Civic Clubs, Men

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Fraternal organizations—voluntary societies built about secret rituals, the encouragement of morality and close ties among members, and the practice of mutual aid—played a central role in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American society. Developing out of eighteenth-century Freemasonry, fraternal orders became widespread in the 1840s. By 1910, perhaps one out of every three men (and a smaller, but significant, number of women) belonged to at least one. Although these organizations have become much less widespread since the 1930s, they still attract millions of Americans and provide hundreds of million dollars in charity.

The First Fraternity

Freemasonry was the earliest and most influential fraternal society. Although it claimed ancient origins, the modern fraternity, with its ideal of brotherhood among men of different religious, political, and ethnic affiliations, emerged out of London trade organizations in the early eighteenth century. Lodges first met in England's American colonies around 1730, by which time the fraternity had already spread through much of Great Britain and the European continent. Colonial Masonry was small, and limited to a select group of urban elites.

Although the Revolution disrupted lodges, it helped prepare the ground for further expansion. The Masonic membership of such leading patriots as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington helped to identify the order with a new nation also based on Enlightenment ideals of religion, learning, and self-sacrificing virtue. In a 1793 ceremony led by President Washington himself, Masons laid the cornerstone of the United States Capitol. Many other public buildings received a similar dedication. By the 1820s, lodges met in nearly every locality in the United States. A Masonic organization in 1823 estimated national membership (conservatively) at 80,000. This expansion, however, also created religious and social tensions. After 1826, when a group of Masons (acting without official approval) kidnapped and possibly killed William Morgan, an upstate New York brother who planned to publish the fraternity's rituals, a substantial anti-Masonic movement emerged attacking the fraternity as undemocratic and anti-Christian. Masonic membership declined dramatically, especially in the North.

The Golden Age

Although Freemasonry revived in the 1840s, its temporary decline (as well as a new familiarity with its rituals made possible by hostile exposés) allowed a range of other fraternal orders to emerge. Odd Fellowship, another English import, grew dramatically after the 1830s. By the turn of the century, it had surpassed Masonry as the nation's most popular fraternal society. A host of new national orders developed after the middle of the century, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Improved Order of the Red Men.

During what W. S. Harwood in 1897 called "the Golden Age of Fraternity," the fraternal model pioneered by Masonry became a primary means of organizing groups for a wide range of purposes (Beito, p. 1). Fraternal societies could encourage ethnic solidarity (the Jewish B'nai Brith and the Irish Ancient Order of Hibernians), affect politics (the Grand Army of the Republic and the Ku Klux Klan), and organize both labor (the Knights of Labor and the Granger Movement) and college life (Greek letter fraternities). The Knights of Columbus, established in 1882, provided fraternal fellowship for Roman Catholic men. African Americans, excluded by almost universal racial discrimination from white orders, formed their own groups. Prince Hall Freemasonry, rooted in the activities of ex-slaves in Revolutionary Boston, helped members (who have included Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and Jesse Jackson) claim the dignity and social acceptance often denied them by American society.

Although both the specific purpose and the metaphoric foundations of fraternal orders varied widely, they typically included a number of common elements. Each sought to create close ties (usually defined as familial) among members drawn from different families, neighborhoods, and even regions. Each was superintended by state and national organizations that established broader policies and larger projects. But the center of fraternal activities was the local group, generally referred to (using the Masonic term) as the "lodge." A small town might have only one body; a larger locality several. Each served as a center not only for the convivial eating and drinking that were part of most meetings, but also the order's secret rituals. Used both to initiate members and to mark progress in mastering the moral ideals and lore of the group, these ceremonies, based on the group's origin myth, formed the largest element in most lodge meetings.

Mutual Aid

Lodge membership was particularly valuable for young men seeking to negotiate the difficult transition to manhood. Members of fraternities typically joined while they were in their twenties, using their affiliation to help establish their reputation and to build business and political ties within the community and with other leaders. Fraternal orders encouraged members to provide particular assistance to one another.

Despite the masculine derivation of the term, fraternal orders were not solely male. They often included women, although primarily as part of the ladies' auxiliaries of national orders. The Knights of the Macabees established the Ladies of the Macabees in the 1890s. But the group quickly became the separate Women's Benefit Association, with local "hives" providing life insurance for a female membership that numbered more than 200,000 in 1920. Although limited to female relatives of Masons, the Order of the Eastern Star, established in the mid-nineteenth century, numbered more than 200,000 women members in 1900 and more than 2 million in 1950. Twentieth-century Freemasonry established organizations for children as well.

The broad appeal of fraternalism also rested on the range of social services provided by societies. Although Masonry, as the most elite fraternal society, refused to establish a set of defined benefits, other orders were more explicit. The Modern Woodmen of the World and other societies helped pioneer life insurance in America. In 1895, fraternities accounted for half the value of the nation's policies. Medical aid became another common benefit. Organizations sometimes moved beyond cash payments to contract with doctors for what was called "lodge practice." Fraternal orders also sponsored hospitals, orphanages, retirement homes, and even colleges. Such charity was primarily limited to members and their families, but most groups made some effort to provide aid beyond the membership; the Shriners, a Masonic group, created a national network of hospitals in the twentieth century that provided free orthopedic and burn care for all children.

The Decline of the Fraternal Form

The enormous growth of fraternalism that began in the middle of the nineteenth century came to an end in the early twentieth century. By then, perhaps one-third of all American men (and a large number of women) belonged to at least one fraternal order. But the societies began to grow more slowly in the 1920s and actually decline in the 1930s, a trend that has continued ever since. The reasons for this shift are complex. The Great Depression clearly created some difficulties. But continuing membership losses suggest that other causes were also involved. New government programs such as Social Security and workman's compensation, and new employer-sponsored benefits such as pensions and insurance made the mutual aid of fraternal societies less essential. Sports, commercial entertainment, and mass media all helped crowd out fraternal activities—and often included women—making the fraternities' single-sex environment more unusual.

Alone among the fraternal orders, Freemasonry was able to revive and even expand markedly in the 1940s and 1950s. But even Freemasonry began to lose members in the 1960s. By then, most societies had either ceased altogether or weakened dramatically. Despite this widespread membership loss, fraternal societies continue to be important to many men and women. The Loyal Order of the Moose had about 1 million male and 500,000 female members, mostly in the United States, at the end of the twentieth century. American Freemasonry had some 1.8 million brothers. Even for these orders, the future of fraternalism is unclear. It seems unlikely, however, that fraternal organizations will ever regain the extraordinary importance they had in American society in the century after 1840.

See also: Civic Clubs, Women; Leisure and Civil Society; Men's Leisure Lifestyles


Beito, David T. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890–1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Carnes, Mark C. Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Clawson, Mary Ann. Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Dumenil, Lynn. Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880–1930. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Muraskin, William A. Middle-Class Blacks in a White Society: Prince Hall Freemasonry in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Steven C. Bullock