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FROM MUTUAL AID TO THE WELFARE STATE Fraternal Societies and Social Service, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito University of North Carolina Press, $55.00

RALPH KRAMDEN AND ED Norton were a couple of working stiffs from Brooklyn. They labored all day to drive a bus up and down Madison Avenue and kept the city's sewers flowing, but they were also something much more exalted--something mysterious, grand, and, at some level, even sacred. Yes, they were Raccoons, and as members of this great fraternal organization they got to wear those Austro-Hungarian naval uniforms with the fringed epaulets and Davy Crockett caps. Remember the tail-wagging Raccoon handshake? The yodel-like greeting?

That Jackie Gleason and Art Carney played characters in a lodge tells us something about how long fraternal organizations have been the butt of jokes in this country. In From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, David T. Beito, an historian at the University of Alabama, shows that some people were joking about lodges even before the '50s, when "The Honeymooners" was made. But their members took these fraternal organizations much more seriously, and by the time Beito is finished we know why: because in an era when there was little if any social safety net, the lodge provided the only insurance many members could afford or obtain.

In his fascinating but strangely affectless new book, Beito tells the remarkable story of fraternal organizations--all those Masons, Moose, Oddfellows, Woodmen, and so forth--as mutual benefit societies that enabled vast numbers of Americans to safeguard their families without the stigma of charity or the snare of long-term dependence. "A conservative estimate," Beito writes with stunning matter-of-factness, "would be that one-third of all adult males over age 19 were members in 1910."

The scope and breadth of these organizations and the benefits they provided is startling. "By 1895 half the value of all life insurance policies in force was on the fraternal plan," Beito writes, adding that by 1908 "the 200 leading societies had paid well over $1 billion in death benefits? But all was not smooth sailing, and Beito shows how the problems these organizations encountered foreshadow the difficulties governments, employers, and health maintenance organizations would struggle with later when trying to accomplish the same social welfare ends.

Organized medicine, for instance, mustered furious opposition to the system of "lodge medicine," whereby lodges hired physicians on a capitation basis. Almost all the lodges that provided health insurance (or in some cases even ran hospitals) found themselves sorely tested by rapidly rising costs. The death benefits offered by many lodges, meanwhile, were financed on the same pay-as-you-go basis as Social Security, rather than on some reserve system, and until circumstances forced a change, many were actuarially unsound.

On the other hand, the lodges had the advantage of a powerful sense of mutuality reinforced by self-selection and local governance. Lodge benefits were insurance that members themselves had paid for with their dues, rather than the handouts that, in those days, appeared to carry a strong sense of shame among these hardworking fraternalists. These benefits were self-limiting; fraternal organizations raised funds from their members, most of whom were directly involved at the local level. through their lodges. And fraud techniques were built in. Beito shows that visits by lodge members to an ailing brother or sister not only brought welcome support but served to confirm whether the aid recipient really was sick or injured.

Contrary to the image of these organizations as havens for sweating Babbitry, Beito shows that fraternal organizations were especially popular with people near the bottom of the social scale, who were most in need of the cushion and connections a lodge could provide. Immigrants were hugely active, and just as blacks had their own baseball leagues in the era of segregation, they also had their own fraternal organizations, some of them parallel versions of white groups. (Racism was as common in lodges as the rest of society; the Improved Order of Redmen, for instance, whose rituals purported to celebrate American Indians, barred any from joining). Women too had groups of their own and auxiliaries to the men's

Almost without exception, fraternal organizations strove to enforce what in later years would derisively come to be known (mainly by those who grew up in the security of them) as "middle-class values" Virtues like honesty and thrift are desirable for their own sake, of course, but become crucial in a mutual benefit society like a fraternal organization, which depends on member restraint in not abusing the commons.

The decline of American fraternalism has had many causes, as Beito makes clear. Among the biggest, he argues, was the rise of the public welfare state, which usurped the key attraction organizations had for working people. Other reasons include rising affluence, which helped foster a shift from mutual benefit fraternities to "service" organizations of businessmen--such as Rotary International--who did things for others. On top of everything else, Americans just stopped joining things, as amply demonstrated by Robert D. Putnam's recent book, Bowling Alone.

What Beito misses in this otherwise admirable work is the flesh and blood nature of human fellowship, and the way a lodge could lift up people otherwise consigned to lives of drudgery. My own father, for instance, himself a working stiff from Brooklyn, was a proud Knight of Pythias for many years. He always said it was for the burial insurance, but now I see how much more there was to it. He was a bank teller, yet as a Knight he rose to the exalted stares of chancellor one year (everybody got a turn to head the lodge), and was called upon to lead, write, and speak publicly. There was organizing, politicking, and charity work, but most of all there was a place where he was somebody.

But Beito has captured one of the most important ways lodges did lift people up, which was to give them a shield against destitution and dependency--a shield of their own making and control. Nowadays, of course, governments and employers provide at least some of the security and sense of identity that people used to get from belonging to a fraternal organization. Probably this is both inevitable and good, but it's also sad that the change has made it easier to just stay home and watch TV.

DANIEL AKST is a freelance writer and author of St. Burl's Obituary.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Akst, Daniel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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