The Indelible Effect of a Vintage Imprint

The Minor Family Album closes with nine children’s portraits, all of them, but one, local Green County kids photographed by Carmichaels (Pennsylvania) portrait expert, Thomas W. Rogers.

The exception is found in page twenty-three’s head shot of a young girl, taken by Iowan Silas T. Wiggins of Cedar Rapids, in the early eighteen nineties.

To distinguish his work from the other photographers of Linn County, Mr. Wiggins used ivory colored cardstock with rounded corners and gold beveled edges.  A thin brown line borders all four sides, just a hair away from the cabinet card edge, framing both the portrait and Silas Wiggins’ imprint.  That much embellishment was used by many photographers in the years between 1889-1894, however.

What sets this card apart is the imprint’s logo which, together with the text, describes Silas T. Wiggins in quite some detail.

Cabinet Card Imprint, Silas T. Wiggins, photographer, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1889-1994, Unidentified Girl, Minor Family Album, p. 23. Author's Collection

Cabinet Card Imprint, Silas T. Wiggins, photographer, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1889-1994, Unidentified Girl, Minor Family Album, p. 23. Author’s Collection.

Upon first examination, this artifact appeared to be a typical Victorian business card incorporated into a commissioned product;  S. T. Wiggins was the creator of the cabinet portrait, and could be found in a studio near the post office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  There is something about the coat of arms and the scrolled design that makes me pronounce this information with a flourish, a reaction that I have not had to any other cabinet card imprint. Questions bubbled up in quick succession…what are those groups of letters? that crown thingie? What is the meaning of the circle? What is inside the square?

page 23 blog center imprint

HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE

This Anglo-Norman phrase–Evil unto him who thinks evil of it–is the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter.  At some time in the past few hundred years, this order became associated with Freemasonry.  The words are printed on a garter, which encircles a shield on which are displayed a lion and a harp.  Atop this emblem sits a crown.  The medallion in the Wiggins’ imprint is filled with the symbolism of Freemasonry.  A biography of Silas Wiggins in the History of Linn County, Iowa* confirmed that the photographer had been a Mason, and served as Sir Knight Templar and in the Apollo Commandery.

Freemason membership was important to Silas Wiggins, and from a cursory look at the rest of the Brewer book it would appear that freemasonry was important to much of Linn County’s leadership.  Is it possible that Silas Wiggins included the masonic symbols in his professional imprint to advertise specifically to fellow freemasons?  Did that membership drive business into his studio? I suggest the answer is yes.  At least on one occasion.

The women with a masonic affiliation could join the Order of the Eastern Star, whose emblem was a richly decorated five pointed star.  Each point held a symbol representative of a Biblical queen and a virtue for which she was known.  For example, a scepter and crown represented Esther and the virtue of loyalty. A scepter and crown, like the one seen in this young girl’s necklace.  

I would speculate that this child is a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and that her parents decided to have a fellow mason capture her image in his Cedar Rapids studio, near the post office, sometime between 1890 and 1892.  Just who she is and how she is related to Mary Jane Gwynne Minor is a story for another day…

Unidentified girl, Silas T. Wiggins, photographer, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1890-1892; Minor Family Album, p. 23: Author's Collection.

Unidentified girl, Silas T. Wiggins, photographer, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1890-1892; Minor Family Album, p. 23: Author’s Collection.

*Brewer, Luther A.  and Barthinius Wick. The History of Linn County, Iowa, Volume 2, p. 233. The Pioneer Publishing Company: Chicago. 1910.

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