Fraternal Societies and Clubs on Buttons: By Marge Breutzmann

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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.

The late 1800's and early 1900's were a colorful period for fraternal societies, featuring such activities as uniform honor guards at funerals, marching in parades, secret handshakes, secret passwords and grand titles. Blindfolded candidates endured initiation pranks including "complex electromechanical wonders" squirting water, the firing of blanks and riding a live goat around the room. Sinclair Lewis summed it up in the novel Babbit; "His clubs and associations were food comfortable to his spirit. Of the decent man in Zenith it was required that he should belong to one, and preferably two or three of the innumerabe "lodges"....There were four reasons for joining these orders: It was the thing to do; It was good for business; It gave Americans such honorifics as High Worthy Recording Scribe and Grand Hoogow to add to the commonplace distinctions of Colonel, Judge and Professor. And it permitted the swaddled American husband to stay away from home one evening a week. He could shoot pool, talk man-talk and be obscene and valiant."

By 1900 there were over 300 fraternal orders with a membership of 5 million. Many societies had separate clubs for women and children of the male members such as the International Association of Rebeckah (Oddfellows), Royal Neighbors (Woodmen of America). Ornamentation included buttons, watch fobs, pins, badges and swords. Lilley and Pettibone manufactured all these items. The 1917 Sears Catalog featured a full page of Fraternal Society and Club buttons (see illustration below). The Sears Catalog was mainstream America at this time and illustrates the enormous popularity of these societies.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 24, 2005,Dennis McCann.

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.

In the new American Museum of Fraternal Studies that opened a few weeks ago in Berlin's historic Masonic Lodge, there is a coffin once used in Masonic initiation ceremonies. It looks harmless enough in the light of day but imagine it in a fog-filled room lighted only by candles, where an unsuspecting initiate wearing eye shades would be led to view the dearly departed - in reality a mechanical skeleton whose teeth could chatter on command. Though probably not as loud as the initiate's own teeth.

The Modern Woodmen of America, known for dressing like old-time firemen and performing precision marching drills, had their own initiation tradition - the mechanical goat on which new members were paraded around the room, blindfolded and wearing only underwear.

Odd fellows, you say? No, they would be the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the onetime organization of "Honorable, Frugal, Humble and Poor Laborers" whose symbolism was all taken from the Old Testament - and which at its peak claimed 1.5 million members in more than 22,000 lodges. American Museum

Museum founder Dan Freimark shows some of the items used in Masonic rituals, including a casket, wind machine and eye shades. Initiates would be led into a dark room where the casket lay waiting with a mechanical skeleton inside. The items are part of Freimark’s new American Museum of Fraternal Studies in Berlin.

These ceremonial uniforms were worn by Knights of the Pythias, a fraternal organization founded in 1864.

Indian tradition, No Indians

For my money, though, it's hard to beat the Improved Order of Red Men, organized in America in 1813. Members dressed in Indian garb, paid their dues in "wampum," met by the light of the moon and based all ceremonies on Indian tradition. The group's purpose was "to perpetrate the beautiful legends and traditions of a vanishing race and to keep alive its customs, ceremonies and philosophies." Of course, no one of Indian blood could be a member. Only white men could be Red Men.

"A lot of it (makes it) hard to keep a straight face," said Dan Freimark, the museum's founder. But, he said, "That's kind of the fun of it. "It's history."

The new "micro-museum," Freimark's term for a small exhibit space that will serve as incubator for a planned larger facility, is intended not only to house artifacts, ritual items and documents related to fraternal groups but also serve as an archive and research library for those interested in fraternal history.

That history, by the way, goes back to the earliest days of this country. George Washington and many of the founding fathers were Freemasons, as one exhibit points out. The museum devotes space to traditional groups like the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and the rural Grange movement, as well as religious organizations like the Catholic Knights, Knights of Columbus and Aid Association for Lutherans.

Future exhibits will cover the so-called animal groups - Moose Clubs, the Elks, Eagles and others - and even youth groups such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls.

Just Selling Insurance

Freimark said he and a few others started talking about such a museum almost 10 years ago, and soon after started collecting regalia, symbolic items used in fraternal rites and other artifacts. Many of those items came from lodges that were ceasing to be active, in most cases because members had gotten old and there were too few new recruits interested in lodge life. Many fraternal groups, in fact, long ago gave up traditional rites and now operate as insurance companies, which was often one of the reasons they were formed. The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, for example, was established on Masonic principles but also to provide insurance coverage to men in dangerous jobs.

But that was a different era; today, few people are willing to join any organization. "They're really dropping by the wayside," Freimark said of the lodges that used to be found in every city, large and small. "The Masons just had a nice little resurgence in numbers in the last year or so, but the Pythians, the Woodmen (are declining)." That's good for the collector of lodge artifacts.

"For each one of these exhibits, we've got enough to expand it twenty-fold," he said. "(My wife) went down in the basement one day and said 'What's that casket doing here?' It was like, which one?"

Community Affairs

Fraternal groups, most of which modeled their organizations along the lines of Freemasonry, were involved in more than ritual ceremonies and strange initiations. Most were involved in community affairs, Freimark said.

Most also required a faith in a supreme being and had various other membership requirements. Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias had to be 21 or older to join and be white males not involved with liquor or gambling, for example, while the Modern Woodmen of America was open to "Jew and Gentile, the Catholic and Protestant, the Agnostic and Atheist."

However, given its further goal of providing insurance benefits to members, the Woodmen were active only in the 12 "healthiest" states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"A lot of the groups were also temperance-minded," Freimark said. "If you were a user or a seller (of liquor) you were not allowed."

And other groups had far less lofty goals. The Junior Order of United American Mechanics, founded in Philadelphia as a working man's organization, had among its aims stopping immigration, especially by Catholics and the Irish.

When most traditional lodges refused to consider having black members, black fraternal groups were formed with their own rituals and membership requirements.

Freimark said a number of cities are under consideration for the eventual larger Museum of Fraternal Studies. Wherever it is located, if support should prove satisfactory, he expects it will be a destination museum for lodge members past and present and for younger visitors whose relatives were once involved in lodge life.

For now, those interested in viewing the museum should contact Freimark at (920) 361-1274.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 24, 2005.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dennis McCann, July 24, 2005
National Button Bulletin, December 1999, Masonic Buttons
National Button Bulletin, October 1987, Fraternal Societies (pg 163, Jane Ford Adams)


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