An Introduction to Fraternal Orders
their zenith of popularity at the turn of the century, fraternal orders
were associations based on the Masonic model of social brotherhood that,
on a practical level, worked to insure the well-being of their brothers
through organized systems of mutual aid. Brotherhood implied a class-transcendent
inclusion of all men regardless of social rank in the world outside
the lodge. On a more abstract level, fraternalism was a symbolically
potent culture that created solidarity through grandiloquent titles,
costumes, and secret handshakes. These rituals inculcated value systems
while simultaneously offering escape from others. If fraternalism offered
practical benefits as well as an abstract, ritualistic experience, what
caused 5 million American men in 1897 to want to join a fraternal order?
Explaining an American fascination with associationalism, Alexis de
Tocqueville wrote in 1840, "Among democratic nations, . . . all
the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything
by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him
their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not
learn voluntarily to help one another." [i] Writing a century later, Arthur Schlesinger, in
his "Biography of a Nation of Joiners" noted that, ironically,
"a country famed for being individualistic [provides] the world’s
greatest example of joiners."
[ii] These observations would have seemed obvious
to men of the late nineteenth century who, for whatever reason, rushed
to join such associations as the Masons, the Independent Order of Oddfellows,
the Knights of Pythias, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Knights of
Labor, and the Ancient Order of United Workmen.
Recent scholarship has illuminated several reasons for the proliferation
of fraternal orders in late nineteenth century America.
The result, however, of these studies has been not a simplification
of the matter, but rather a complication of it. Scholars cannot seem
to agree on several points: whether fraternalism was an assimilation
of or reaction against capitalist tendencies, whether it transcended
or reinforced class/race/gender boundaries, and most elusively, whether
the substance of fraternalism was its tangible role as a means to social
stability through mutual aid or the intangible allure of symbolic ritual.
Clearly, the difficulty in drawing a simplistic model of trends in
Victorian fraternal orders is due to the overwhelming number of societies.
Some of the more ritually expressive orders, such as the Freemasons
and the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm,
offered primarily a venue for conviviality, regalia, and fraternal bonding;
others societies, such as the Knights of Labor, the Ancient Order of
United Workmen, and the Patrons of Husbandry, "were founded to
serve highly instrumental purposes, such as lobbying for lower taxes,
greater municipal appropriations, personally advantageous legislation,
and so on." [iii] This difference between expressive and instrumental
orders was never cut and dry. Since, fundamentally, the many faces of
fraternalism were all variations on the Masonic model, many of the more
instrumental orders still retained a degree of ritual. The intent of
this project is to chart a course through a constellation of societies
that occupy opposite ends of this fraternal spectrum, illustrating modulations
of the Masonic paradigm over time.
Late nineteenth century statistics illustrate the massive proliferation
of membership in America fraternal
orders. In 1897, W.S. Hardwood, writing at the peak of the "Golden
Age of Fraternity," observed that "a total adult male population
of 19 million provided five and half million members to fraternal groups
such as the Oddfellows (810,000 members), Freemasons (750,000), Knights
of Pythias (475,000) Improved Order of Red Men (165,000), and hundreds
of smaller orders." [iv] Furthermore, due to the frequency of multiple
memberships, "every fifth . . . man belonged to at least one of
the nation’s 70,000 fraternal lodges." To account for what drove
Americans to join these societies, one must analyze the practical as
well as symbolic opportunities they offered. As a study of the incorporation
of fraternal orders, this project will, therefore, deal first with fraternal
orders as a means to acquire social benefits in a rapidly expanding
industrialized society--the topic of the first chapter. The second chapter
will discuss the varying degree to which these societies attempted to
transcend class distinctions and how the appropriation of the Masonic
paradigm became a means to further the cause of more labor-oriented
and politically minded groups. Notions of gender race and ethnicity
will surface in the third chapter to explain the way exclusionary practices
effected further re-interpretations of the Masonic paradigm into more
culturally specific variations. Finally the fourth chapter will demonstrate
how fraternal orders reacted to and assimilated nineteenth-century socio-cultural
trends through the commodification of ritual.
Before proceeding, I wish to offer a model for understanding the superfluity
of fraternal orders. A distinction must be made between older groups
that came into being before the Civil War such as the Masons, the Oddfellows,
the Knights of Pythias, and the Improved Order of Red Men for whom ritual
and secrecy remained central and the newer "benefit" societies
such as the Moose, Elks, Patrons of Husbandry and Maccabees for whom
providing life insurance and social charity was paramount. [v] Lynn Dumenil, characterizes these general groups
in terms of their modus operandi: the former are "expressive
organizations . . . directed primarily toward meeting the social and
personal needs of their members, while instrumental organizations
have specific [political or social] goals to accomplish." [vi] Although societies were usually geared one way
or the other, the majority of instrumental benefit societies derived
whatever ritual they exercised from the Masonic model making the boundary
between these groups quite fluid.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
vol. 2 (New York: Random House, 1945) 107.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,”
American Historical Review 50.1 (October 1944): 1.
Jason Kaufman, For the Common Good? American Civil Life
and the Golden Age of Fraternity (New York: Oxford University Press,
Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian
America (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1989) 1.
C. Putney, “Service over secrecy: How lodge style fraternalism
yielded popularity to men’s service clubs,” Journal of Popular Culture
27.1 (1993): 179.
Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry in American Culture 1880-1930
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) xii.