Fraternalism in America (1860 - 1920) 

By:  Burke Gray

The American Civil War was an economic disaster for the young country and hard times, including two major depressions, soon followed. Hard times bring people together and in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, they came together in the Lodge. By 1900, America had over three hundred different--and mostly new--fraternal orders. The Sears and Roebuck catalog of that year featured over eighty pins, charms, and watch fobs from twenty-eight different orders. The following numbers, taken from the World Almanac of 1896, shows the membership in the foremost fraternal orders of that time.

Odd Fellows     939,307

Freemasons     920,459

Knights of Pythias 456,944

Ancient Order of United Workmen      341,371

Knights of the Maccabees 209,831

Royal Arcanum 169,531

Improved Order of Red Men 161,408

Junior Order of United American Mechanics      153,268

Modern Woodmen of America 144,403

Knights of Honor 121,183

Ancient Order of Foresters of America      115,967

Ancient Order of Hibernians of America 115,000

Knights and Ladies of Honor      84,000

Sons of Temperance      59,680

Knights of the Golden Eagle      58,535

Order of United American Mechanics       55,689

American Legion of Honor 55,055

Woodmen of the World 52,558

National Union 47,625

Catholic Benevolent Legion 40,106

Order of Chosen Friends     38,095

Catholic Mutual Benefit Association 38,000

Ancient Order of Foresters 36,825

Equitable Aid Union    35,118

Independent Order of B’Nai B’rith     30,500

Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks    27,000

Catholic Knights of America     24,000

Improved Order of Heptasophs    23,905

Order of the Golden Cross 20,257

Royal Templars of Temperance 19,210

New England Order of Protection 18,429

United Order of Pilgrim Fathers 18,100

Order of United Friends 17,000

Irish Catholic Benevolent Union 15,000

United Ancient Order of Druids 14,600

Royal Society of Good Fellows 12,870

Smaller orders (total)     73,209

                         TOTAL                        4,764,098

Additionally, the Sears & Roebuck catalog of 1900 featured jewelry for the following orders:

Patriotic Sons of America

Sons of Veterans

Grand Army of the Republic

Royal League

Catholic Order of Foresters

Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen

Degree of Honor (A.O.U.W.)

Epworth League

Christian Endeavor

A total fraternal membership of nearly five million is quite significant when you consider that the population of this country in 1896 was only about seventy-five million. Of those seventy-five million, it is probably safe to assume that at least half were children--after all, this was an era of large families. Given that, it is not unreasonable to assume that one out of every seven or eight adult men and women belonged to some kind of fraternal order at the turn of the century.  Some sources have placed the number closer to one in four.

As suggested by the list above, there was an order for virtually every person or group.  There were orders for Englishmen, Scotsmen, Germans, Poles, and Irishmen—and every other nationality that found itself living in this country.  There were Catholic orders, Anti-Catholic orders, Protestant orders, Patriotic and Political orders.  There were orders for railroad men and traveling salesmen.  There were temperance and prohibition orders and a few orders that started out as drinking clubs—and some that remain essentially that.  There were orders for women and children.  But a common factor in virtually all of these organizations was that they provided life insurance to their members.  In fact, most life insurance in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century was obtained through these fraternal benefit societies.    

Fraternalism in general was nothing new in this country.   After all, the Boston Tea Party was supposed to have been orchestrated from a Masonic Lodge and a good number of the Founding Fathers were Masons.  Like the tea, Freemasonry had been imported from England in the 1700’s. (Conspiracy buffs take note: Here is an honest-to-goodness, historically documented, Masonic Conspiracy.  There is absolutely no doubt that in 1776 a number of American Masons conspired to overthrow the lawful rule of His Majesty King George III.    Drawing on a long experience in dealing with kings, they succeeded and went on to found the United States of America.)

There were other fraternal lodge elements at work also. The Odd Fellows, another English import, arrived in the early 1800’s. The country got its first American-made lodge in 1834 with the founding of the Order of Redmen  which supposedly traces its origins back to the Sons of Liberty, a secret (and undoubtedly revolutionary) order of the Revolutionary War. 

The fraternal orders of Post-Civil-War America patterned their lodge structure after that of the Blue Lodge Masons, complete with secret ritual, grips, and passwords. This is hardly surprising as a disproportionate share of the founders of these new orders were Masons.  But unlike the Masons, which were at this time upper class gentlemen’s clubs, the new orders opened their doors to working class men--and women. And though the lodge structure was essentially Masonic, the prime purpose of these new orders was based on yet another fraternal order founded in 1868, the Ancient Order of United Workmen.

The concept of a social safety net was totally unknown in the Nineteenth Century. The death of a breadwinner frequently meant destitution for his family. Life insurance was available only to the well-to-do and beyond the economic reach of the average working man.  In response to this, the AOUW was founded by John Upchurch, a Mason, as a Fraternal Benefit Society.  Each member was assessed a small fee and upon the death of a member, his family would receive a death benefit, usually on the order of about $500 - $2,000.  (See Knights of Pythias Assessment card below)

KnightsofPythiasAssessment1.jpg (63281 bytes)

This would generally have been enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm and perhaps support the family thereafter. (This is most likely the origin of the term "he bought the farm" meaning he died.) The AOUW introduced affordable life insurance to working class families and the more than three hundred new fraternal benefit societies formed in the latter 1800’s followed their example.  A Golden Age of Fraternalism was under way.

It is entirely possible that the founding of the fraternal benefit society movement by Upchurch was simply an accident of History; what he may have intended was to found a sort of labor union.  Its purpose, he said, was adjusting “all differences which may arise between employers and employees, and to labor for the development of a plan of action that may be beneficial to both parties, based on the eternal truth that the interests of labor and capitol are equal and should receive equal protection”….to “bring together then conflicting social interests, capitol and labor, to provide a means of arbitration with which to settle difficulties that were constantly arising.”

In this, the age of the Robber Baron,  Upchurch is being incredibly naïve.  Without the threat of a strike, industry had not the slightest reason to pay any attention to the AOUW and there is no evidence that it ever arbitrated or negotiated anything.  That would be left to the Knights of Labor, an early labor organization founded in the following year of 1869.

The Fraternal benefit society, that curious blend of fraternal lodge and life insurance company, would flourish in that form for about one human lifetime.  The reasons for their decline (and transformation) are numerous.  Some, like the Knights of Honor, were simply so badly managed that they went bankrupt.  Many operated as little more than a “pass the hat” operation with little or no reserves leaving them vulnerable to epidemics or other natural disasters.  Some simply died of old age as their members aged and new members could not be found to replace them.

By the 1920’s,  a number of changes were in the works.  Increasingly, the States had began to impose reserve requirements and other regulations.  The remaining societies started to recognize the economics of scale and there were a trickle of mergers among the smaller orders.  That trickle was to become a flood with the coming of the Great Depression in 1929.  Some of the larger and stronger, the Royal Arcanum, the Woodmen, and the Independent Order of Foresters, are still very much in the insurance business though it is doubtful that much of their lodge structures any longer exist.  They and the other survivors—or at least their much-merged descendants--operate under the umbrella group, the American Fraternal Alliance

Several orders and individuals are worth noting. The Knights of Pythias, founded in 1864, was not a fraternal benefit society but rather a traditional fraternity more along the lines of the Masons and Odd Fellows.  Founded in Washington, D.C., it was originally meant as an organization of government employees but it promptly grew beyond that.   It was enormously popular, gaining nearly half a million members in its first thirty years. This was in spite of at least two bankruptcies and an internal Civil War that almost tore the Order apart in its first decade.  Most of the founding members left (or were forced out of) the order.  Rathbone, the founder, probably spent as much time out of the order as he did in it.

The Masons (Freemasons, Free and Accepted Masons) are the only order that in any way can legitimately lay claim to the term "ancient".   Masonry has been known to exist since 1717 and it was widely accepted by Mason and non-Mason alike that the order was much older than that.  In the Eighteenth Century it was frequently believed that Masonry extended back into Biblical times but this belief did not survive the closer scrutiny of the next century.  By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the general consensus was that Masonry had evolved from Medieval stonemason guilds.  And so it remained until 1989 when Masonry got the surprise of its (very long) life.

The surprise was the answer to an age-old ritualistic question: "From whence come you?" The answer was not at all what they had expected. It was provided by a historian named John Robinson, a non-Mason with no particular interest in Masonry. His interest was in the Middle Ages and what he found in his studies indicated that the Masons had originated not as stonemasons but as soldier-monks in an order called the Knights Templar that had been established during the first Crusade. Robinson’s compelling case can be found in his book, Born in Blood.

The heart of Masonry is the Blue Lodge which refers not to a physical building but rather to the first three degrees, the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason. This is without a doubt the very oldest part of Masonry with parts of the ritual going back to the first days of the order in the early Fourteenth Century.  Masonry may not be exactly ancient but it certainly is old.  Robinson’s evidence strongly suggests that the Order that was to become Masonry was already over 150 years old when Columbus set sail.

Blue Lodge - Past Master Jewel

Photo Courtesy of Ralph W. Omholt, PM

Beyond the Blue Lodge, Masonry consists of a labyrinth of degrees and sub-orders that even most Masons probably don’t fully understand. (Indeed, many Masons never progress beyond the Blue Lodge.) There are two paths that a Master Mason may take to higher degrees, the York Rite and the Scottish Rite. The York Rite adds an additional nine degrees culminating in the Knight of the Temple degree or Knights Templar.   (Masons have long known that they probably had some kind of connection with the Knights Templar but until Robinson, they never knew just how close that connection was.)  The York Rite ritual, except for the final degrees which are Christian, is based largely on Hebrew scripture and legend.   Of the two paths, the York Rite is the oldest.

York Rite Fobs & Jewelry

A common York Rite watch fob is the "Keystone" pictured in the arch above.  The Keystone is placed in the center of an arch which preserves the others in their places, and secures firmness and stability to the arch.  It was the custom of Operative Masons to engrave their mark in the center of the keystone and a tradition that is still carried forward to this day.  Around the Knight Templars Blood-Red Passion Cross and Crown is inscribed the motto "In Hoc Signo Vinces" the Latin for "By this sign thou shall conquer." 

York Rite - Commandery Jewels & Sash Star

York Rite - Past High Priest Jewels & Lapel Pin

The Scottish Rite is influenced heavily by the work of Albert Pike, a Confederate General, prolific writer, and a most enthusiastic Mason. Pike took a number of older Masonic degrees--mostly French--and re-wrote them into twenty-nine new degrees in the late Nineteenth Century. The ritual is more ecumenical in nature, weaving the common themes of a number of religions through the Rite. It might more accurately be called the American Rite.  A few hardy Masons choose both paths to further enlightenment as is evidenced by a few beautiful old watch fobs that feature both the double-headed eagle of the thirty-second degree as well as the Cross and Crown of the Knights Templar.

Scottish Rite - 33rd Degree Jewel & Lapel Pins

The Thirty-third Degree of Freemasonry is an Honorary Degree bestowed on those Scottish Rite Masons who have dedicated themselves to a lifetime of service to Freemasonry.

The A.A.O.N.M.S. (Ancient Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine) whose members are commonly called Shriners are devoted to charity work, symbolism with an Arabic theme, and to having a good time.  After all the degree work, they probably deserve it.  This order is not part of the Masonic Family of degrees that formulate Ancient Craft Masonry.   It is an Order started by Master Masons who at the outset wanted the best of men to become members of the Shrine for charity and fun.  They therefore chose to include in their bylaws that a member had to be a Master Mason in good standing in a Masonic Lodge.   Since all Master Masons are under the Laws and Regulations of their respective Grand Lodges the Shrine was insured to have nothing but the best and most loyal of members.   Owing allegiance first to their obligation of Ancient Craft Masonry and then to the Shrine.  Very few Masonic Lodges and Shrines hold their meeting in the same building due to Masonic law: no alcohol being served in or on the property on which a Masonic Hall is built.

Shrine Tiger Claw Jewel

This beautiful Shrine Jewel was made with real Tiger Claws set into 14 kt gold to form the Crescent Moon, Tiger Eye Stone to carve the face of the Sphinx and the Star is a real ruby studded with seed pearls.  It is a wonderful piece of Craftsmanship in both style and design.

Masonry is legendary for its secrecy but this is only a legend. The only thing secret about the Masons is that there are no secrets to the Masons. Every single aspect of their order has been written down and anyone wishing to know what the order is all about can do so with a little diligent library work. Do not expect to find deep and hidden secrets and mysteries here. What Masonry teaches with its elaborate rituals and symbolism already exists in the heart of every good man and woman--though we probably don’t think about it nearly enough.

The Odd Fellows, at least according to one story, got its curious name from the fact that it was a lodge that opened its doors to the working class who at that time did not ordinarily belong to fraternal orders--and were thus "odd". This may or may not be true as the Odd Fellows have been around for a long time and a good many things get lost in the fog of history. The first documented reference to an Odd Fellows lodge is in the year 1748. The Lodge was number nine which suggests other lodges preceded them. There may also have been predecessor organizations. It seems likely that they are nearly as old as modern (Free and Accepted) Masons. Membership in both the Masons and Odd fellows has been common as evidenced by numerous pins showing the square and compass conjoined with the three link chain.

One man, Joseph Cullen Root, was responsible for the founding of no less than four fraternal orders. Root, a member of the AOUW, was inspired by a sermon on the clearing of land for settlement and was moved to establish the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit society with the goal of clearing away financial problems caused by the death of a breadwinner. The lady’s branch, the Royal Neighbors, soon followed.

But within a few years of its founding, Root had a falling out with the leadership of his new order. So he left the MWA and promptly founded the Woodmen of the World. Their ladies promptly founded Neighbors of Woodcraft. All four orders survive today as fraternal benefit insurance companies.

As we enter into the Twenty-First Century, fraternalism in America has itself fallen on hard times. Membership in Blue Lodge Masonry is at its lowest point in over a hundred years and other orders are not fairing much better. It is entirely possible that we are now witnessing the extinction of venerable old institutions that have been an integral--if not crucial--part of American history.  Ironically, it is the relative newcomers, the Fraternal Benefit Societies, that have survived the best. Though their secret ritual has largely been forgotten and most lodges have ceased to exist entirely, many of their descendants survive in the form of fraternal life insurance companies.

Charles William Heckethorn in his book The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries (University Books, 1965) accurately defines the decline of fraternalism in America, to wit:  “Thanks to secret societies themselves, they are now no longer needed, at least not in the realms of thought.  In politics, however, circumstances will arise in every age to call them into existence; and though they seldom attain their direct object, yet are they not without influence on the relations between ruler and ruled, advantageously for the latter in the long run, though not immediately.  But thought—religious, philosophical and political—is free—if not as yet in every country, it is so certainly in the lands inhabitated by the Saxon races.  And though the bigot and the fool would crush it, the former because it undermines his absolutism, and the latter because it interferes with his ease, yet shall it only grow stronger by the opposition.  Science becomes the powerful bulwark against the invasion of dogmatic absurdities; and there is growing up a scientific church, wherein knowledge, and not humility, labour, and not penance and fasting, are considered essentials.  Various phenomena in modern life are proofs of this.  Man during ages of intellectual gloom annihilated himself in behalf of the great deified All; now he studies and respects himself, destroys the fetishes, and combats for Truth, which is the true deity.  In ancient times the mind rose from religion to philosophy; in our times, by a violent reaction, it will ascend from philosophy to religion,  And the men whose religion is so arrived at, whose universal sympathy has cast out fear—such men are the true regenerators of mankind, and need neither secret signs nor passwords to recognize each other; in fact; they are opposed to all such devices, because they know that liberty consists in publicity.  In a despotically ruled country, as Russia, for instance, secret societies are even now the only means of stirring up the people to fight for freedom; but wherever liberty rules, secrecy is no longer necessary to effect  good and useful work; once it needed secret societies in order to triumph, now it wants open union to maintain itself.”

Though the Golden Age of Fraternalism is long since passed, the artifacts they left behind are still a wonder to behold.  Beautiful little works of art in gold, silver, bronze, and brass, decorated with precious stones, colored enamel, and elaborate hand engraving pay lasting tribute not only to the lodges that inspired them but to the goldsmiths of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century who created them. On the following pages you will find a good sampling of the lapel pins, charms, watch fobs, and large medals (commonly called Jewels) associated with the many fraternal lodges active at the turn of the century. This is by no means a complete accounting; one could spend a lifetime acquiring only Masonic jewelry and still never reach the end. Still, there is something here for everyone, ranging from inexpensive gold filled lapel pins to elaborate jewels in 14K set with diamonds and rubies. 

So come, take a walk back into time, a time when man--and woman—belonged.



1. Order of St. Andrew (Russia)

2. Order of Leopold (Belgium)

3. Order of the Holy Sepulchre (Pontifical)

4. Order of St. Patrick, with collar attachment (Great Britain, Ireland)

5. Guelfic Order of Hanover

6. Order of St. Gregory the Great (Pontifical)

7. Order of the Crown of Wurtemburg

8. Christian Endeavor

9. Royal Arch Mason

10. Knights of the Golden Eagle

11. Order of the Tower and Sword (Portugal)

12. Order of St. Olaf (Sweden)

13. Grand Army of the Republic (United States)

14. Legion of Honor (France)

15. Order of the Thistle, with collar attachment (Great Britain, Scotland)

16. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen

17. Order of the Sun and Lion (Persia)

18. Patriotic Order Sons of America

19. Order of St. John of Jerusalem

20. Order of the Star of India (Great Britain, India)

21. The "Nichan" Badge (Tunis)

22. Family Order of Loyalty of Baden (Germany)

23. Order of the Bath, Military Class (Great Britain)

24. Knight Templar

25. League of American Wheelmen


1. PAST MASTER, of a Lodge of Master Masons, or Blue Lodge

2. PAST HIGH PRIEST, if a Royal Arch Chapter of Chapter of Royal Arch Masons

3. PAST EMINENT COMMANDER, of a Commandery of Knights Templar

4. PAST ILLUSTRIOUS COMMANDER IN CHIEF, of a Consistory, Thirty second Degree of Freemasonry

5. PAST POTENTATE, of Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine

6. PAST EXALTED RULER, of a Lodge of the Benovolent Protective Order of Elks

7. PAST CHANCELLOR, of a Lodge of Knights of Pythias

8. PAST COMMANDER, of a Council American Legion of Honor

9. PAST [NOBLE] GRAND, of a Lodge of Independent Order of Odd Fellows

10. PAST SACHEM, of a Tribe of Improved Order of Red Men

11. PAST PRESIDENT, of a Camp, Patriotic Order Sons of America

12. PAST REGENT, of a Council of Royal Arcanum

13. PAST COUNCILOR, of a Council of Junior Order of United American Mechanics

14. PAST WORKMAN, of a Lodge of Ancient Order of United Workmen

15. PAST CHIEF PATRIARCH, of an Odd fellows [Patriarch’s Militant] Encampment

16. PAST REGENT, of a Senate, Order of Sparta

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