Photo Detective: The Sign Says…

Photo Detective: The Sign Says…

Barbara Dyer knows this man, who posed wearing fraternal insignia, is her great-grandfather. She also knows he was a Mason and a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) from 1872 to 1883 in Wisconsin, and from 1883 to 1921 in Iowa. The IOOF came to America in...

Barbara Dyer knows this man, who posed wearing fraternal insignia, is her great-grandfather. She also knows he was a Mason and a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) from 1872 to 1883 in Wisconsin, and from 1883 to 1921 in Iowa. The IOOF came to America in 1840, and within a few decades boasted close to a half million members. Throughout the 19th century, men could join a multitude of mutual benefit fraternities. According to Mark A. Tabbert in American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities (National Heritage Museum, $29.95), “between 1870 and 1900, millions of factory workers and farmers, immigrants and migrants, joined a variety of mutual benefit societies in search of some form of group health and burial insurance.” Although we think of these societies in terms of secret rituals, they served as communities for their members—providing a place to meet and a group to turn to during bad times.

You may know an ancestor belonged to a fraternal organization, and you may be able to determine its name based on photographic clues. Each of these organizations used certain symbols. Identify the symbolism in a photograph of someone wearing a sash, pin or cap, and you’ll learn the group to he belonged to. Tabbert’s book has illustrations of Masonic groups as well as other fraternal organizations—unfortunately, none of the illustrations showed sashes like this man’s.

If you own a picture of someone in garb you think is fraternal, consult Rhonda McClure’s article, “Secret Signs” in the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine for research tips and a toolkit of useful resources.

Dyer knows two fraternal organizations her great-grandfather belonged to, but it’s possible he joined others as well. She could determine possible groups by examining city directories for the towns and years her ancestor lived in a city. Such directories often contain sections on organizations and businesses in the area. Dyer could use this list to contact state and local chapters of fraternal groups that are still active. Rather than write letters, I’d recommend calling and asking two questions: Are there any old photographs of members and where might she find them? What insignia and symbolism did group members wear?

If anyone recognizes the sash worn by this man, please contact me at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com. Identifying the group brings Dyer one step closer to finding records related to her grandfather’s membership-records that could solve her other genealogical mysteries.

And I’d love to see your photographs of ancestors in fraternal attire—not only do I find them fascinating, but also, it’ll help me create a “lexicon” of these images for identifying pictures in reader’s collections.

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