The Benevolent And Protective Order of Elks in Historical Context


Three Types of Fraternal Societies

Much of this page is derived from the article "Service over Secrecy" by the historian Clifford Putney. If you would like to be emailed an Adobe Acrobat file (pdf) of Putney's article, please contact our bulletin editor. You may also be interested in our summary of work by the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam.

Putney discusses 3 types of organizations and their historical contexts.

Time Period
Type of Organization
Before 1865 Secret Societies Masons, Odd Fellows
Between 1865 & 1900 Benefit Societies Elks, Eagles
After 1900 Service Clubs Rotary, Lions

To oversimplify these distinctions for the sake of clarity:

  • Secret societies emphasize ritual and doctrine.
  • Benefit ones often include laborers and provided benevolent services (insurance, medical care, etc.).
  • Service clubs exist not only for charity, but also for making business ties.

Besides their colorful roots as an actors' drinking society, the Elks have some interesting differences from other fraternal orders:

  • Although they have retained some rituals, ritual is not as central to the organization as it is with older, antebellum clubs.
  • Unlike service clubs, Elks lodges are not about doing business. Charity and fellowship are at the heart of the organization.

Fraternal Organizations Then & Now: A Timeline


19th Century: Fraternal Organizations Level Social Imbalances

“Unlike their 20th-century competitors, the service clubs, fraternal societies lacked occupational criteria for admitting members. Fraternal hierarchy, moreover, made it possible for a carpenter to mount higher and collect more medals than a banker.” (Putney 181)

“[additionally] fraternalism provided asylum from the inequities of laissez faire capitalism. … How did lodges effect this edenic alternative to the cruel outside world? Primarily through redressing social imbalances—at least within the confines of the lodge hall. Whereas capitalistic development brought with it urbanization and alienation, fraternities offered communal solidarity and a sense of belonging. Whereas a man might be a cipher at his workplace, at the lodge could ascend to the rank of Grand High Illuminator.” (Putney 182)
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19th Century: An Escape from “Feminized” Culture

“Almost to a person, liberal clergymen, their female parishioners, sentimental novelists and other purveyors of Victorian high culture advanced the notion that whereas men were rough and aggressive, women … resembled ministering angels. Men and women supposedly inhabited separate spheres: men and work, women at home or in church. … Men were encouraged to seek their salvation in women’s company: after work they were to head straight home, avoiding the saloon and the bordello. Sunday mornings saw upstanding couples in church, where they might again hear feminine virtues likened to Christ.” (Putney 182-3)

“For fraternalists, this female monopoly on virtue proved unacceptable. Against the custodians of Victorian culture, and their claims that man’s chief pleasure lay at home, in the company of women, fraternalists extolled the glories of the lodge hall as a male haven for fun, faith and fellowship. Fraternal ritualism grew to provide what liberal Protestantism lacked: a celebration of the “male” virtues (strength, courage, etc.), and an assertion that men were morally self-sufficient, not needful of feminine redemption.” (Putney 183)
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Early 20th Century: The "New Woman" Shakes Things Up

“Among the factors beckoning fraternalists … was the emergence of the ‘New Woman,’ the Gibson girl—a figure whose penchant for fun and mobility led her out of the hoopskirt, and outside the domestic nest. One could take the new women dancing, one could take her to see a show … these and other formerly ‘disreputable’ activities could, by 1900, boast wide-spread acceptance, particularly among the working classes.” (Putney 184)
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20th Century: Service Clubs

“Structurally, the [service] club differed from the lodge in several important respects. Club meetings were held in the afternoon, not in the evening. Their atmosphere was hardly solemn, hardly mystical; … Most significant of all, whereas lodges embraced all men as brothers, service clubs only admitted businessmen and professionals. And not just any professionals: only one (as in Rotary) or two (as in Lions) from each category …” (Putney 186)
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Mid 20th Century: Many Fraternal Organizations Decline

"[Service Clubs] instead of asylum offered worldwide, active business networks. The clubs’ leaving evenings free also accommodated better with domesticity’s lessening formidability, together with men’s eagerness to partake of the fruits of mass-culture—radios, phonographs, and automobile rides in the country.” (Putney 186)
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Elks Flourish by Adapting to Change

“How successful were fraternities in emulating the progressive mainstream? … The answer depends on the lodge. Elks, for example, proved wonderfully adapt at purging themselves of unwanted ritual. To quote one Elk historian:

'The apron went in 1895, the ‘secret password’ expired in 1899. The badge and the grip died natural deaths in 1902 and 1904 respectively. …' (Schmidt 102)

Partially as a result of their staying contemporary, Elk membership grew from 826,825 in 1923 to 1,611,139 in 1976. Elk lodges likewise grew in number from 1,400 to 2,200.” (Putney 185)

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Last updated on 4/30/08