Mysticism, God, morality, ritual, brotherhood—these were the tenets of almost all fraternal organizations during their golden age between 1850 and 1930. The two largest organizations, the Freemasons and the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, accounted for most of the some 70,000 local lodges scattered across small towns and cities in America. All of this secret pageantry and ritualism, which was designed to instill the fear of God in new members, needed visual representation and ceremonial objects. Responding to this, a number of small businesses began producing banners, costumes, hoods—all sorts of strange objects and regalia for fraternal chapters across the country.
It’s all covered in the new book As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850–1930, by collector/fraternal aficionado Bruce Lee Webb and independent art historian Lynne Adele, who use pieces from Webb's collection (as well as from other collectors and museums across the country) to lift the veil of secrecy from these fraternal orders. More so, Adele gives this book a well-researched historical overview of secret fraternal orders including, Woodmen of the World, Sons of Hermann, Improved Order of Red Men, The Rebekahs, Knights of Pythias, and The Order of the Patrons of Husbandry. They note that the mission of these organizations was a noble one: advancing the good things this country needed like friendship, charity, morality, and benevolence. For example, the Modern Woodmen of America espoused the protection of “home, widows, and orphans.”
It has taken over twenty-five years for Webb to find and uncover the most esoteric and prized of these objects. His nationwide search has uncovered handmade rolling goats for ceremonies, hand-carved staffs, costumes, masks, and numerous other secret objects. But they also include historical photographs of lodges and lodge members, elaborate art environments like The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and even the ornate gravestones of members—something you won’t want to overlook.
Webb is not only a passionate collector of these objects, he understands his subject by living it. Webb is a 32˚ Scottish Rite Mason, Royal Arch Mason, Cryptic Mason, and Knight Templar; he is also an Odd Fellow and a Royal Purple degree member of the Odd Fellows Encampment. If that is not enough, he has been initiated into the Order of the Eastern Star, the Rebekahs, and the Knights of Pythias. Additionally, Webb and his wife have one of the most interesting and important art galleries for self-taught art and yes, fraternal order objects, in Waxahachie, Texas.
Musician David Byrne, who wrote the forward to the book, sums it up with this: “There’s an inspiring and wacky solemnity in these organizations—high values reinforced through pageantry and performance in an ecumenical social setting—which deep down must also have been a whole lot of fun. Now it’s as if that foundational Other America, that underpinning of the America we know, has gradually eroded, and here we remain, living in a world that is a mere shell, a movie set, of the world that made our world manifest, that brought it into being, and all we have left are these perplexing masks, banners, and costumes to puzzle over.”