Identifying a Fraternal Uniform, by Maureen Taylor

20080212 Sandras fraternal-resize.bmpBack in February, Juliana Smith posted a photo to the 24/7 Family History Circle blog. It is owned by Sandra Luebking and it shows a man in an interesting outfit. Several folks have weighed in with their opinions. Now Juliana’s asked me to comment on the image. I love a good puzzle.

A photograph represents a person’s life and this one is no different. It’s the history behind the image that often solves the mystery. For instance, the combination of the single gold lined border around this picture, the simple drapery and single table date this picture to the period 1860-66. If it has tax stamps on the back, that time frame can be narrowed from 1 August 1864 to 1 August 1866. Having a time frame is an important first step.

Luebking’s relative is Henry Smith of Port Huron, Michigan. According to the 1870 census he was a cabinet maker who listed his place of birth as Prussia. In the nineteenth century more than 50 percent of men were members of a fraternal organization. As a tradesperson, Smith was a likely candidate to be initiated into such group.

The big question is which one? Each organization had its own symbolism. The challenge is finding data on these groups and then locating images of men wearing the specific garb. One person commented that he could be an Odd Fellow or a Maccabee. His cap resembles the one in a link that is provided. It’s possible, but there could be other groups in Port Huron in the 1860s. The trowel on the table indicates he’s likely a member of a Masonic group. His garb could be area or chapter specific since there was variation in attire depending on rank and group. Based on the simplicity of his accessories I think this image documents his initiation. Sandra owns a real family history treasure!

Finding more information about fraternal society symbolism, can be hit or miss. Unfortunately, resources can be tough to find. “Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography,” by Douglas Keister, devotes a chapter to “Secret Societies, Clubs, and Fraternal Organizations” that includes images of some symbols that are found in cemeteries. These images may help to identify symbols found in photographs and on heirlooms.

I’d like to create an online album of fraternal uniforms and symbolism. If you have something you’d like to share, send it to me at using the password ambrotype.

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Maureen Taylor is The Photo Detective at Her work on identifying family photographs was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

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One thought on “Identifying a Fraternal Uniform, by Maureen Taylor

  1. I have a picture of a Fraternal Order during a funeral. I am not sure where it was being held, but on the back someone wrote MASONS OF JAY. Now since I live in Jay Fl. I am sure that it must have been somewhere here in Jay. My mother had it in her possession when she died in 1988 but, As usual, we all wait to long or as in my case new nothing about the picture while my mom was living.The writing on the back is definitely not my moms, so I guess she acquired the picture from some of her relitives that are all gone, leaving me no way to research its origin.It looks to be in the late 1800 or 1900’s according to the clothing of the masons and the clothing of the people present. Can you suggest any path I might take to identify the time line or other features in the

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