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America’s Secret Societies: A New Book Probes Their Art and Mysteries

Chest lid with Masonic painting (c. 1825–45), maker unknown, paint on pine, 22.25 x 37.25 x 2 5/8 inches (photo by José Andrés Ramírez, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

What is more titillating — knowing that someone is guarding a delicious secret you might never be invited to share, or being charged with protecting some precious confidence of your own? Now pump up the circumstances and bring many more people into the arena of the big hush-hush: Depending on your penchant for mystery or puzzles, is it more exciting to be on the outside looking in, wondering what a particular family, club or clique might be concealing, or to be on the inside track of a coterie that, for whatever reasons, might have something very special to hide?

Cover of ‘As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850–1930’ (2015) (click to enlarge)

Such an air of mystery and secretiveness wafts inescapably through the pages of Lynne Adele and Bruce Lee Webb’s new book, As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850–1930 (University of Texas Press). In fact, that peculiar atmosphere is as much its subject as are American “secret societies,” as they often have been called, and the many unusual objects and images that have been created for their rituals. Adele and Webb illuminate these related themes in this superbly illustrated volume, the first of its kind to investigate secret societies with such an uncommonly rich and informative visual presentation.

Tennessee-based Adele is an art historian who formerly lived in Austin for more than 30 years; while there, she worked at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas. In her research, she has focused on 20th-century American self-taught artists, especially those from Texas. In 1992, after presenting a talk at Rice University in Houston, she met Bruce Lee Webb and his wife, Julie Webb, collectors and art dealers who operate the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, a small town south of Dallas, where they also live. Well known regionally and nationally for their interests and activities in the fields of folk art and outsider art, over the years the Webbs have been enthusiastic explorer-promoters of a wide range of vernacular forms that are now known as American “visual culture” and ”material culture,” including, for example, circus sideshow banners, tramp art and self-taught artists’ works.

“All-Seeing Eye of Deity” (c.1890–1900), Freemasons’ hand-colored magic-lantern slide (photo courtesy of Webb Collection)

In getting to know the Webbs, Adele learned that Bruce was a deeply knowledgeable collector of fraternal-lodge paraphernalia. Visiting the Webbs’ gallery, as she recalls in her preface to As Above, So Below, she discovered a room filled with objects from the Freemasons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and other fraternal groups, which impressed her with their “mystery, power and haunting beauty.”

In 2011, Webb gave a talk in Austin, which Adele attended, about fraternal associations and their ritual/decorative objects in conjunction with a similarly themed exhibition he had organized for a venue in that city. After his presentation, Adele asked Webb to recommend a good book on the subjects he had just discussed, but he replied that no such volume existed. Soon thereafter, the two set out to assemble a book that would trace the evolution of the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows and other fraternal societies in the United States, and the temples, lodges and other meeting halls they built and filled with their distinctive creations.

Odd Fellows heart-in-hand staff (c. 1890s), maker unknown, polychrome wood, 10 x 4 x 2 inches, mounted on 52-inch-long rod (photo courtesy of Webb Collection) (click to enlarge)

Exactly what is a fraternal society, and what do its members actually do? As Above, So Below looks at the roots of such organizations, but its main focus is on their so-called golden age, which began as the country was emerging from the devastation of the Civil War, gained momentum in the late 19th century, and lasted until the arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the late 1800s, the authors note, “some 70,000 local lodges, affiliated with hundreds of distinct American fraternal societies, claimed roughly five and a half million members.”

These groups, with affiliate chapters around the country (known as “lodges” among the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, two older societies that originated in Britain), were, as Adele and Webb write, “repositories of esoteric knowledge revealed only to the initiated.” Their gathering places were “cloistered spaces open only to [their] members.” All were characterized by “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.”

Odd Fellows banners (c. 1890s), maker unknown, oil paint on silk, with brass trim and tassels, 28 x 20 inches each (photo courtesy of Webb Collection) (click to enlarge)

Generally speaking, fraternal societies’ guiding principles are rooted in hermeticism, a religious-philosophical, esoteric tradition that developed in late antiquity, concurrent with the evolution of early Christianity and other belief systems. (As Above, So Below’s title comes from an ancient hermetic text; it posits that there is a kind of unity between the spiritual realm and the material world, and between a person’s inner life and the spirit of the universe.)

In their book, Adele and Webb point out that, as fraternal associations grew in the US in the late 1800s, they looked to Etruscan, ancient Greek and Egyptian, Gothic, Moorish and so-called Oriental sources for themes and influences (echoing that era’s popular fascination with the “exotic”), which were reflected in their rituals, costumes and objects, and even in the fantasy architecture of some of their assembly halls (the medieval-Norman-style Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, for example, or, in Indianapolis, the temple of the Murat Shriners of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine, with its plump, distinctive minaret).

“George Washington as a Freemason” (1867), chromolithograph produced by Strobridge & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 24 x 19 inches (photo courtesy of Webb Collection)

George Washington was a Freemason (he became a member of a Masonic Lodge in Virginia when he was 20 years old); so were Benjamin Franklin (who published numerous texts about the fraternity); Duke Ellington; and the former astronaut and US senator, John Glenn. Webb noted in a recent telephone interview that the organization, ethos and mission of the Freemasons (who are also known as Masons, and their assembly halls as Masonic Halls or Temples) provided a general template for those of other fraternal associations.

Webb explained, “These groups offered — they still do — an opportunity to become a member of a close-knit community — instant fellowship and camaraderie, which a lot of people sought or are seeking.” The Odd Fellows’ motto is “Friendship, Love and Truth.” The group’s purpose is summed up in its basic statement of purpose: “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” In addition to charitable programs serving their local communities, fraternal societies often provide special benefits to their members, such as the insurance policies the Nebraska-based Woodmen of the World (now known as WoodmenLife) offers its participants.

Rebekah souvenir (1872), chromolithograph produced by Strobridge & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio, 20 x 16 inches (photo courtesy of Webb Collection)

Traditionally, applicants wishing to join fraternal societies must go through initiation rituals and, as they seek to rise up through their hierarchical ranks (commonly known as “degrees”), they must take part in subsequent rites at each stage. Typically they are required to memorize texts incorporating moral or inspirational lessons, which convey what Webb, who himself is a longtime member of several fraternal associations, described as “esoteric knowledge” handed down from generation to generation. Often shrouded in secrecy, these rites may include instructive-allegorical dramas, acted out by members dressed in special costumes and guided by traditional scripts or customs. Such activities help reinforce the bonds of friendship as well as the sense of mystique surrounding their organizations. Webb noted that, with some exceptions, such as the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus, most fraternal groups are religiously non-denominational, although their members tend to recognize the supreme power of a “deity.”

Webb’s maternal grandparents were American, evangelical-Christian missionaries in India for 30 years. His mother was born in India and grew up there, moving to the US when she was a young woman. When she died in 1986, Webb inherited and dipped deeply into her personal library, which included books about the occult.

Odd Fellows skull-and-crossbones plaque (c. 1870s), unknown maker, probably M.C. Lilley & Co., carved and painted wood, 16 inches in diameter (photo courtesy of Webb Collection)

Webb would visit flea markets in East Texas with his parents as a young boy, already showing an interest in acquiring such curiosities as baboon skulls and military swords. That is where he first encountered fraternal-group objects. Years later, with his wife, Webb routinely bought fraternal items for their gallery’s inventory and their personal collection. Acting on tips from pickers or other sources, the Webbs were sometimes able to purchase the entire holdings — banners, costumes, ceremonial objects and more — from small-town fraternal-society lodges that were closing down.

Masonic Scottish Rite painting (c. 1900), unidentified artist, oil paint on linen, framed in a lightbox and illuminated from behind, 42 x 30 inches (courtesy of Webb Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Among Bruce Webb’s treasures that appear in As Above, So Below, one finds an Odd Fellows skull-and-crossbones plaque of carved and painted wood (circa 1870), which was produced by one of several late-19th-century companies that sold whole ranges of fraternal-group ritual and decorative items. There is also an oil-on-linen Masonic Scottish Rite painting (circa 1880–90) from a Wisconsin lodge, which features letters in overlapping triangles that, as the book explains, refer to the “nine names of Deity.” This geometric composition was used in the ritual for Freemasons of the so-called Scottish Rite who sought their group’s Secret Master degree.

Webb also owns superb examples of banners trumpeting various fraternal societies’ professed ideals; magic-lantern slides depicting fraternal symbols or allegorical scenes; and precisely printed color lithographs of such subjects as George Washington in his Freemason’s apron or an iconic Rebekah, the biblical character chosen as the namesake for the degree the Odd Fellows created for their female members (in 1851, that fraternal society became the first in the US to invite women into its fold).

Odd Fellows summer bedspread (c. 1875–1900), maker unknown, cotton, 76 x 76 inches (photo by José Andrés Ramírez, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum)

In New York, the American Folk Art Museum is now presenting (through May 8) Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, a selection of some 200 items donated to the institution by a New Jersey-based couple, who found and gathered them over several decades. “We were attracted by their strangeness and by the overall social-service, charitable message of the groups with which they were associated,” Allan Daniel recently told me.

On display in the exhibition is one of the Daniels’ prizes, an Odd Fellows banner whose big, painted letters command, “BURY THE DEAD.” Also on view are meticulously hand-crafted tables whose inlaid-wood designs incorporate fraternal motifs; a painted, wooden-chest lid decorated with Masonic symbols, including the all-seeing eye of Deity; assorted hand staffs; and a modern-looking, red-and-white summer bedspread with the Odd Fellows’ three-link chain (standing for friendship, love and truth).

Independent Order of Odd Fellows banner (c. 1900–20), maker unknown, paint on canvas, with wood and metal, 88.5 x 71 inches (photo by José Andrés Ramírez, courtesy of American Folk Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

Of the many different pictures and objects fraternal groups produced or had made for them, their “forms themselves,” as AFAM’s chief curator Stacy C. Hollander writes in the exhibition’s catalog, had to “be beautiful in order to express the beauty of the ideas that [lay] behind them.” (Hollander co-curated the show with Aimee E. Newell, the director of collections at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts.)

Webb noted that, although their total membership and visibility today might not be what they were more than a century ago, fraternal organizations continue to attract participants looking for fellowship or opportunities to serve their communities through charitable programs. “Plus,” he added, with a nod to the strange, compelling art and objects he has spent years studying and amassing, “they’re still selling mysteries.”

As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 is published by University of Texas Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through May 8.

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