The incorporated and autonomous nature of fraternal organization allowed for this proliferation of life insurance programs, hospitals, and orphanages. Reacting to the acceleration of nineteenth-century social dynamics, the transformation from “passing the hat” to a highly organized mutual aid network happened remarkably fast.



The Incorporation of Mutual Aid

      The Masonic paradigm can be traced back to seventeenth-century France when journeymen, through the formation of compagnonnages, attempted to defend their “collective interests against their masters and provide food, lodging, and guidance for one another as they traveled the country” [1] Their use of an elaborate ritual to forge the bonds of brotherhood pre-figured what would eventually become the Masonic rite in 18th century England. Through a series of ceremonial degrees, “gentlemen and even nobles joined with merchants and craftsmen in a rite of leveling that ended in their symbolic elevation to the idealized status of Master Mason.” In its embryonic state, therefore, Masonry offered a form of mutual aid in which ritual fortified the construction of equal-opportunity welfare. Early differences between the Masons and so-called “friendly societies” suggest the distinctions we made in the introduction between expressive and instrumental societies. In terms of mutual aid, the Masons tended to be “informal, secretive, and geared to special cases, while friendly societies focused unabashedly on insurance.” [2]   One of the more prominent friendly societies that went on to incorporate Masonic ritual elements was the Independent Order of Oddfellows.

       Rather than give an extensive history of the Masons and Oddfellows, it is more important to our study to address how these societies demonstrated early attempts at incorporating the fraternal experience. When Masonic and Oddfellow societies were formed in America during the colonial period, they “rarely encompassed more than a single lodge.” [3] By the 19th century, however, these societies began to centralize authority. Masons began to maintain “close contact with one another and exchange information about interpretation of laws and procedures … so that hundreds and thousands of American men scattered throughout the country [could] share … similar Masonic experiences.” [4] Likewise, the Oddfellows, through “the centralized structure of its governing system” [5] ensured uniformity in ritual and obeisance to the grand lodge. The result was a geographically extensive network through which traveling Masons and Oddfellows could find relief.

            The Oddfellows went further to systematize the machinery of mutual aid. They replaced “passing the hat” with a “clear schedule of guaranteed benefits.” [6] A system of “fixed weekly assessments” [7] provided a regular stipend per week to compensate for days of work members lost from sickness. They also “raised initiation fees and established committees to ascertain the moral and financial background of applicants.” The implementation of these standards not only guaranteed reliability of relief, but also increased capital through which the order could expand into a full-fledged business.  This gradual reliance on national networks, however, made it easier for traveling impostors to file false claims. The Oddfellows, therefore, implemented several devices to guard against fraud. The most obvious was the ritual itself. Secret passwords and grips together with a system of ceremonial degrees worked to create an impenetrable barrier to the impostor. David Beito aptly observes that “the successful climb up the degree ladder was the antebellum equivalent of building a good credit rating.” [8]     


           As the Masons and the Oddfellows were laying the ground work for the eventual explosion of fraternal benefit societies, other sociological forces were gathering to make the idea of fraternal insurance quite appealing to the average American worker. High mortality rates (see figure above) “meant that workers faced high odds of leaving dependents.” [9] With little aid available from the state for widows, a nineteenth-century family, deprived of their bread-winner, faced dire consequences. For most women, widowhood equaled poverty. Furthermore, the frequency of workplace accidents increased as industrialization made for more dangerous work environments. “Stalked by accidents, sickness, and death, workers were eager to take precautions against the drastic economic consequences these misfortunes brought them and their dependents” [10]



            As the desire for insurance became more pervasive, ironically, the commercial insurance industry suffered massive setbacks. Bankruptcies associated with financial panics in the 1870s resulted in up to $32 million in un-recovered losses for commercial policy holders. [11]   Fraternal societies, however, not only filled the vacuum left by consumer distrust, but also kept their rates “low enough to undercut commercial insurance companies.” The idea of paying a flat rate regardless of age or health must have seemed like a good idea in an age of actuarial imprecision. [12]

            Due to the harsh environment of the industrialized workplace and the lack of governmental assistance to its workers, the conditions of late nineteenth century America were ripe for the flourishing of fraternal benefit societies. In the twenty years after the Civil War, a plethora of “new orders were established: the Knights of Pythias (1864), the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (1866), the Ancient Order of United Workmen (1868), The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners,1871), The Knights of Honor (1873), the Royal Arcanum (1877), the Knights of the Maccabees (1878), and the Modern Woodmen of America (1883).” [13] Mary Clawson’s argument seems plausible that in their “approximation of military hierarchy and ceremony” [14] fraternal orders helped to re-establish brotherhood after the trauma of the Civil War. Fraternal orders up to this point had been decidedly non-political and therefore gave no quarter to North-South affiliations. [15] Though symbolically, fraternalism might have lured men for this reason, it is clear that transformations in the practical substance of fraternalism had as much to do with it.


         The Ancient Order of United Workmen revolutionized the role of fraternal orders by becoming, in 1868, “the first major national life insurance order.” [16] Intending to unite mechanics and their employers as a means to avoid strikes, The AOUW’s founder, John Jordan Upchurch initially used the insurance policy as an auxiliary measure to lure members, but it soon “took center stage.” [17] Centralizing dispersal at the state level, the AOUW took the burden off local lodges and networked its resource capital to form a highly organized insurance machine. Feeling perhaps the sting of competition, several older orders “which had specialized in sick and funeral benefits, such as the Knights of Pythias and the Improved Order of Red Men, followed suit with their own national life insurance plans.” [18] The incorporation of the AOUW not only demonstrated a more highly organized version of fraternalism, but signified a new fluidity between social concerns and political concerns in the life of fraternal orders—a departure from the fundamental rule of Masonry whereby “politics, as one of the topics that produces discord among men, must not be discussed in the lodge.” [19] As the older orders had remained decidedly apolitical, the new ones began to use the fraternal ritual as a means to further a specific social cause. To use the vocabulary of our introductory model, these fraternal orders took on a more instrumental character in their willingness to effect national politics.
            Upchurch, an ardent Mason, had an antipathy to trade unions because they “placed unjustifiable strictures on the rights of workers to labor when and for whom they choose.” [20] Feeling, however, that strikes were counterproductive, Upchurch sought “to try to harmonize the two great interests of our country, capital and labor.” [21] Greatly impressed by fraternalism’s ability to establish an inviolable bond between disparate factions, Upchurch instituted the quasi-Masonic AOUW. Likewise, Uriah Stevens, who founded the Knights of Labor and was also a Mason, “saw in fraternal ritual the means to impose secrecy and create solidarity uniting workers in a bond of trust.” [22] Though both AUOW and the Knights of Labor were primarily exclusive trade unions, the former for only mechanics and the latter accepting all proprietors except lawyers and bankers, they operated on the fraternal model and at times even became pre-occupied with quasi-Masonic ritual.
            The link between the Masonic paradigm and more politically-minded fraternal benefit societies is even clearer in the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange. Its founder, Oliver H. Kelley, a Mason and employee of the United States Department of Agriculture was struck by the plight of farmers in post-Civil war America. In the words of Granger biographer, Dr. Thomas Clark Atkeson, “The factory system was rapidly displacing domestic manufacture, and there was a combination of factories and the formation of large corporations.” [23]   On a tour of the war-torn South, Kelly remarked on “how his membership in the fraternal order of Masons enabled him to win the confidence of his hosts, and was struck by the lack of communication existing in the rural districts.” [24] To arouse interest and build solidarity, he appropriated the fraternal model as means to organize farmers from all over the country. “Working to eliminate middlemen, improve technical expertise, and better their material and cultural lot,” [25] the Grange became a powerful legislative force. What began as an attempt to “regulate the transportation agencies of the country and support the farmers struggle for equitable freight rates on their products” [26] turned into a multi-faceted legislative juggernaut influencing rural health care issues, the building of roads, the Pure Food and Drugs Act, the Truth in Fabrics Act, and a host of other projects affecting farmers.   


             The incorporated efficiency of the Grange not only allowed it to care internally for its members through an extensive insurance plan, but also acted as a model for fraternal orders to follow. As a progressive leader, the Grange urged cooperation among all labor-oriented fraternal orders thus exerting far-reaching social influence.
            Since the Patrons of Husbandry exemplify the fraternal model in its most politically active form, one would expect the quasi-Masonic ritual to be of little importance. On the contrary, the Grange’s “elaborate ritual of seven degrees” [27] was perhaps central to its early success. When the Farmer’s Alliances began to compete with the Grange, they found it hard to do so without “the drawing card of a ritual.” Ceremony not only formalized bonds between disparate groups but made for a more “attractive organizational life.”  The Grange’s blend of elaborate ritual and potent social agenda demonstrates a substantial mutation of the fraternal paradigm. While most of the older Masonic orders remained true (theoretically) to the concept of a classless society comprised of men of all trades and professions, the Grange included only farmers. Like the Knights of Labor and The Ancient Order of United Workmen they appropriated the Masonic paradigm for the purposes of organizing distinct groups of labor.
            In addition to the creation of extensive networks of mutual aid, fraternal societies used the capital generated from their incorporation to build hospitals and orphanages. Between 1890 and 1922, “fraternal societies founded seventy-one orphanages, almost all without government subsidy.” [28] In 1910, the Loyal Order of Moose instituted Mooseheart, an industrial school for orphans and children of its members. Since the Loyal Order of Moose was primarily comprised of skilled laborers, the children of Mooseheart “came overwhelmingly from working-class backgrounds.” [29] During a period when orphanages came to be thought of as breeders of socially dysfunctional citizens, Mooseheart flourished as a cheap non-governmental means for workers to help disadvantaged children.
            Likewise, economic expansion allowed a number of fraternal societies to build hospitals, which marked a departure from previous practices of simply “extending low-cost medical services to it s members.” [30] This practice, dubbed the “lodge practice evil” by the medical profession, involved the contracting of doctors to take care of fraternal members. Lodges were able to offer low rates by “enticing doctors with a substantial and stable patient base, leaving [the lodges] well positioned to purchase medical services at ‘wholesale’ and sell at ‘retail.’ [31] Until the building of Mooseheart, the Loyal Order of Moose relied on this practice heavily. By 1910, however, doctors had banded together to protest “the commercialization of the noble art of medicine.” To circumvent the objections of the medical profession without having to rely on governmental services, the Moose and many other fraternal societies simply allocated resources to build their own hospitals.
            The incorporated and autonomous nature of fraternal organization allowed for this proliferation of life insurance programs, hospitals, and orphanages. Reacting to the acceleration of nineteenth-century social dynamics, the transformation from “passing the hat” to a highly organized mutual aid network happened remarkably fast. The incorporation of fraternal mutual aid demonstrates the most practical example of fraternal expansion and, therefore, sets the stage for an analysis of the more complicated, if not abstract, issues of the following chapters.


[1] Mary Ann Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 3.

[2] David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 7.

[3] Beito, 7.

[4] Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture 1880-1930. (Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1984) 9.

[5] Mark C. Carnes Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 28.

[6] Beito, 10.

[7] Carnes, 26.

[8] Beito, 11.

[9] R. Whaples, “Fraternalism, paternalism, the family, and the market: Insurance a Century Ago” Social Science History 15.1 (1991) 99.

[10] Whaples, 101.

[11] Beito, 14.

[12] Beito, 10.

[13] Clawson, 124.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Beito, 12.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dumenil, 22.

[20] Clawson, 140.

[21] J.J. Upchurch and A.T. Dewey, Life and Times of Father Upchurch, Written by Himself (SanFrancisco: 1887) 72.

[22] Clawson, 138.

[23] Thomas Clark Atkeson, Outlines of Grange History (Washington, D.C.:The National Farm News, 1928) 11.

[24] D. Sven Nordin, Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867-1900 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1974) 4.

[25] Clawson, 136.

[26] Charles M. Gardner, The Grange: Friend of the Farmer (Washington , D.C.:  The National Grange, 1949) 93

[27] Clawson, 136.

[28] Beito, 62.

[29] Ibid., 66.

[30] Ibid., 109.

[31] Ibid., 117.


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