A Lost Art
By Scott Robinson
Lewisburg, PA, Lodge No. 96
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is steeped in traditions and a rich history. Being one of the oldest surviving Fraternal Orders in the United States, it is a fascinating study of “lost arts.” What do I mean by “lost arts”? One only has to examine our own fine documents to see skills and pride that our modern society has all but forgotten about.
Fortunately, our Lodge in Lewisburg, PA, is one of the oldest surviving Lodges in PA. Unfortunately, the original Lodge burned to the ground in the 1960’s. Fortunately, we have several priceless documents that survived the fire. One, miraculously, is our original 1844 Charter. It is a fine example of the “Lost Arts” on which this article is based. Let’s examine the document, and the beautiful, yet subtle, art that it contains.
In 1844, when this document was written, John Tyler was President of the United States. The first telegraph was sent by Samuel Morse from the Capitol in DC, to a small train station in Ellicott City, Maryland. The Civil War was still 17 years away…and no internet or MS Word!
This all means that documents such as these were made by hand. They were first drafted and then sent to an engraver. The engraver painstakingly spent countless hours engraving, by hand, the artwork on the printing plate, and many times, the fancy fonts used on the plate. He took great pride in his work, for it was the showcase of his talents. Engraving, was truly an art, and for the most-part, is a lost art. It has been replaced by technology, save for a rare few that still master the original art. His talent was respected, and appreciated, and, it was expensive! Few could afford to have documents such as these made, and it was truly prized in that time-period to own one.
Our Charter is similar to many charters of the time. Here is a photo:
At first glance it is not elaborate, but look closer, and imagine the work that it took to produce this. Count the fonts used. There are more than fourteen! Remember, this was a show-case of the engraver’s talents. Although modern “standards” tell us not to use a variety of fonts when creating documents, one can clearly see that there were no such standards back in the day!
Let’s take a close look at the art-work element in the header:
Can you imagine how many hours that it took to carve this into a printing plate by hand? We take these things for granted today. Now, one could create something like this in a matter of hours with current software. Back in 1844, it may have taken the engraver weeks, or even months, to create such a work of art.
Next, let’s examine another lost art. Signatures. Today, they don’t even teach script handwriting in school! Back in the day, one’s signature was a mark of social status, and education. I have examined some of my relative’s documents from the Civil War era. They are signed with a simple “X”. To be able to read and write in that period was a privilege, and something that wasn’t common, especially in rural areas. Now, let’s look at the signatures on this document closely:
First, they were probably signed with a steel nibbed dip-pen. Originally signed in black, the ink has turned brown over time due to the iron in the ink. One can see where several had to re-dip the pen to continue their signatures, marked by heavier lines and blots. Those who were skilled, and probably had a high social status, added a special mark under their signature. Signatures on documents of these was a source of pride and mastery of penmanship…another lost art. I can personally attest that this is a lost art, as my own handwriting and signature is atrocious!
To honor this lost art, and as part of our Three-Link Plan to revitalize our Lodge, we are re-creating many of these documents. While using modern software, we still capture the essence of the historical documents. We use old and varied fonts, and much of the original artistic elements from original documents. There is a lot of historical research and effort that goes into our documents. This is how we honor our history while embracing our future.
We have started an official signing of a Membership Certificate at the close of our Initiation Ceremony (see separate article). Our officers and the Initiate use a steel nibbed quill pen to sign. That is a fun, and different, experience to remember!
I urge you to look closely at your old historical documents after reading this article. Hopefully, you will have a renewed appreciation of them and will do something to preserve, bring back the old traditions of our Order…and create some exciting new ones! Honor the past, and embrace the future!
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