The Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) is a fraternal benefit society that was founded in 1883. They are still around today, existing as an insurance company - one of the many that started as a fraternal benefit society, complete with initiation ceremonies and rituals, but which eventually focused primarly on providing insurance. They are part of a larger groups of fraternal insurance companies, and by way of recognizing their fraternal roots, they still emphasize both fraternity and community.
But set your minds back nearly a hundred years ago, when the Modern Woodmen's drill team, the Foresters, would deftly spin, toss, and wield axes in unison as they marched in parades, and when joining a fraternal benefit society meant learning secret ritual work and promising to uphold certain moral values. All of this ritual work required props and costumes, and during the heyday of fraternalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, companies that supplied fraternal regalia and supplies did a booming business. Sometimes the fraternities themselves were the suppliers of all the material culture needs of a local fraternal group (the MWA calls these "camps" - which are synonmous with lodges in Freemasonry and other fraternal groups). Pictured here is the cover to the official 1911 supply catalog of Modern Woodmen of America.
The inside cover of this catalog has a few interesting notes, one entitled "Trick Chair Eliminated."
In 1894, in a revision to their ritual, the Modern Woodmen of America introduced the "Fraternal Degree," a degree which involved a series of mock-somber ceremonies all involving various trick or gag props designed to make the candidate look foolish (or humiliated, depending on your point of view) while making the other members laugh. Although it was, at the beginning of the 20th century, a sanctioned gag within an officially recognized degree of the Modern Woodmen of America, by 1909 the Trick Chair was deemed to have violated one of the organization's by-laws which prohibited the use of "hazardous appliances." And so the MWA committe in charge of degree work wrote the Trick Chair out of the official ritual in 1910, officially - although not necessarily in practice - banning its use. Pictured below is a page from the "Premium Book," a supplemental supply catalog that was published by the Modern Woodmen of America for its members. Although undated, because this catalog states that "the new Ritual permits the use of the following articles," we know that this particular supply catalog was published before the 1909 revisions to the ritual, which eliminated the Trick Chair.
A history of the Modern Woodmen of America, written and published by the group in 1935, put it more succinctly in their comment on the 1910 revision of the ritual: "a number of the hazardous and undignified parts of the fraternal degree were dropped." In addition to the elimination of the Trick Chair, the 1911 supply catalog also notes that the Lung Tester, Judgement Stand, and Boxing Outfit had also been discontinued. These discontinuations appear to have been the direct result of a number of lawsuits that some injured candidates had brought against the Modern Woodmen of America in the first decade of the 20th century.
Gags, tricks, and other hazing-related elements of fraternal groups reveal much about the so-called golden age of fraternalism in the US - the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although usually not sanctioned by the fraternal groups, the equipment for performing these gags on new initiates were readily available from the same companies that supplied regalia, lodge furniture and other supplies to various fraternal organizations. Probably the most well known of these gags involves pushing a hoodwinked (blindfolded) candidate around a lodge room on a wobbly-wheeled fake mechanical goat. Indeed, "riding the goat" was central to the MWA's Fraternal Degree. William D. Moore, in an article called "Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States, 1845–1930," (abstract is available here) makes a compelling case that the goat's popularity - and, I would add, the popularity of other related "high jinks" - took hold at a time when ideas of American masculinity were reshaping themselves. Moore concludes that, in part, "riding the goat" (and, by extension, related gags and tricks) can be seen as "experiment[s] with evading the strictures of Victorian deportment."
Of course, many people were concerned about this kind of hazing even as it was happening. The existence of such gags and hazing - whether sanctioned or not - is in stark contrast to most fraternal degree rituals, which tend to focus on the betterment of the candidate, and often use allegory and metaphor in a dramatic presentation to illustrate these ideas and to emphasize moral and ethical behavior. Because fraternal rituals are generally fairly serious and self-reflective, the existence of gags and tricks was often a source of contention among those who thought the high jinks were a welcome levity and those who thought that they were undignified and counter-productive. In most cases, the leaders of fraternal groups did not sanction these so-called "side degrees," although they existed and persisted during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as unsanctioned activities that took place in many fraternal lodge rooms. The case of the Modern Woodmen of America is an interesting illustration of how one fraternity - at least briefly - officially sanctioned the use of such gags (and even noted that their membership grew because of it) before eventually deciding to put such goats and trick chairs out to pasture.
Both images above come from our collection of fraternal regalia catalogs (FR002):
Modern Woodman of America Supply Department Catalog. Modern Woodman Press, 1911.
Modern Woodmen of America Premium Book. Rock Island, IL: Modern Woodman Press, ca. 1900.