- Historic Sites
Iron John In The Gilded Age
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
American Freemasonry developed along similar lines, especially the Scottish Rite, the most prestigious branch of the fraternity, which greatly expanded its twenty-nine rituals during the 185Os and 186Os; the new sequence filled eight hundred printed pages. Although a few traditionalists claimed that Freemasonry had been “murderously perverted” by the revisions, most credited the new rituals for the order’s growth from forty thousand members in the 183Os to nearly threequarters of a million by the close of the nineteenth century.
During the 186Os and 187Os hundreds of fraternal organizers imitated the Odd Fellows and Freemasons. The Knights of Pythias, founded in 1864, devised a set of five wildly eclectic rituals: Roman senators sauntered through Hades, and crusaders through medieval castles. Within a decade membership in the order exceeded a quarter of a million, a figure that doubled by the end of the century. An official in 1887 attributed the order’s growth to a ritual that had “taken hold of the hearts of men.”
The craving was so widespread that entrepreneurs proffered initiatory ritual rather like the wav Publishers’ Clearinghouse exploits the gambling itch to sell magazines. Victorian insurance promoters, recognizing that men would more likely buy a policy if it came with evenings of initiation, created scores of ritualistic beneficiary societies. One syndicate approached Lew Wallace to transform his best-selling novel into a ritual for the Knights of Ben-Hur. After eliminating the anachronism, Wallace agreed, and within a decade more than a hundred thousand men—initiates of the Tribe of Ben-Hur—had raced “chariots,” done time on “Roman” galleys, and forked over substantial premiums for the Tribe’s life insurance. Life insurance companies, lacking such rituals, fought hard to gain control of the market. But as late as 1900 a half-million more Americans were insured by fraternal societies than by insurance companies.
Wherever Victorian men came together, someone, it seemed, would propose formal initiations. The Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, offered three separate rituals, much to the dismay of politically ambitious men such as Oliver Wilson of Indiana who complained that GAR members cared more about the “bauble of ritualism” than pensions. The Knights of Labor, the largest of the post-Civil War labor organizations, provided its membership with three lengthy ceremonies. When Terence Powderly took charge of the Knights, he fought to eliminate the rituals. “The best part of each meeting was taken up in initiating new members, in instructing them in the use of symbols, in hymns and formula that could not be put in the interest of labor outside the meeting room,” he complained in his autobiography. But the Knights refused to give up their ceremonies.
At the turn of the century observers estimated that from 20 to 40 percent of all adult men belonged to at least one of the nation’s seventy-thousand lodges. Because only the highest-paid manual workers could afford the dues, paraphernalia, and initiation fees, and because Catholic lodge members were threatened with excommunication, the fraternal movement was chiefly an activity of middle-class Protestant men, many of whom belonged to several orders. Initiation was arguably their chief leisure activity.
The money spent on ritual, though incalculable, was by any standard staggering. During the last third of the nineteenth century the Odd Fellows’ total revenue was about $150 million; the Freemasons, far more affluent, surely took in several times this amount. The insurance industry estimated the revenue of beneficiary societies at $650 million. All told, fraternal income perhaps approached $2 billion, about what federal government spent on defense during the same period.
By the turn of the century, up to 40 percent of all adult men belonged to at least one lodge.
Some of this wealth went into costumes, pensions, charity, or the pockets of unscrupulous officials, but much was expended on the temples themselves. In nearly every community the temple of the Masons, Odd Fellows, or Knights of Pythias was a landmark. The spectacular Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, built during the 187Os at a cost of $1.5 million, rivaled Wanamaker’s across the street. The Masonic Temple in Chicago, completed in time for the world’s fair in 1893, was the tallest building in the world.