American Fraternalism in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States has been called the “Golden Age of Fraternalism.” How did this come about and why was the idea of joining a fraternal organization so popular? We will explore this question and examine the regalia used by many fraternal organizations in this period.

American Fraternalism in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Bill Kreuger

This article is based on a presentation that was given at the November 2012 Midwest Open Air Museums MOMCC Fall Conference that was held in Cedar Rapids, lowa. Reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Midwest Open Air Museums Magazine (link PDF file) in which it first appeared in Vol. 33 No. 2. Summer, 2022.

All photos courtesy of the Iowa Masonic Library and Museums.



Henry Robertson of Ontario, Canada, shown in both photos, wearing two different versions of a Knights Templar uniform and regalia.
IMAGE LINKED:  Iowa Masonic Library and Museums Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

A modern definition of a fraternal society is a “club or other sociation, usually of men, having a limited membership and devoted to professional, religious, charitable, social activities. [1]

By the time of the American Revolution, fraternalism was nothing new. One of the oldest fraternal organizations, the Freemasons, started in 1717 as an outgrowth of the Stonemason’s guilds in Scotland and England.

It was brought to America by early colonists and by British military lodges in about the 1730s to places such as Boston and Philadelphia.

The Odd Fellows began in the United States in the early 1800s and the Order of Redmen was founded in the United States in 1834. The Order of Redmen, the first “American-made” fraternal organization, supposedly goes back to the Sons of Liberty, which was a secret society during the Revolutionary War. [2]

Societies such as the Freemasons were very exclusive in the pre-Revolutionary period, in that they limited membership to men of similar social and economic status.

Joining the lodge was an expensive and complex proposition. This was purposely done to ensure that men of a “benevolent mind entered the lodge.” [3]

Some fraternal societies such as the Society of the Cincinnati were, and still are hereditary. This organization limits membership to qualified male descendants of commissioned officers in the Continental Army or Navy, or of officers of the French royal forces who served in America during the Revolutionary War. [4]

Masonic and other fraternal groups may have grown out of the popularity of English clubs in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Masonic activities often drew on the practices of other clubs. Both groups usually met in private rooms of taverns, denying entrance except to members. Newcomers were admitted only by general consent.

Both groups closed with members clubbing together to pay the bill. [5]

In the early 1830s, Frenchmen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont traveled to America to study the American prison system.

They traveled by steamboat, stagecoach, horseback, and canoe from Michigan to Louisiana and places in between.

During his travels, de Tocqueville observed American life and culture and wrote Democracy in America in 1835.

Among his observations was the fact that Americans were joiners and formed all manner of associations. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.

They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general, or restricted, enormous, or diminutive.

The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes.

Whenever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. [6]

At the same time that de Tocqueville and Beaumont were visiting, the United States and Freemasonry were in the throes of an Anti-Masonic period starting in 1826, called the “Morgan Affair.”

The anti-Masonic uprising began when William Morgan, supposedly a Mason from upstate New York, published materials revealing the secrets of Freemasonry.

During this period, the lessons and passwords of the Masonic fraternity were supposed to be passed from mouth to ear within a lodge.

Morgan is said to have been kidnapped by Masons and killed. No proof of this has ever been found.

However, the event gave rise to a politically motivated Anti-Masonic party in America and led to the shuttering of Masonic lodges in many places and a decrease in membership and activity in fraternal organizations.

By the early 1850s, the remnants of the Morgan Affair and anti-Masonic sentiment had largely disappeared and fraternal organizations slowly re-organized and re-emerged.

The Great Fraternal Movement

According to historian, Harriet McBride, what has been called “The Great Fraternal Movement” in America took place after the Civil War, beginning in 1866.

This specific year saw the development of two important fraternal organizations in the United States: the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Knights of Pythias.

Both were popular due to their use of regalia and uniforms, social amenities, structure, and stability. [7]



Masonic apron used in a Royal Arch Masonic chapter.
IMAGE LINKED:  Iowa Masonic Library and Museums Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Masonic apron used in a Royal Arch Masonic chapter. The Masonic apron is a reminder of the aprons used by Medieval operative masons – so is a link with the past.

The flap indicates that there was a pocket in the apron, where operative masons would keep their working tools.

This would have been a personal apron used by a member of a Royal Arch Masonic chapter in the early to mid-19th century and is decorated with printed symbols of that body.

Freemasonry tells the story of the construction of Solomon’s Temple, and in the center of the apron you can see the front porch of the Temple, the altar, and lights surrounding the altar.

Surrounding the exterior of the porch are various symbols that are important to this Masonic degree, including the words on the flap “Holiness to the Lord.”

This is a leather apron, decorated with cotton fringe.

Fraternalism grew and became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a variety of reasons.

Fraternalism provided a conviviality and a social and entertainment outlet. Masonic lodges, as well as other fraternal groups, became like amateur thespians.

The rituals were sometimes performed in full costume and regalia, and theatrical backdrops and staging were used for the degree work.

The degree activities presented in this fashion almost became a series of miniature “passion plays.”

The interior of fraternal lodge buildings often began to look like theatres, with rows of chairs, balconies, and various forms of lighting. Fraternalism provided a sense of community betterment.

For example, many of the early movers and shakers in Cedar Rapids, lowa, participated in fraternal organizations, as well as various community betterment projects including the fire department, the Cedar River Bridge company, and Greene’s Opera House. [8]

These societies provided a means to help those who were unable to help themselves. Many fraternal societies have a mandate to care for widows and orphans of members.

For instance, the Pythian Home in Decatur, Illinois was established to care for aged members, and orphans of Pythian members. [9]

Some fraternal organizations provided benefits such as life insurance to members. These were known as Fraternal Benefit Societies, and many exist today as life insurance companies.


Apron of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, late 19th century.
IMAGE LINKED:  Iowa Masonic Library and Museums Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Apron of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, late 19th century.

The Patrons of Husbandry was founded by Oliver Kelley and six others in Minnesota as a fraternal society for farmers after the American Civil War.

It was felt that farmers did not have a voice and that a fraternal organization might help to unify and organize them.

The meeting places of the Order were called “Granges,” and this name has been used as an alternative name for the Order. The Order of Patrons of Husbandry continues to exist to the present day.

Fraternal organizations also gave immigrants a ready-made source of social and community networks which led to social integration within the community.

For instance, Czech fraternal societies like ZCBJ and CSPS in Cedar Rapids and lowa City became important community centers for these immigrant groups.

These organizations had fancy regalia like uniforms. In cities where the Knights Templar held their triennial meetings or conclaves, large parades were held with Templars in full regalia.

African Americans and others of color were often discriminated against in joining Caucasian fraternal groups so African Americans formed their own organizations.

Perhaps the most well-known African American organization is Prince Hall Masonry.

Named after a freed man, Prince Hall and fourteen other free black men were initiated into Lodge No.441, Irish Constitution, attached to the 38″ Regiment of Foot of the British Army garrisoned at Castle William in Boston Harbor on March 6, 1775. [10]

Left – Five-pointed star emblem of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, a women’s social and educational fraternal organization founded at Iowa Wesleyan College in 1870. It still exists to the present day.

Right – An Order of the Eastern Star pin that was presented to Mrs. Sarah Sherman of Monticello, Iowa by Rob Morris. Morris wrote the first ritual of the Order of the Eastern Star in the mid-1850s while he was living and teaching in Kentucky. Image: Iowa Masonic Library and Museums

Women were usually also not allowed to join men’s fraternal societies. They often formed their own organizations such as P.E.0. (Philanthropic Educational Organization), or were “adopted” by men’s fraternal organizations, i.e., Order of the Eastern Star in Masonry, or the Heroines of Jericho.

This chart shows the hand movements for a woman’s fraternal degree entitled The Holy Virgin.

It is from a book in the collection of the Iowa Masonic Library entitled The Ladies Masonry: The Holy Virgin and the Heroine of Jericho.

The Heroine of Jericho was a side degree of the Royal Arch degrees in Masonry, which allowed female relatives of Masons to join a fraternal organization.

The book dates to 1851 and was published in Louisville, Kentucky. Image: Iowa Masonic Library and Museums

By the late 1890s, the membership of secret fraternal orders in the United States was at 5,400,000.

“Taking the adult male population of the nation at that time to be nineteen million and allowing that some men belonged to more than one order, it can be seen that, broadly speaking every fifth, or possibly every eighth, man you met was identified with some fraternal organization…” [11]

The growth of fraternal organizations led to the development of vendors that provided the clothing, regalia, and devices worn and used by fraternal groups.

Some of them include the DeMoulin Brothers & Co. of Greenville, Illinois, M.C. Lilley and Co. of Columbus, Ohio, the C .E. Ward Co. of New London, Ohio, and Whitehead & Hoag Co, in New Jersey.

The DeMoulin Brothers created an apparatus called the “lodge goat,” that was used by some fraternal organizations as a hazing device when initiating new candidates. [12]

As noted above, by the turn of the 20th Century more than five million members in the United States were involved in one or several fraternal organizations.

Unfortunately, this is not something one sees being interpreted today at open air living history museums. There are, however, at least two exceptions.

The first is the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, Minnesota. Kelley was one of the founders and leaders of a fraternal organization known as the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange.

This organization provided a means for farmers to organize and share information.

The Oliver Kelley Farm teaches about the Grange and the role that Oliver Kelley and his family played in its development.



A group photograph of members of Masonic Lodge No.285, Plumb Lodge, located in Siam, Iowa.
IMAGE LINKED:  Iowa Masonic Library and Museums Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

A group photograph of members of Masonic Lodge No.285, Plumb Lodge, located in Siam, Iowa.

Siam is in the southwestern section of the state, near the Missouri border. Members are dressed in their Masonic regalia, including aprons, sashes, and implements of their respective offices in the Lodge.

The Deacons of the Lodge carry what look like spears (termed Rods); the Tyler in left front of the photograph carries a sword.

The Worshipful Master (head of the Lodge) is seated in the right front, wearing a hat and a square medallion that hangs from his neck.

Second is an annual event called “The Day the War Stopped”, in St. Francisville, Louisiana, in mid-June.

It commemorates the day in June 1863 when Union sailors under a flag of truce came searching for fellow Masons in St. Francisville to bury their commanding officer with Masonic honors.

Confederate Masons joined with Union Masons to bury Lt. Commander John E. Hart of the U.S. Navy in a local cemetery.

Hart was commanding officer of the U.S.S. Albatross, a Civil War gunboat that was operating on the Mississippi River. During the special event, a small Masonic funeral is held, as well as various demonstrations by Civil War re-enactors.

The event this year [was] held on June 11, 2022. [13]


– from the collections in the Iowa Masonic Museums

Left: Fraternal member’s badge for the Zapadni Cesko Batrska Judnota Czech Fraternal society. The name translates to Western Bohemia Fraternal Association, which is a fraternal benefit society that has its roots in the Czech immigrant communities throughout the United States.

The name was changed to the Western Fraternal Life Association in 1971. The organization continues to the present day and recently merged with the National Mutual Benefit life insurance society. The ZCBJ/WFLA was headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for more than 100 years and is now located in Madison, Wisconsin. This is a badge for Lodge no. 180 in Iowa City, Iowa, late 19th century.

Centre: Department head badge for the United Spanish War Veterans.

This veteran’s fraternal organization was founded in 1904 and was composed of veterans from the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and the China Relief Expedition (Boxer Rebellion).

This fraternal society continued until 1992 when the last Spanish American War veteran died.

Right: Badge for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local Union No.308 of Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the late 19th to early 20th century.

This is a comparison to show that many unions used badges like those used in fraternal organizations and to show a kinship between fraternal groups and union organizations.


Left: Convention badge of the administrator of the Pythian Home in Ohio, for the 1910 Knights of Pythias Convention held in Lima, Ohio.

The top of the badge would be pinned to a uniform or coat, the middle section carries the convention information and Knights of Pythias shield, and the bottom section was used to hold a photograph of the individual.

The photograph has been lost over time. The shield includes the letters “F.C.B.,” which stand for “Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence.” These ideals represent the important attributes of the Knights of Pythias. The KOP began in 1864 and is still active today.

Centre: Odd Fellows badge that was provided to an official representative of the Grand Lodge of Missouri at their annual meeting held In St. Joseph, Missouri in May 1898.

On the button, you can see the three links with the letters “F,” “L,” and “T” above the all-seeing eye.

The letters stand for the three important attributes of Odd Fellowship: Friendship, Love, and Truth. Sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Masonry,” Odd Fellows used regalia similar to that of the Freemasons.

Right: Grand Army of the Republic “Mourning” badge from Allison Post No.34 in Audubon, Iowa, late 19th century.

The badge carries the symbol of the G.A.R., with the inscribed words, “Honor the Noble Dead,” and “In Memoriam.”

This badge would have been worn by members of the Post as a tribute when a member had died.

The Grand Army of the Republic was started in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois as a veteran’s fraternal organization. It was composed of veterans of the Union Army, Navy, and Marine Corps who had served in the American Civil War.

Posts were established in nearly every state and each post assigned a sequential number based upon its admission into the state’s GAR Department.

About the Author



Bill Kreuger has a B.A. in History from Millikin University, an M.S. in Library Science, and an M.A. in Historical Administration, both from Eastern Illinois University.

He has worked in museums and historical societies in various parts of the Midwest such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Iowa., and has served in various positions, including collections, historic site administrator, curator of education, and director.

He recently retired after 25 years as Assistant Librarian and Curator of the Iowa Masonic Library and Museums in Cedar Rapids, a position he held since 1997.

The lowa Masonic Library and Museums in Cedar Rapids is one of the largest Masonic libraries in the United States and has information about Freemasonry and many other fraternal organizations. It also displays regalia used by Freemasons and other fraternal organizations in the museum exhibits.

The library and museums are open by appointment, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Guided tours of the museum collections are available by appointment at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Please call 319-365-1438 or email:


1. Collins English Dictionary 2005. Accessed February 28, 2022

2. Alvin J. Schmidt, Fraternal Organizations (West Port, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1980), 287.

3. Steve C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transition of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996), 65-66.

4. The Society of the Cincinnati, Membership Overview, 2022. Accessed February 28, 2022.

5. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood, 29. Summer 2022.

6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America Volume 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 106.

7. Harriet W. McBride “The Golden Age of Fraternalism: 1870-1910, in Heredom: the Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, no. 13, (2005): 126.

8. Roster The Steam Fire Engine Company, No.1,” Vertical file collection, lowa Masonic Library. History of Linn County, Iowa by Luther A. Brewer, and Barthinius L. Wick (Chicago: The Pioneer Publishing Co., 1911), 421.

9. Pythian Home postcard, accessed March 1, 2022,

10. “The First Worshipful Master African Lodge No.459, Boston, Massachusetts,” Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge of Florida, Sesquicentennial Historical Journal: 150 Years of Masonic Excellence, 1870-2020 [Jacksonville, Fla.]: M.W. Union Grand Lodge of Florida, 2020.

11. W.S. Harwood “Secret Societies in America,” The North American Review, no. 164, (May 1897): 617.

12. John Goldsmith Three Frenchmen and a Goat: DeMoulin Brothers Story (n.p.: Tri-State Litho, 2004): 19.

13. The Day the War Stopped, accessed March 1, 2022,

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