Fraternal societies are patterned on the craft guilds of the middle ages where members gathered together to regulate conditions of employment, to promote good fellowship, to support community good, and to provide financial benefits in the event of illness, accident, old age and death. Although the Masons were founded in the United States as early as 1730, and the Oddfellows organized a lodge in Baltimore in 1810, the Golden Age of fraternal societies began after the Civil War and lasted into the 1920's. Part of their success was the insurance benefits given members in a hard time marked by bank failures and financial panics.
Membership declined in the late 1920's due to several factors including the Great Depression which limited people's budgets, the beginnig of Social Security which elimited the need for insurance provided by the societies, easier access to "cheap" entertainment such as movies and radio, and prohibition which curbed the activities of the lodge bar.
INDEPENDENT ORDER OF ODDFELLOWS (IOOF)
So named because it was "peculiar" or odd that common laboring men would form a social club for mutual help in violation of social trends of the 18th century England. They did not limit their membership to one trade, also "odd". Membership requires a belief in a Supreme Being, loyalty to your country and being over age 18. Emblems include three bucks, a bundle of sticks and three links in a chain. This drawing from the 1917 Sears Catalog shows a button with elaborate drawing incorporating the chains, the letters F, L, T as well as the Scales of Justice. The "F" represents Friendship; "L" is for Love and the "T" is for Truth.
LOYAL ORDER OF MOOSE (LOOM)
The Moose Club was founded in 1888 as a men's social club. By 1906 they had initiated the 247th member and only two lodges remained. James Davis, later Secretary of Labor under three presidents, reorganized the Club and added sick benefits for the largely working class membership. It proved highly popular and by 1912, they had 500,000 members and 1,000 lodges. A school for the children of deceased members was completed in 1913 and is just one of the many charitable activities undertaken to this day by Moose International.
BENEVOLENT AND PROTECTIVE ORDER OF THE ELK (BPOE)
Founded in 1868 by New York actors as a drinking club to circumvent the law closing saloons on Sundays. Early on, members of the Elks began wearing an elk's tooth as identification. Over the years, the Elk's emblem included an elk tooth, an elk superimposed on an elk tooth as well as the elk. A c.1917 Sears Catalog featured four versions of solid gold Elk's clothing buttons ranging in price from .91 cents to $4.64 for a deluxe model featuring a "Genuine regular cut diamond" (keep this in mind while looking through that poke box.)
Buttons began disappearing during the late 1920's and 30's as did uniforms and parades. Elk's button covers are still available through Elk's the licensee, The Klitzer Company. Fraternal societies today target community causes such as the Elk's work with every Veterans Administration medical center in the country.
KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS
Formed after the Civil War at the request of Abraham Lincoln to heal the divide in the Nation. The Knights of Pythias' emblems include the Calla Lilly, crossed swords, a sword on an open Bible and others. It bases its lessons and builds its rituals largely on the familiar story of Damon and Pythias, who were historical characters living about 400 or more years before the beginning of the Christian era. They were members of a school, founded by Pythagoras, who was known as the father of Greek philosophy. Another frequently seen emblem contains a triangle with the letters "F", "C" and "B" for Friendship, Charity and Benevolance.
AMERICAN/UNITED ORDER OF UNITED WORKMEN (AOUW)
The AOUW was the first organization to offer an insurance benefit. Founded prior to the Civil War, it provided a $2,000. benefit to the family of a deceased member. This was enough to pay off the mortgage and give rise to the saying "He bought the farm" as a way of referring to the death of a man.
"Odd Fellows Aren't Only Odd Things"
Berlin, Wisconsin. It's too bad that for so long so many fraternal organizations were thought of as secret societies, because some of their secret rituals were pretty wild.
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