Mutual Benefit Societies

Brothers Helping Brothers to Stand on their Feet: The Story of Masonic Employment Bureaus

Many readers know of the Scottish Rite’s mission to be a fraternity that fulfills its Masonic obligation to care for its members. Many documents in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library illustrate this theme like this 1911 letter from the Masonic Employment Bureau of Seattle, which highlights the Fraternity’s efforts to provide meaningful employment to their unemployed Brethren. 

Letter from the Masonic Employment Bureau to Washington Lodge, No. 3, 1911 July 18.


Seattle, Wash. July 18, 1911.

Worshipful Master, Wardens and Brethren of Washington Lodge # 3 F. & A. M.

Worshipful Sir and Brethern [sic]:—

The several Masonic Lodges of F. & A.M. in Seattle have organized, and are now operating a Masonic Employment Bureau.

The object of the Bureau is to secure employment for worthy Master Masons of local Lodges, or sojourning brethern [sic]. You will no doubt agree that this is a step in the right direction, but, as many more of our brethern are coming to Seattle than can be supplied with positions here we are appealing to the Masonic Lodges of the State to aid us to secure positions in their respective Cities and Towns, where labor is in demand.

The Bureau can furnish first-class, capable men in all lines of work, and shall certainly be pleased to have your fraternal co-operation. If you know of any positions now open, or any that you may hereafter hear of, a letter to the Secretary-Superintendent will get results.

With best wishes to your Lodge, I remain

Fraternally yours,

C. H. Steffen

The first Masonic employment bureau in the United States was created in the city of St. Louis in 1895 by a group of Freemasons who desired to see “worthy members of the Fraternity” find employment. The St. Louis bureau had a long and storied existence, which may have ended sometime in the mid- to late-1970s. It helped numerous Freemasons find employment during its existence, and in 1917, the Proceedings for the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star of for the state of Wisconsin reported that the St. Louis bureau had expanded its mission to include their members, as well as “their dependent ones.”

New Age  1931

Classified ads for Masons seeking work
The New Age Magazine, 1931 September

More importantly, the St. Louis Bureau inspired Freemasons to follow its example, and similar Masonic employment bureaus sprung up throughout the country. Builder Magazine reported that in 1924 alone, thirty Masonic Employment Bureaus existed, including the bureau in Seattle. The magazine also reported that as of 1922, twelve of these bureaus had found 16,578 individuals employment.

Do you have any information regarding the history of Masonic Employment Bureaus? Please contact us or comment about this topic in the comments section below.






Letter from the Masonic Employment Bureau to Washington Lodge, No. 3, 1911 July 18. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, MA 630.004.

New to the Collection: Scandinavian Fraternity of America Sign

2015_066DP1DBBy 1900, over 250 fraternal groups existed in the United States, numbering six million members.  Part of this surge in fraternal organizations during the late 1800s came from the formation of numerous ethnic fraternities.  As immigration to the United States increased, foreigners in this new world sought out their countrymen and joined fraternal groups for social reasons, as well as to partake of the benefits that these groups offered, from help with securing employment to financial assistance for themselves and their families.  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library actively collects objects associated with ethnic fraternal groups.  Recently we purchased this colorful sign at auction.

The sign was originally used by Mayflower Lodge No. 200 of the Scandinavian Fraternity of America.  This is the museum's first acquisition associated with this group.  The sign probably hung where the lodge met.  At the center it shows the fraternity's logo with pyramids or mountains and a golden sun.  Along the sides of the central triangle it reads "Svea / Nora / Dana," presumably representing the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The Scandinavian Fraternity of America was founded in 1915, probably in Chicago.  One source suggests that it was a consolidation of three other organizations, including the Scandinavian Brotherhood of America and possibly the Scandinavian American Fraternity (although another source explicitly says that this one is unrelated).  It was open to both women and men.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to determine exactly where Mayflower Lodge No. 200 met, although it seems likely that it was a New England or even Massachusetts lodge.  The choice of such a quintessentially American name for the lodge seems at odds with a Scandinavian fraternity, but suggests a desire by the members to embrace their new country.  If you have any information about Mayflower Lodge No. 200, or other objects, documents or photos associated with the Scandinavian Fraternity of America, please let us know in a comment below!

Scandinavian Fraternity of America Mayflower Lodge No. 200 Sign, 1915-1945, Fred Hagberg, United States, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 2015.066.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Alan Axelrod, The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Fraternal Orders (New York: Facts on File 1997), 221.

Arthur Preuss, comp., A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1924), 423.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania website:


Baseball Players Cannot Be Beavers: Fraternal Benefit Societies

Beavers_Constitutions_1907_webFraternal life insurance companies occupy their own niche in the life insurance market today. All trace their roots back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when hundreds of mutual benefit societies were formed in order to provide death benefits and life insurance to individuals who joined. Most of these organizations had initiation rituals which were later dropped as these fraternal organizations morphed into more traditional life insurance companies.

Life insurance companies are, naturally, risk averse. And they were back when they existed as mutual benefit societies. The 1907 Constitution and By-Laws of the Beavers' Reserve Fund Fraternity (pictured here), a mutual benefit society established in Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1902, made it clear that people whose occupations were dangerous were disqualified from being members. Here's Section 9 of the By-Laws:

No person engaged in any of the following occupations shall become a beneficial member of the Fraternity:

Railroad conductor, brakeman, switchman, fireman or locomotive engineer; miner employed underground; mine inspector or mine tracklayer; pit boss; professional rider or driver in races; professional baseball or football player, aeronaut; sailor on the Great Lakes or seas; engineer or fireman on any steamer; plow polisher, plow grinder; submarine operator; paid fireman in any city of more than fifteen thousand inhabitants; empoyee in slag furnace or lead works; soldier in the regular army or in time of war; employee in any factory where gunpowder, nitroglycerine, dynamite or any other dangerous explosive is manufactured; glass blower, oil well "shooter," brass finisher, steel blaster, professional nurse, employee in color or white lead factory, circus equestrian or trapeze performer.

The list is both a chilling reminder of some dangerous occupations (oil well "shooters") and also contains some reminders that even the whimsical-sounding jobs (trapeze performer) are there for a reason.

As for the Beavers' Reserve Fund Fraternity, it was established in Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1902. In 1912, the organization changed its name to Beavers National Mutual Benefit. In 1931, they dropped "Beavers" from the name and simply became National Mutual Benefit, the name they still go by today.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of occupational injuries and fatalities [pdf], which you might be more familiar with as a news story about the most dangerous jobs in America.

Stay tuned for more on the Beavers in an upcoming post.

Constitution and By-Laws of the Beavers Reserve Fund Fraternity, Adopted by Grand Colony. (Mount Morris, IL: Press of Kable Brothers Company, [1907])
Call number: HS1510 B42 1906
Gift of Michael T. Heitke

New to the Collection: Masonic Protective Association Fobs

2009_048_4DS1 Recently, the National Heritage Museum was given not one, but two interesting fobs, both with identical text: “The Masonic Protective Assoc’n.  Worcester, Mass.  Pays Sickness and Accident Indemnity to Masons Only.  Telegraph this Number to the M.P.A.  It Will Identify Me If Injured or Unconscious.”  And, both fobs have a five-digit number, one is 28298 and the other is 69147.  Unfortunately, we no longer know who originally owned either fob.

Back in the early 1900s, these fobs allowed members of the Masonic Protective Association (MPA) to indicate that they had insurance in case of injury or death.  Formed in 1895 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the company operated as a mutual cooperative, selling to Freemasons only.  The company offered accident, disability and life insurance at a time when few employees had sufficient insurance through their job.  2009_039_27DS1

In 1930, the Paul Revere Corporation was formed as a subsidiary to the MPA to expand its business beyond selling to Freemasons, but by 1966, the MPA was “retired” and the former subsidiary bought out its parent company.  Today, Unum owns what was once the MPA.

If you will be visiting the Museum in the next couple of months (it’s now September 2010), be sure to stop by our display of recent acquisitions in the lobby – one of the fobs is on view until late 2010.  And, if you have one of these fobs yourself – or know a story about them or the company, please leave a comment below!

UPDATE - April 2013 - As you will see in the comments below, many people have written to let us know that they have a fob - we love hearing from you!  Many of those who have left comments have asked if there is a way to match the number on the fob to the name of a person.  Unfortunately, there is no centralized list allowing us to match the numbers to policyholders. It requires identifying the company that originally produced the fob, figuring out whether they are still in business (perhaps under a different name) and then contacting them to find out what kind of corporate archives they maintain. I have not been successful in tracking down the people associated with any of our fobs. Regardless, these are interesting objects that help to remind us of how the insurance industry has evolved.  If anyone has had success with identifying a fob owner, let us know.  And, keep commenting to tell us about the fobs you find!

Masonic Protective Association fob, 1895-1922, Worcester, Massachusetts, gift of Gordon Lothrop, 2009.048.4. 

Masonic Protective Association fob, 1895-1922, Worcester, Massachusetts, gift of Jacques Noel Jacobsen Jr., 2009.039.27. 

The Royal Neighbors of America

2006_003_9DP1 In 2006, the National Heritage Museum received a set of five fraternal banners that had originally belonged to the donor's grandmother.  When they were sent to us, the donor explained that his grandmother, Elsie Hlava Meek (1886-1969), was an active member of the Order of the Eastern Star and suggested that the banners were related to that group.

Initial examination quickly established that they were not Eastern Star banners, but determing their correct origin took some effort.  Each banner depicts a symbol and has a word painted above: Endurance; Faith; Modesty; Unselfishness; and Courage.  By searching for these terms on the internet, the group of origin was identified as The Royal Neighbors of America.  Initially founded in 1888 as a social group, Royal Neighbors was chartered in 1895 as a fraternal benefit society for women "to bring joy and comfort into many homes that might otherwise today be dark and affording the mother an opportunity to provide protection upon her life."  The group's first "Camps" were established in Iowa and Nebraska.  Initially, Royal Neighbors was a ladies' auxiliary to the Modern Woodmen of America, but dissolved its affiliation with that group in 1929.

By 1910, RNA had 250,000 members and was the leading women's benefit society in the United States.  As early as 1911, the group supported the cause of universal suffrage, well pre-dating the achievement of the vote for women in 1920.  In 1931, the Royal Neighbors National Home opened its doors to provide "the comforts of a home...for deserving members of our society, in need of such a service," pursuing this goal until the home closed in 2004.  The organization remains active today, providing life insurance and pursuing community service activities.  2006_003_6DP1

Elsie Meek, the last owner of the banners, probably belonged to Ivy Camp #1806 in Ravenna, Nebraska.  From 1920 to 1923, she was also a member of Aster Chapter #258 of the Eastern Star.

Royal Neighbors of America Banners, 1910-1940, American, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of A.J. Meek, 2006.003.6, 9.  Photographs by David Bohl.

The Independent United Order of Mechanics

2007_029_2DI1 Here at the National Heritage Museum, we get pretty excited about lesser-known fraternal groups.  The apron seen here is a recent acquisition, which was originally used by a member of a little-known group - at least it wasn't listed in our standard reference books and it wasn't represented in our collection.

The apron was worn by Torrance Ashby (1897-1966), as a member of the Independent United Order of Mechanics, a group that is still active.  Ashby joined Star of Cambridge Lodge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1920, when he was about 23 years old.  When he died in 1966, the apron, along with a collar and his membership certificate passed to his son, Deighton Ashby (1935-2006).  We are pleased to have all three items in our collection.

The Independent United Order of Mechanics formed in England in 1757 as a Friendly Society, a type of mutual benefit society that also served ceremonial and friendship purposes.  Reportedly, a schism between two local English Masonic lodges spurred organizers to found the group.  In the 1800s, the Order spread to the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and Canada.  The IUOM became established in the United States in its present form on January 3, 1910.  Membership is open to men and women, boys and girls, of "high moral and ethical standards, who believe in "A Supreme Being" who rules and governs the Universe."  Membership embraces all races, creeds and religions; indeed, the group has a tradition of a strong African American membership, which included the original owner of the apron, Torrance Ashby.

The group's motto is "Friendship, Truth and Love," suggesting some additional inspiration from the Odd Fellows.  Members aim to practice and promote justice, philanthropy, charity and benevolence.  They look after the welfare of their members and are active in their communities, particularly in healthcare and in education.

The apron is silk with a design printed on the front in black.  Bright pink and green silk, along with gold trimming are added as borders.  A close look at the apron suggests that Ashby's wife or another female relative made it at home.  One of the brown elasticized "ties" stitched at the corners has a clasp reading "Gem Golf Garter," suggesting that the maker repurposed the garter for the apron ties.

Independent United Order of Mechanics Apron, ca. 1920, probably American, National Heritage Museum purchase, 2007.029.2.

New to the Collection: The Ancient Order of Good Fellows

2008_032DP1 Recently, the National Heritage Museum acquired a mahogany box, which was found in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  Topped with a brass handle, the box has gold painted letters on the front reading, “Buena Vista Lodge / No. 16, A.O. of G.F. / Instituted Feby. 19th, 1848.”  Identifying the group that originally used this box was the first task in adding this object to the collection.  The only clue was the initials on the box – “A.O.G.F.”  Through an internet search, we identified it as the Ancient Order of Good Fellows, but standard sources on American fraternal groups, like The Cyclopedia of Fraternities by Albert C. Stevens, offered no listing for the group.  Collecting objects from groups like this – which are not widely, or even moderately, known – is an important goal for the Museum.

The hunt was on to learn more about the Ancient Order of Good Fellows.  An 1884 history of Philadelphia included the short note that AOGF Lodge #1 was organized in 1840 in that city.  Another 1884 source, a history of Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, which borders on Philadelphia County, explained that “the Ancient Order of Good Fellows was transplanted from the city of Philadelphia May 17, 1869 when Buena Vista Lodge, No. 16, was organized.  This lodge has been extraordinarily successful, the membership now reaching one hundred and seventy.”  While this reference helps to establish that the lodge named on the box existed, it also adds confusion, suggesting that Buena Vista Lodge No. 16 was formed in 1869, not the 1848 date painted on the box itself.  Was Lodge No. 16 initially formed in Philadelphia in 1848 and then moved – or “transplanted” as the history book reads – to Montgomery County in 1869?  Or were AOGF lodges numbered within counties, rather than within the state?  This would mean that there was another Buena Vista Lodge No. 16 in Chester County where the box was found.  These questions remain unanswered until additional evidence is uncovered.

Regardless of where the lodge was located, the group seems to have been a mutual benefit society.  The Montgomery County history explains that Buena Vista Lodge “has paid out in benefits the sum of $10,316.66, as follows: Weekly Benefits, $9246.66; funeral benefits, $1070.”  Before insurance companies, societies like this one offered a safety net for their members.  Those who belonged paid fees on a regular basis and were entitled to benefits should a problem or crisis arise.  Regardless of its success in the Philadelphia area during the 1880s, the Ancient Order of Good Fellows seems to have been defunct by 1924.


Theo. W. Bean.  History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1884.

Thompson Westcott and John Thomas Scharf.  History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884.  Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1884.

Ancient Order of Good Fellows Document Box, ca. 1848, probably Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum collection, Museum purchase, 2008.032.  Photograph by David Bohl.

The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur

A2002_89_1_front_web Chances are, when you hear the name "Ben-Hur," you think of Charlton Heston starring as Judah Ben-Hur in the 1959 film. But did you know that the novel that inspired the 1959 film also inspired the creation of a fraternal organization?

Published in 1880, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was written by Lew Wallace, who lived in Crawfordsville, Indiana. By the 1890s, Wallace had become a celebrity due to the huge popularity of his book. Although perhaps difficult to imagine today, Ben-Hur was one of most widely read and commercially successful of all nineteenth-century novels.

Thirteen years after the publication of the book, David Washington Gerard, Wallace's neighbor, approached Wallace asking if he would approve of a plan to start a fraternal organization based on the characters in his popular novel. Wallace consented and the organization - a mutual benefit society which provided insurance to its members - was founded. The objectives of the order were to provide life insurance benefits, to improve members socially, to provide entertainment, to aid in business and secure employment, to care for the sick, and to bury the dead. Like some other mutual benefit societies of the time, they also accepted both women and men equally as members of the organization. They were, in short, like many other mutual benefit societies that had been formed in the late 19th century. What was quite different was their ritual.

The 1914 ritual contains a preface that includes "General Directions to Officers of Court," that explicitly states the connection of the ritual to the 1880 book. Under a prefatory listing of six important points that should be "faithfully observed" in order to properly carry out the ritual, the top of the list reads:

1. Study the book Ben-Hur. You cannot properly give the work unless you are very familiar with the story, as the Ritual embodies the tragic scenes and incidents in the career of Ben-Hur, his mother and sister, whom the candidates are supposed to represent, and in many passages, the exact language of the book is given.

Although the ritual we have doesn't feature any chariot races (although references to it abound in the ritual, and the official publication of the group was called The Chariot), another memorable part of the Ben-Hur story does feature prominently: Ben-Hur's enslavement as an oarsman on a ship. Indeed, the ritual of the Court Degree even features a collapsible boat, or at least a collapsible bench, serving as the galley of a ship, as part of the ritual. (Yes, some of us have a thing for collapsing fraternal props.) The candidate is told:

 "One day in battle as Ben-Hur was rowing, the vessel received a great shock, the oars were suddenly dashed from his hands, and the rowers from their benches, and for the first time the beating of the gavel was lost in the uproar, and the galley went to pieces." Here the Master of Ceremonies pulls the cord and the collapse comes. The Captain and Guide quickly assist the candidate to his feet...

For many years, the Tribe of Ben-Hur maintained its ties to the novel that inspired it - an increase in membership of the fraternity in the 1920s can likely be traced to the 1925 MGM silent film, a blockbuster of its time (and, incidentally, the second film-version of the novel; the first being in 1907). In 1928, the fraternity released a book called The Boy's Ben-Hur, an abridged version of the novel, published by Harper Brothers.

A2002_89_1_inside_web Pictured here today are two views of a beneficial (i.e. insurance) certificate (FR001.100) issued to Hattie M. Thompson of Manila, Arkansas in 1924. The image above is from the front of the certificate. The image seen here is a detail from the inside of the certificate and the illustrations show three important elements of the Ben-Hur story: the ship on which Ben-Hur was an enslaved oarsman, the chariot race (made especially famous by the 1959 film), and the three wise men, or Magi, of the nativity story of Jesus Christ (Ben-Hur takes place in the early days of the Biblical account of the life of Christ).

By the 1980s, Ben-Hur Life Association (a modernizing name change occurred in the 1930s) was essentially a life insurance company with fraternal roots. In 1988, the association officially disbanded the fraternity, converted to a mutual insurance company and changed its name to the decidedly less romantic-sounding USA Life Insurance Company of Indiana. (In 1990, the name changed slightly again to USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana, after another company with a similar name objected.) Today, USA Life One Insurance Company of Indiana is still in existence. On their website, you'll see that while they note that they've been in business for over 100 years, Ben-Hur's name, alas, is nowhere to be found.

And one final note: we noticed that the current owners/developers of the Ben Hur Life Building in downtown Crawfordsville are looking for a long-term investment partner.

Interested in learning more about the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur? We recommend:

Constitution of the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Indiana] : The Ben-Hur Print, 1901.
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 1901

Court Degree Ritual of the Tribe of Ben-Hur
[Crawfordsville, Ind.] : R.H. Gerard, [1914] (photocopy)
Call number: HS 1510 .T822 G46

Iliff, David Gerard, Jr. The Lost Tribe of Ben-Hur.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Fall Creek Review, 1994.
Call number: HS 1510 .T824 I28 1994

The Brief, Sanctioned Life of the Modern Woodmen's Trick Chair

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.

MWCatalog1911_web 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.

A97_057_2_web 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.

The Order of Tonti

Ritual_order_of_tonti_web_2 We recently acquired a ritual of an organization called the Order of Tonti. Like the Equitable Aid Union, which we wrote about recently, the Order of Tonti was a fraternal benefit society.

The Order of Tonti, incorporated on April 27, 1885, was a fraternal life insurance society that used a type of insurance system called tontine insurance. Tontine insurance was first introduced in the U.S. in 1868 by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States. It quickly became a very popular product and, by 1905, two-thirds of all life insurance policies were tontine. (Tontine insurance traces its roots back to France in 1689, when Cardinal Mazarin, upon a suggestion from a Parisian-based Neopolitan physician and banker named Lorenzo Tonti, devised an investment plan for Louis XIV that now carries Tonti's name.)

Tontine insurance worked like this: a number of individuals paid annual sums to a common fund and, after the agreed upon term was up (often 20 years, but sometimes as few as 5 years), the survivors divided the proceeds, including all of the interest that had been earned. No dividends were paid out during the life of the investement, so investors, if they were still alive at the end, received their payment in one lump sum. In tontine insurance, it paid (quite literally) to be alive by the end of the term. In other words, the fewer the survivors, the larger the payment. From a financial perspective, the best thing that can happen when you've invested in tontine insurance is that you are the only survivor, so that the common fund gets paid to you alone. Now that doesn't sound like a plan that will stir feelings of fraternalism, does it?

Critics of fraternal benefit societies that offered tontine insurance argued that it was not really life insurance, since life insurance was traditionally paid to survivors upon the insured person's death. In many ways, tontine insurance acted more like a retirement fund than it did life insurance. In fact, the Order of Tonti, in their ritual, refers to their benefit as a 'life benefit,' rather than a 'death benefit.' Critics also argued that fraternal groups that offered tontine insurance did not uphold fraternal ideals - instead of emphasizing the strength of community and of helping others, it emphasized individualism and selfish motives.

But what really killed tontine insurance was rampant institutional and personal corruption that was taking place among many insurance companies (not necessarily fraternal ones) at the time. In 1905, in New York State, the New York Legislature, led by a commission called the Armstrong Committee, investigated tontine insurance, an investigation that led to the banning of tontine insurance in New York starting in 1906. Other states quickly followed suit and soon tontine insurance was no longer available as an investment option.

As for the Order of Tonti, it only survived nine years. You can read a number of New York Times articles which report the demise of the organization - a demise that surprised many of its members and led to at least one rancorous meeting.

Ritual_order_of_tonti_2_web And now for a bit of the text from the ritual from the Order of Tonti, which discusses the seven year term of the insurance being offered. The President of the lodge addresses a new member:

My Brother, for I am now permitted thus to address you, in your research into the workings of our Order, you have doubtless noticed the extensive introduction of the number "seven" into its plans.

[The President then digresses into ancient and mythical occurrences of the number seven (which you can read from the image to the right) before getting down to brass tacks:]

And thus we might study for hours this symbolic number in its many historical and mythical relations; but we especially want to speak upon its application to the plan of the Order of Tonti, namely the payment of benefit in seven years.

This feature, though confined to few societies, is based upon precisely the same laws of finance as have governed co-operative mutual protective associations for centuries past.

Under the ordinary plan of life insurance we find the average expectancy of life computed at twenty-eight years. Experience has proven that upon an average payment of fifty cents at each assessment, a sum of one thousand dollars can be paid at death.

The conception of our Order is to give a life benefit at the expiration of seven years, and as seven years is the fourth part of the life expectancy, it follows that we must pay into the Treasury of Tonti four times as much, and thus it is made possible to accomplish in our Order, at the end of seven years, the same results met with in other fraternal societies, whose plan is consummated at the end of a man's life, be it twenty-eight years more or less, and that too at no greater cost."

Both images today come from the Order of Tonti ritual; the first shows the emblem of the order, as well as the first page of text of the ritual; the second shows another excerpt from the text of the ritual. Here is a complete citation for the book:

Ritual of the Order of Tonti: with Installation Ceremonies and Order of Business. N.p.: n.p., ca. 1885
Call number: RARE HS 2330 .T6 ca.1885