I had often passed the “Odd Fellows” building in Downtown Brooklyn, wondering who this building was named for. I didn’t get that question answered, but through the new exhibit at the American Museum of Folk Art, Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic & Odd Fellow Folk Art From the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, I discovered who the Odd Fellows are. And quite a bit about the Masons, whose Grand Lodge is on 23rd Street and Avenue of the Americas (you can take a tour.)
Fraternal organizations have been in America since the 17th century. Probably the best known of these, the American Masons, grew out of the medieval stone mason guilds in Scotland and England. Early members included luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and George Washington. The International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) began in the early 1800‘s, and was comprised of members from diverse trades. Both organizations had at their center individual lodges where men (women have separate organizations) could socialize, share values, improve themselves, their communities and help others. Elaborate rituals would mark the initiate’s advancement through the degrees or steps that would allow him to understand the mysteries of the symbols. Even though the various fraternal societies employed many of the same rituals, regalia and symbols, they did not always have the same meaning! So it can get confusing, but thank goodness there are very helpful wall labels.
The exhibit, composed of a wide collection of prints, banners, aprons, wooden signs, staffs and textiles, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, is organized around several themes, such as Fellowship, Signs, Labor, Passage, Wisdom, Charity and Fraternal Mysteries.
Starting in the large exhibit space, there’s a lovely silk collar embellished with gold paint and metal & glass jewels that belonged to IOOF Emblematic Lodge #169, as well as wooden axes from different societies, each decorated with their lodge’s respective symbols. Throughout you’ll notice that several symbols are common to many of the orders: the all-seeing eye, the three-link chain, the pair of clasped hands, the heart in the hand…
You’ll also find a tracing board of black painted canvas, on which are seven symbols in muted gold paint, giving it a mysterious and somewhat scary air (especially the skull). Close by is a stunning black wool carpet with various Masonic symbols and an open Bible woven in bright red. Next to that is a large Summer Spread from the late 1800’s, whose white blocks are hand appliquéd with red 3-link chains (symbolizing friendship, love and truth). In the Labor section are a pair of wooden beehives, covered in gold paint, created for the the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s branch of the Odd Fellows, established in 1851. Beehives represent industry and unity in working towards a common purpose. Next to that is a magnificent appliqué quilt made by the grand mother of a Texas Ranger named Wayne Robb, composed as a grid of 25 squares, some of which contain symbols such as a rainbow and menorah which are not commonly found in Masonic art. Above the quilt are 5 silk banners, dating from the 19th century, with 2nd degree symbols painted or embroidered on their backgrounds.
In the Fraternal Symbols section, you’ll find a lovely hooked rug, several wooden staffs, carvings of a cornucopia, and a doubled headed eagle, as well as banners with symbols from the Encampment degree. Towards the end of the exhibit are two intriguing items incorporating Native American iconography: one is a hooked rug by the Daughters of Pocahontas, a women’s auxiliary which styled itself after the virtues of Pocahontas: kindness, love, charity and loyalty to one’s nation; the other is a fraternal apron from the 1800‘s depicting a Native American extending a pipe to a white man (detail above).
There’s lots more to see – the exhibit has almost 200 pieces. I’ve posted more pictures on Instagram The show runs through May 8th.
There will be a tour of the exhibit on March 31st from 1:00 to 2:00
The Museum also hosts jazz+Wednesday’s – on March 30th, from 2:00 – 3:00 they’ll feature Bill Wurtzel, Jay Leonhart and Sharon Fisher. I caught them last week, and they were fabulous!
On April 25th, they’ll host a Fraternal Art Symposium. Find out more about the Museum’s programs here