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Oddfellow & Masonic objects on display at Charleston Museum

g and compass

Charleston Herald Tribune

Art, objects from secret fraternal groups on display

Associated Press Writer

Feb. 21, 2004


You don't need to know a secret handshake or remember a password to enter the College of Charleston's Halsey Gallery, but what's inside offers a fascinating glimpse of various fraternal groups such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows who have long held ceremonies in secret.

In the exhibit are robes and masks, wall hangings and banners, backdrops and even an oil-burning sciopticon - an early projector used to show slides on a wall during ceremonies and initiations - mostly from the turn of the 20th century.

Here, too, are yellowing photos of lodge members in their regalia along with such things as a coffin with a paper mache skeleton - signifying the death of the past life of a new initiate - and ballot boxes used for voting on new members.

"Oft Unseen: Art From the Lodge and Other Secret Societies," which runs through March 20, offers a glimpse at things that, a century ago, millions of Americans knew about.

At the turn of the 20th century there were more than 300 such organizations with an estimated 6 million members nationwide; Charleston itself is the birthplace of American Scottish Rite Freemasonry. But with a decline in lodge membership in recent decades, fewer people are familiar with such objects.

"This is one of the very few exhibits I've seen outside of Masonic museums, and there is a huge amount of material and it's fascinating," said Frank Karpiel, a visiting history professor who has researched fraternal groups for almost a decade.

Most popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lodges helped people meet and form new associations as they moved to cities during industrialization.

"There just aren't the kinds of old networks like church-related and extended family as in more rural places. They are looking for a place to socialize," Karpiel said, adding the rituals and ceremony also had a powerful hold.

"There is this amazing diversity and this amazing visual pageantry associated with it," said Buff Ross, the gallery curator. "Some of that has dissipated with the advent of other forms of entertainment."

Indeed, membership in many of the groups began to wane with the popularity of the automobile and the development of mass media, Karpiel said.

"They start to go down around 1920, and that's about when cars really start going and people begin to have access to radio," he said. "You don't need to go to the lodge and hang with your lodge brothers. You have many more opportunities."

Many of the items in the exhibit come from the collection of Bruce Webb, who runs an art gallery in Waxahachie, Texas, about 30 miles south of Dallas.

Webb, now a Mason and member of the Odd Fellows, got interested in lodge objects back in the 1980s when he ran an antiques business.

He was drawn to them by the icons and the art, including hand-crafted items used in ceremonies. As lodge memberships declined, he would sometimes buy all the items from a lodge that was closing.

"To me, this is true American culture," he said. "What was once a covert, concealed art form that was cloistered away in lodge buildings is now finding its way to the folk art market and the gallery walls."

Webb said he later joined the Odd Fellows because of his interest.

Years ago, about every town between Dallas and Waco, 90 miles to the south, had an Odd Fellows lodge, but now there are just a few, he said.

"The Odd Fellows in Texas had about 500,000 members at the turn of the (20th) century," he said. "The membership as of last year had gone down to 1,200."

But, he said, his lodge is having a bit of a revival and last year brought in 18 new members, most of them younger men.

"It's not so much about these things being secret as this imagery is part of American culture," Webb said.

While some of the older lodge members don't like the idea of public displays of the fraternity's symbols, "the younger generation is looking at this stuff as a way of letting people know about lodges," he said.

Webb said there have been modest increases in lodge membership in Texas and along the West Coast. The reasons may be similar to why people joined the groups a century ago.

"A lot of young people look at the lodge as a very important way to socialize and get to know their neighbors," he said. "Today with people working alone and communicating on computers, there is more interest."


On the Net:

Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston: www.cofc.edu/halseygallery

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