What is the Order of Junior American Mechanics?

This display relates to one of the most unusual and misinterpreted fraternal groups ever to exist. The Junior Order of United American Mechanics (often abbreviated as JROoUAM or JROUAM) still exists today, but in a very small capacity. The history of the group is rather spotty, leading to even more interesting research for the keen fraternalist.

Mr. Paul Bessel, a renowned author on fraternal subjects, offers the following description on his website:

“The United American Mechanics was founded in Philadelphia in 1845 under the name Union of Workers. It began as a nativist workingmen’s organization to fight against labor pressure from increasing immigration populations, specifically the Irish, Germans, and Roman Catholics. In 1853 a junior branch of the organization was founded. The Junior Order American Mechanics (J.O.U.A.M.) became an independent society in 1885. Its members were white males, between the ages of 16 and 50, of good moral character, believers in the existence of a Supreme Being, in favor of separation of church and state, and supporters of free education through the Public School System.

At the height of its popularity, the Junior Order had 200,000 members, dwarfing the high of 40,000 members for its former parent organization. The word “Junior” in the organization’s name had no reference to the age of its members after 1885 and similarly, the word “Mechanic” had no relevance to the members’ occupations. The Junior Order defined its objectives as promoting the interests of Americans by shielding them from the economically depressing effects of foreign competition, establishing a Sick and Funeral Fund and working to maintain the Public School System.

The J.O.U.A.M. had initiation and obligation procedures which, like other fraternal groups, were religiously oriented. Membership eligibility requirements changed over the years to include Jews, blacks, Roman Catholics, and women. The Junior Order’s mission evolved into one of developing a legal reserve for life insurance benefits. This was due in part to the declining membership in the early twentieth century. Membership was divided into two categories: social members and those enrolled in the insurance program. By 1965 insurance memberships had dropped to 35,172 with 15,000, social members, and by 1979 the group boasted only 8,500 social members and about half as many insurance members.”

This piece is highly unusual. Until it was obtained by the Museum, there was no record of the Junior American Mechanics wearing fezzes. Based upon the construction and design, we believe it to be from the 1950’s. It reads “Warren G. Harding No. 372.” It is believed that Warren G. Harding Lodge met somewhere in Pennsylvania as that state still has a large number of active Mechanics groups and the item was purchased from there. One will immediately notice a more than passing similarity to the traditional Masonic symbol of a square and compass. However, the Mechanics inset an arm and hammer in place of the traditional Masonic “G”, making this symbol all their own.

This piece is markedly earlier than the other Junior American Mechanics fez that we have. The design is printed on to the fabric rather than being embroidered. The fez it self is constructed from multiples pieces of fabric, with the top portion being a disc sewn to the panel that makes the brim. The tassel is small and flimsier than we usually find. Based on the printing, we believe this piece originates with the Lodge that met in and around Harrisburg, PA. Special thanks to friend of the museum Tim S. for snagging this piece at an antique store!