As Above, So Below surveys art created during the period that has come to be known as the “golden age” of American fraternalism, and explores how secret societies contributed to American visual culture during this era of burgeoning fraternal activity. The popularity of fraternal organizations escalated as the nation emerged from the Civil War, and by the end of the nineteenth century some 70,000 local lodges, affiliated with hundreds of distinct American fraternal societies, claimed roughly five and a half million members. Between the years 1890 and 1915, an estimated one in five men belonged to at least one society. Fraternalism had become a widespread social movement and a significant cultural phenomenon that would continue until the country plunged into the Great Depression.
In local terms, the 1907 City Directory for Terre Haute, Indiana—a city with a population of about 50,000 at the time—listed 102 separate lodges, including eleven Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) lodges alone. The nationwide impact of fraternal societies, in large cities and small towns alike, was widely acknowledged by the end of the century. A 1905 Louisville, Nebraska, news publication attributed the rise in fraternal organizations to “the attempt of mankind to solve the question, ‘Who is my Neighbor?’” The author went so far as to suggest that just as the Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bronze Age were named for the major developments of their respective eras, “future historians, after reading the achievements of the 19th century, and especially of the last three decades, might fitly call it the Fraternal Age.”
Secret fraternal societies are by definition repositories of esoteric knowledge revealed only to the initiated, and lodge rooms are cloistered spaces open only to members. A chief characteristic of fraternal societies is the significance of secrets—usually in the form of passwords, handshakes, signs, rituals, and the esoteric knowledge revealed in them—and the taking of oaths to preserve the secrets. In practice, the secrets function less for the concealing of information than as a bonding mechanism for members, both strengthening the sense of community and separating members from outsiders through shared knowledge and experience. The fact that there are secrets, and the only way to learn what they are is by joining, also adds to the mystique of the organization and lends a perception of value to the secrets themselves.
To the uninitiated, fraternal societies can be quite puzzling, but they can be described simply as voluntary associations built upon hierarchical structures with levels or “degrees” of membership. Initiation rituals for each degree impart esoteric knowledge to the candidate incrementally through the use of allegorical dramas, with members playing the parts. The dramas are based on group-specific mythologies drawn from a variety of “exotic” sources, often in eclectic combinations, and the revealed knowledge relates to moral principles or philosophical enlightenment. Great care is taken in performing these rituals to create a transformative experience for the candidate, and in some societies, the ritual itself is the organization’s primary function.
The Masonic author H. L. Haywood remarked in 1923 on the significance of the ritual in Freemasonry:
The whole process should be made one of the most crucial experiences of the candidate’s life, one that will change him to the center of his being. It is like the moral and spiritual change which comes over a man who passes through the religious experience known as ‘conversion’ or ‘regeneration.’ Masonic initiation is intended to be quite as profound and revolutionizing an experience. As a result of it the candidate should become a new man.
The question of why fraternalism exploded in popularity during the second half of the nineteenth century has attracted a considerable amount of academic interest. Scholars have examined the impact of such factors as rapidly changing gender and domestic roles, dissatisfaction with mainstream theology, the social challenges that accompanied increased immigration and westward expansion, and the anonymity of an increasingly urban and industrialized society on the popularity of fraternalism.
The Civil War itself played a major role in the rise of fraternalism. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), founded in 1866 as a fraternal association for veterans of the Union forces, grew to nearly 500,000 members by 1890. Its popularity would exert a major influence on other organizations, particularly in their adoption of militarystyle uniforms. At the same time, an increase in disposable income following the war enabled a growing middle class to explore new leisure pursuits.
Nineteenth-century middle-class American society was biblically literate and steeped in the values of mainline Protestantism, and provided a ready audience for the Bible stories and moral lessons that were brought to life in fraternal rituals. Meanwhile, the Victorian-era fascination with the ancient and exotic gave birth to various revival movements. Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian, Gothic, Moorish, and “Oriental” themes captured the popular imagination and exerted a great influence that would be reflected in fraternal architecture, rituals, and objects.
Lodge rooms offered men an escape from mounting societal pressures, from the complexities of modern life, from the confining realities of daily routines, and from the company of women. Although lodge membership was by nature exclusive, the lodge itself represented an egalitarian environment among members that transcended social stratification and offered leadership possibilities despite one’s social standing in the greater community; in short, it was a microcosm of middle-class upward mobility. Joining a fraternal order included an investigation of one’s character, and to be affiliated with one of the great fraternities implied middle-class respectability and social standing. Insurance benefits offered by fraternal organizations were a major draw for members of some societies. Simple curiosity, the pursuit of unmet spiritual needs, the desire to belong to and identify with a community, perceived business or economic opportunities, and a desire for social interaction and entertainment also provided motives for joining an organization.
Participation in secret societies also offered members a creative outlet as they could perform in, perfect, and develop improvements for existing theatrical rituals; write new rituals; compose and perform fraternal music; and participate in precision drill teams and parades, for example. Most scholars agree that a unique combination of these factors led men—primarily, but not entirely, white, middle class, and Protestant—by the thousands to join secret societies. Some men hopped on board the fraternal bandwagon for a brief ride, while for others fraternalism became a lifelong journey.
This burst of fraternal activity inspired the creation of an abundant and expressive body of objects that form an important and relatively unexplored facet of American art. Most fraternal societies were founded upon specific mythologies through which they revealed esoteric knowledge, and these were represented by visual symbols. The symbols were incorporated into paraphernalia and other objects that were used to reinforce the tenets or teachings of the organization. These eloquent objects, in which the myths, tenets, and values of fraternity are celebrated, are the most enduring remnants of the “golden age” of the secret society.
Fraternal objects fall generally within one of two categories that can be described as “official” (ritual, instructional, or decorative items created for use within the sacred meeting space) and “unofficial” (individual visual expressions created by and for members to commemorate the importance of the society within their lives). The development of mail-order houses in the second half of the nineteenth century, employing artists and artisans (who were in many cases themselves fraternal society members) to massproduce lodge hall paraphernalia, contributed to the standardization of objects that fall within the “official” category.
Meanwhile, countless inspired individuals—artists working independently in their homes or workshops—were creating objects for personal use, improvising, interpreting, and embellishing just about every imaginable material into fraternally oriented mementoes, gifts, and decorative items. These “unofficial” objects cover a broad aesthetic spectrum from the raw and homemade to the polished and sophisticated, from the simple and plain to the highly ornate. Some artists were academically trained; some were self-taught; and others were operating within traditional folk idioms. Some are known to us, but many others remain anonymous.
Whether created for use in rituals, as pedagogical tools to reinforce and underscore moral teachings, or made by individuals to celebrate their identities as members, these diverse objects draw inspiration from and reflect the value systems and experiences of the societies they represent. Together they constitute the outward visual expression of fraternalism.
Just as fraternal rituals are imbued with allegory and mystery, the symbols and corresponding objects to which they are applied can be equally enigmatic. Although the art reflects group-specific iconographies that are often borrowed from earlier sources, many of the objects reveal that the artist improvised freely, adding his or her unique interpretations and design ideas. By the time we encounter them in museums, galleries, or antiques shops, several times removed from their original environments and isolated from their companion objects as well as decontextualized and stripped of their meaning, the works can appear puzzling and mysterious.
A Note On Terminology
The use of language to communicate ideas is an imperfect undertaking. The terminology we use is dependent upon such factors as our cultural viewpoints, individual perspectives and prejudices, and prevailing mainstream influences. Terms can be subjective, fluid, contextual, and sometimes interchangeable. They are also often controversial: their usage and meanings vary between academic disciplines, can be politically charged, and are likely to be altered by the passage of time.
The use of language in describing man-made objects presents further challenges, and is determined in part by the context in which an object is presented. This is especially true of objects that fall within the realm of folk art and those created to serve specific utilitarian functions. When a weather vane, decoy, or trade sign, for example, is removed from its original context and displayed in an art museum, the language we use to describe its attributes is likely to be quite different from that employed within its original utilitarian context.
The vast majority of objects included in this book were created outside of formal academic art traditions, made instead by individuals whose artistic training may have been informal or limited, who may have acquired training through apprenticeship or within a specific community or folk tradition, or who may have been entirely self-taught and developed their strategies for visual expression on their own. Some of the objects were created in workshops or factories using early mass-production methods, but even these fabricated items reflect artistic vision and reveal the distinct hand of the maker. The objects occupy a continuum from the functional to the purely aesthetic, but even the most utilitarian objects show significant aesthetic concerns. This book examines objects whose emotional, symbolic, philosophical, and spiritual power, and whose imaginative, expressive, and formal qualities elevate them beyond the category of skilled craftsmanship and place them squarely within the realm of art, so we will refer to them as works of art.
Fraternalism also has its own language, and this language can be said to contain many dialects that vary between orders. Although the term “lodge” is not common to all fraternal organizations, for the purposes of this book, it is sometimes employed generically in referring to local fraternal chapters; by extension, “lodge room” or “lodge hall” may describe the space in which a fraternal group meets. The term “secret society” has been used historically to describe fraternal organizations in general, and was in common usage during the era explored in this book. We employ it interchangeably with other descriptors throughout.
Some fraternal organizations discussed in this book have ceased to exist or no longer exist in their original forms, while others continue to operate today, preserving longestablished traditions. Degree rituals have also changed over time. For consistency, the past tense is employed to describe societies and practices as they existed during the period of the book’s focus, even though they may still function similarly today.
As authors, we have approached the subject from our own perspectives. Our goal throughout this book has been to let the objects speak for themselves as much as possible, while providing thoughtful and well-researched contextual information to aid readers in better understanding them. In this spirit, we invite you to explore with us the compelling world of fraternal art.