The late 1800s represented a peak in the establishment of fraternal brotherhood organizations in the United States. While Freemasonry and its Masonic lodges could trace their history in America to the early 18th century, the period between 1865 and 1899 saw the founding of 235 new fraternal orders that either imitated or grew out of this male-only group of charity, community, and brotherhood (Dehoyos, 106).
Perhaps none grew larger or more influential than the group commonly known as the Shriners. Founded by Scottish Rite Masons in New York in 1877, the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine boasted 55,000 members by the time of its national convention in 1900 (Deutsch, 15; A Short History, 8). These 55,000 members represented a new generation of industrial middle-class men eager to take advantage of the secretive fraternal organization’s prestige and guarantees of mutual communal insurance to maintain their social and economic standing against a variety of external threats (Dehoyos, 1).
The communal protection offered by membership in the Shriners is seen in the pocket watch or keychain fob offered to members of the Worcester, Massachusetts Shriners organization. The fob indicates that the “Masonic Protective Association” will offer its owner indemnity in case of either sickness or accident. This Association (founded in Worcester in 1895) was just one of many cooperative groups associated with the Shriners that sprung up around the country during this time period to offer health, disability, and life insurance to “masons only” (all Shriners were also Masons). Significant financial instability (marked by skyrocketing unemployment rates following the Panic of 1893) and the presence of extremely few job-based insurance plans made these associations a precious resource for those middle-class men who sought to ensure their families’ financial well-being. Becoming a Shriner meant access to this valuable security blanket in times of economic stress and signaled a commitment to cooperatively providing this same service to a brotherhood that shared a set of similar values.
These similar values marked another form of protection offered by Shriner membership. While Shriners’ insurance programs helped provide their members some form of insulation from economic threats, the organization’s mystique and prestige similarly offered protection from more existential, social threats to their middle-class status. Masonry’s secret rituals, Orientalist symbols, and claims of access to a higher truth reinforced and elevated the (largely white) male claim to a singular social importance at the same time these traditional gender spheres began to weaken (Dehoyos, 75). The all-male Shriners’ mystical emphasis on the Oriental symbols and pageantry is seen in the 1930 photograph of Shriner Potentate A.J. McKenzie, a regional group leader wearing the organization’s characteristic Ottoman-style fez adorned with its scimitar and crescent moon logo. These exotic symbols (largely unrelated to anything in their belief system) signaled the group’s indirect response to a burgeoning women’s rights and suffrage movement that many middle class men perceived as a threat to the traditional separation of women’s and men’s spheres (with the men’s sphere the source of political and economic power and the women’s sphere remaining in the home). Shriners’ meetings offered a literal space for men to gather and exert their political and economic power, with exotic (in the west) Oriental symbols demonstrating their belief in the special, exclusive importance of their pursuits.