identities of the three people in the photograph. Was this a man and his wife and mother or daughter? Was this a family demonstrating their Masonic pride? The postcard was never sent and was likely kept as a keepsake or handed physically to its intended audience. Postcards were widely popular at the end of the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century in America. In 1913, almost one billion postcards were in sent in the United States, almost ten times the population at that time. Real photo postcards, like the one seen here, were produced on photographic paper with postcard backs. This postcard is undoubtedly a studio portrait—the upper right-hand corner gives a glimpse of the hanging backdrop—that was then printed on photographic postcard stock.

Using the Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People’s Photography, by Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh, we were able to estimate the age of the postcard using the distinct design on the back. Bogdan and Weseloh studied thousands of postcard backs to determine the earliest known date and years that the design of the back was in use by manufacturers. This postcard was manufactured by Eastman Kodak Company, which you can tell by the letters AZO surrounding the area for the stamp. The back of the postcard is divided between correspondence and address, which the United States Postal Service allowed after 1907, and the small black squares on the corner of the stamp box are all signifiers that this style of postcard was produced mainly in the 1930s by Eastman Kodak Company.

Though not much is known about the three people in the postcard, the family’s clear pride in their Masonic brotherhood and sisterhood shines through the small photograph and gives a glimpse into Prince Hall Freemasonry and Order of Eastern Star in the early twentieth century. Can you help us identify anyone in this real photo postcard? Do you know what the women’s sashes on the right represent? Please comment below if you have any insight!

Photo Caption

Postcard portraying African American Freemason and two women with regalia, 1930-1939, Museum purchase, A2023/168/001.


Bogdan, Robert and Todd Weseloh. Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People’s Photography. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

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.


Digital Collections Highlight: Postcard views of Scottish Rite buildings

Scottish Rite Temple, East Saint Louis, Illinois
Scottish Rite Temple, East Saint Louis, Illinois

In a post from the New York Public Library's blog last year called "Using Postcards for Local History Research," librarian Carmen Nigro laid out in wonderful detail the many ways in which postcards might be used for research. While they may not seem to some as exciting as, say, an 18th-century manuscript, they do, in their own way, preserve a visual record of the past.

We here at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library have digitized a selection of early 20th-century postcard views of Scottish Rite buildings and made them available at the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website. These postcards give us a view of some of the magnificent Scottish Rite buildings that were constructed alongside a membership boom in the Scottish Rite.

Indianapolis Scottish Rite cathedral
Scottish Rite Cathedral, Indianapolis, Indiana

Sometimes neighborhoods change so much, it's hard to imagine what was there before. East St. Louis is a difficult reminder of this. The Scottish Rite temple pictured on the postcard pictured above once stood on the corner College Ave. and 14th St. in East St. Louis, Illinois. The cornerstone was laid on August 6, 1910 and the building opened a year later. The site was chosen because it was "conveniently located near a streetcar line in the section of the city of East St. Louis most convenient for the members." Sadly, the building was destroyed by a fire in 2005. To look at the intersection today, it is difficult to imagine that the building pictured on the postcard once stood here, with streetcars passing by.

On a more uplifting note, buildings such as the Indianapolis Scottish Rite cathedral - pictured in a 1929 postcard at right - are still in vibrant use today.

Masonic Revelries and the Roaring Twenties

A recent acquisition to the Scottish Rite Masonic Library & Museum reminds us of the Fraternity’s adoption of Orientalism, its passion for revelry, and captures the lively spirit of the 1920s.


After the opening of trade with Japan in the late 19th century, America’s consumer desire for all things “Oriental” grew exponentially, and of all the groups associated with American Freemasonry, the Shriners, noted for their use of the red fez, embraced the symbols and spirit of Orientalism to the fullest. This broadside addressed to New York State Assemblyman Alexander G. Hall, a member of both the Mecca Temple Shrine and the York Commandery, No. 55, invited Hall and his wife to the Colorful Oriental Durbar sponsored by the Mecca Temple Band of New York. The Durbar or reception was held at the 71st Regiment Armory on 34th Street and Park Avenue and highlighted by the music of the Mecca Temple Band, conducted by Arthur H. Hoffman.



Colorful Oriental Durbar Broadside and Envelope, 1922. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Museum Purchase, MA 430.

The Mecca Temple Band of New York City, undated. The Masonic Postcard Collection. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Museum Purchase, MM 025.

Would You Jump? The Knights of Pythias Test of Steel

2013_057_1a-bDP1DBAt the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, we collect objects, documents and books associated with any and all American fraternal groups - Masonic and non-Masonic. Recently, we were given this set of props that was used by the Knights of Pythias. While these two items may look identical in the photo - triangular wooden bases covered with pointed spikes - there is a crucial difference between them. On one, the spikes are metal and unyielding. On the other, the spikes just look like metal but they are actually rubber.

Founded by Justus H. Rathbone in 1864, the Knights of Pythias based their ritual on the story of the friendship between Damon and Pythias (for more on the Knights of Pythias, see our other posts). Like many American fraternal groups, and because founder Rathbone was a Freemason, the Knights took inspiration from Freemasonry, which was officially established in America in the 1730s. Like Freemasonry, the Knights of Pythias have three degrees, called ranks, each with an initiation ritual.

These props, known as the "test of steel," were a part of the ritual for the third Knights of Pythias rank - the rank of Knight. A published version of the ritual from 1928 explains how these objects were used. The candidate was asked to examine the one with the metal spikes. Then the officers would swap in the prop with the rubber spikes, without the candidate noticing. The Master at Arms would take the candidate to a set of steps and make sure he walked to the top. At the word of the man playing the King, the candidate had to jump into the center of the spikes. An earlier published version of the ritual, from 1882, differs slightly in that it does not call this part of the ritual the "test of steel," and suggests that these bases with spikes were not always used. In this version, the "instrument" is not specific - a blank is left in the text. The Master of Arms is commanded simply to go to the armory and "bring forth the first instrument of ---- upon which [his] hand may chance to fall." The rest of the ritual is conducted very similarly to that in the 1928 version - the candidate is led to the top of the steps and asked to jump after seeing the real item, which is then exchanged for the "fictitious" one (as it was called in the 1882 published ritual). Knights of Pythias Shall I Jump Postcard

A postcard in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection shows a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the "test of steel." Seen here at right, it shows a woman on top of a block with a bouquet of flowers on the floor in front. Inscribed on the block is the Knights of Pythias symbol and the words "Shall I jump?" A member of the Knights of Pythias would understand the allusion being made by the postcard.

Do you have any props from American fraternal groups? Tell us about them in a comment below!

Knights of Pythias Test of Steel, 1900-1930, American. Gift of James J. Bennette, 2013.057.1a-b. Photograph by David Bohl.

Postcard, 1910, H.A. Bliler, American. Museum purchase, A87/219/1.

Sources Consulted:

Ritual of the Knights of Pythias (Supreme Lodge, 1882).

Revised Knights of Pythias Illustrated (Chicago: Ezra A. Cook, 1928).

Summer Vacation through Postcards

2013_July blog post_postcardsAt our July Collections Committee, we accepted a gift of approximately 400 postcards from Michael Heitke.  Many of these postcards show images of national monuments in the United States and over half the collection are items showing images from Wisconsin, the home state of the donor.  They range in date from 1907 through 1950s.

As Americans are taking their summer vacations, it is revealing to take a look at 1950s postcards. Some of the same destinations that were popular in the 1950s are just as popular today. 

Mount Rushmore  National Monument is a typical tourist destination in South Dakota (see postcard at the left).  Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) was the artist who supervised the sculpting of Mount Rushmore and many other American public sculptures.  Borglum was an active Freemason and raised in the Howard Lodge No. 35 of New York City in 1904.  He served as its Worshipful Master from 1910 through 1911.  He received his Scottish Rite degrees in the New York City Consistory in 1907.  

Noteworthy is that among the four presidents carved into stone at Mount Rushmore, two of them were well-known Freemasons--George Washington (1732-1799) and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and two were not.  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was not a Freemason.  Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) petitioned to join Tyrian Lodge of Springfield, Illinois after his nomination for president in 1860, but never followed through on receiving his membership.                                      

The Dells of the Wisconsin River is a popular destination especially for Americans in the Midwest (see postcard below). Created by early glaciers, the "Jaws of the Dells" is the sandstone gateway, or corridor to the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River.  It is located in south central Wisconsin.  Access by boat is the only way to see these natural sandstone formations.  Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908) was the landscape photographer who made the Wisconsin Dells a popular tourist destination by his photographs.  This postcard of the Wisconsin Dells is a 1950s reproduction from the H. H. Bennett Studio.  As far as I can tell Bennett was not involved with Freemasonry, though he lived through the "Golden Age of Fraternalism." 2013_July blog post_postcards_2


Postcard of Mount Rushmore National Monument, ca. 1950. Gift of Michael Heitke, USM 082, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

Postcard of Gateway to the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River, ca. 1950. Gift of Michael Heitke, USM 082, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

Modern Woodmen of America Postcards: Then and Now

A2011_37_19_1DSIn 1883, Joseph Cullen Root (1844-1913) founded the Modern Woodmen of America.  Root held the opinion that Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations were crucial to the promotion of human welfare.  He belonged to the Masons, Scottish Rite, Knights Templar, Knights of Pythias, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

 Root wrote the ritual and served as the first “Head Consul” for the new order, which was established as a fraternal assessment society.  In 1888, the Royal Neighbors of America was established as the women's auxiliary to the Modern Woodmen of America.  By 1889, there were 42,694 members of the MWA organization.  This fraternal organization was prosperous and by 1913, the year of Root’s death, the membership had increased to 700,000.

In 2011, The Scottish Rite Museum and Library acquired several MWA postcards by donation.  These donations complement the growing collection of postcards with images from the Modern Woodmen of America.  Most of these postcards date from 1908-1912.  This was the height of membership for MWA A97_053_1modern_woodmen_of_the worldand also coincides with the “Golden Age” of postcards which ocurred from 1907 through 1915.

The newly acquired postcard above bears the insignia or emblem of MWA and several of their symbols including the axe, mallet, wedge, five stars, and branches of palm.  These are all displayed on a shield.  There are lumberjacks or “woodmen” cutting down trees in the background.  This was symbolic for MWA as the clearing of forests refer back to clearing away problems of financial security for member’s families. 

From our exisiting collection is a photographic postcard of a man in his MWA uniform and is dated   about 1910.  This man belonged to a MWA “camp”, No. 513, probabaly from Montana.  His jacket has the MWA symbols of the axe, mallet, and wedge.  The man is also posing with a parade axe. 

When the MWA was founded it excluded men with risky or dangerous occupations such as:  firemen, miners, wholesalers and manufacturers of liquor, sailors, plow grinders, and brass workers.  The organization also sought low-risk members and excluded men from the largest urban centers such as:  Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. 

Today, MWA is solely a fraternal financial company named Modern Woodmen.  It provides life insurance and disability insurance for its members.  Life insurance totaled over $34.2 billion in 2011.   It now has a modern office building, on the Mississippi River, in Rock Island, Illinois, which it has occupied since 1967. 


Modern Woodmen of America Postcard. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Gift of Michael T. Heitke, A2011/35/8. 

Modern Woodmen of America Postcard. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A97/053/1. 









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.

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

Are there Women in the Elks?: Yesterday and Today

A95_016_elks_mawsimLast week we wrote about Elks and postcards, and this week we've got more on the topic. The women shown in this postcard - currently on display in our reading room exhibition on postcards - were probably helping out with an Elks lodge 'Mawsim', or Moorish-style event and bazaar.  The postcard dates from 1907-1912 (FR 005).

Although we haven't done enough research yet to know exactly where this real photo postcard was produced, we do have a description of an Elks' Mawsim from around this time period. On October 25, 1910, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader newspaper published a story about an upcoming Elks' Mawsim, which was likely a charity event, that reveals more about what an Elks' Mawsim was. It also reveals a highly romanticized view of the Near and Middle East that was pervasive in American culture at the time: 

 "Memories of a vanishing race will be awakened by the rich Oriental decorations that will be a feature of the Moorish "Mawsim" and Bazaar to be conducted by the Scranton Lodge of Elks...Who that has read the delightful yarns of Washington Irving in his "Tales of Alhambra," has not yearned for a glimpse of the land that gave birth to the Moors? ...This opportunity will be afforded the thousands of pleasure seekers who attend the "Mawsim" of the Scranton Elks."

There is little information on the women who supported the Elks during this time period, and who formed an organization known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Does. This is partly because the Elks (formally known as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, or B.P.O.E.) didn't officially recognize this group. The Elks only accepted men as members during the early twentieth century, and the B.P.O.E. passed a resolution in 1907 that said that there would be no adjuncts or auxiliaries.

The Benevolent and Protective order of the Does (B.P.O.D.) operated only at the local level, with no centralized state or national authority.  According to some sources, they did not have a fixed ritual.  Other sources say their there were several versions of ritual practised.  One version bases the initiation rite on the Biblical story of Mary.  Another version makes reference the the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians which emphasizes love and charity.

In 1995, the Elks opened membership to women, by changing their constitution and removing the word “male” from the list of membership qualifications; members from the fraternal group’s 2,230 lodges across the entire United States voted on the change.  In 2009, women are not only members of the Elks, but they also serve as leaders.

[Women dressed for Elks “Mawsim” bazaar], ca. 1907
Real photo postcard
Museum purchase, 95/016