The Bizarre Branding Of America's Many, Many Secret Societies

For all of their esoteric ways, America’s early secrets societies were remarkable branding machines. They had their own slogans, their own fashions, and their own symbols and colors. They even had their own manufacturing industry that produced and sold all of these items for mass consumption.

"The secrets function less for the concealing of information than as a bonding mechanism for members," write the authors of As Above, So Below Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930, a new book about the golden age of secret societies in America. These groups functioned not unlike street fashion or indie music—in which secret societies have contemporary corollaries—by offering experiences cloaked in hierarchy and mystery, designed to bond members together and transform their lives.

There were lithographs depicting dreamy allegories told through beehives (symbolizing collective work and hierarchy), skeletons (symbolizing mortality), and hands holding red hearts (symbolizing charity), awash in Romantic colors, meant to be hung in members’ businesses as subtle advertising.

There were expensive silk costumes richly embroidered with snakes, all-seeing eyes, and jewels, to be worn during ceremonies and in annual parades that were the lodge’s main public appearance. There were the banners and signs declaring mottos such as friendship, love, and truth. There were papier-mâché props such as a gruesome head of Goliath and a coffin containing a bust labeled "the dead guy." There was a whole genre of mechanical goats, meant to be ridden in degree ceremonies....more