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P-S Review of Freemasonry
Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum
present an Ancient Collection of


by Bro. Dave Lettelier, Curator
Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum

Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum Website is in our page of links
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The American Civil War was an economic disaster for the young country, and hard times, including a major depression, soon followed. Hard times bring people together and in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, they came together in the form of fraternal, benefit, and secret societies. By 1900, America had over three hundred different--and mostly new--fraternal orders. The Sears and Roebuck catalog of that year featured over eighty pins, watch fobs, match holders, and trinkets from twenty-eight different orders.

Fraternalism in general was nothing new in this country. After all, the Boston Tea Party was supposed to have been orchestrated from a Masonic Lodge, and a good number of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons. Like the tea, fraternalism had been imported from England in the 1700’s. The fraternal orders of post-Civil War America patterned their lodge structure after that of the Blue Lodge Masons, complete with secret ritual, grips, and passwords. Membership in more than one order was not uncommon. Many of these new orders, like the Odd Fellows, opened their doors to all classes of working men--and women.

If categorized, these fraternal organizations would be divided into seven primary classifications, which are: Theosophical and Hermetic Societies; Labor Organizations; Friendly, Social, and Benevolent Societies; Mutual Assessment Fraternities; Patriotic and Political Orders; Military Orders; and College Fraternities.

The concept of a social safety net, like today’s Social Security system, was totally unknown in the Nineteenth Century. The death of a breadwinner frequently meant destitution for his family. Life insurance was available only to the well-to-do and beyond the economic reach of the average working man. In response to this, the American Order of United Workmen was founded by John Upchurch as a Fraternal Benefit Society. Each member was assessed a small fee, and upon the death of a member, his family would receive a death benefit, usually on the order of about $500 - $2,000. This would generally have been enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm and perhaps support the family thereafter. (This is most likely the origin of the term "he bought the farm", meaning “he died”.) These fraternal orders introduced affordable life insurance to working class families. A Golden Age of Fraternalism was under way.

Today, the Golden Age of Fraternalism has long since passed, but the artifacts they left behind are still a wonder to behold. Beautiful little works of art in gold, silver, bronze, and brass, decorated with precious stones, colored enamel, and elaborate hand engraving pay lasting tribute not only to the organizations that inspired them but to the manufacturers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century who created them. On the following pages you will find a good sampling of matchbook holders associated with the many fraternal societies active at the turn of the century. This is by no means a complete accounting; one could spend a lifetime acquiring only Masonic match holders and never reach the end. Still, there is something out there for everyone, ranging from inexpensive aluminum die stamped matchbook holders to elaborate match safes in 14K gold set with diamonds and rubies. So come, take a walk back into time, a time when man--and woman—belonged and shared in the art of brotherly love and affection.

Masonic Matchbook Holders

Blue Lodge Freemasonry is an oath-bound fraternal and benevolent association of men whose purpose is to nurture sound moral and social virtues among its members and mankind. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages when guilds of working stonemasons in England began accepting honorary members, many of whom were gentlemen architects or amateur scholars interested in the new rational philosophy of science and the Enlightenment. A separate "speculative" fraternity of Freemasons, using the guild system of degrees and secret passwords, and the stonemason's tools as symbols, was officially organized as the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. A Masonic Lodge in America is first mentioned in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. By the mid-18th century Freemasonry had gained wide acceptance in America.

For 18th century Americans, removed from the European centers of learning, Blue Lodge Freemasonry served as a vehicle for the popularization and spread of new ideas. Enlightenment concepts of equality, religious tolerance, and natural laws were incorporated into its moral system. These radical ideas helped form American arguments for independence and democracy. The primary symbolism found on Blue Lodge pieces are the the Square and Compasses with the letter “G”. The Square is one of the most important and significant symbols in Freemasonry. The square is a symbol of morality. As the Bible gives us Light on our duties to God, and the square illustrates our duties to our neighborhood and Brother, so the compasses give that additional light which is to instruct us in the duty we owe to ourselves--the great, imperative duty of circumscribing our passions, and keeping our desires within due bounds. The Letter “G” conveys to the minds of the brethren, at the same time, the idea of God and that of Geometry--it bound heaven to earth, the divine to the human, and the infinite to the finite. Masons are taught to regard the Universe as the grandest of all symbols. (See Fig.1)

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    Fig. 1 Blue Lodge Freemasonry
  • Top Left - Manufacturer unknown
  • Top Right - Manufactured by K & O Co. with a cigar cutter to their June 6, 1916 patent
  • Bottom Left - Unmarked, but conforms to J. E. Mergott Co. patents of 1921-23
  • Bottom Right - Simulated leather of unknown manufacture

A number of additional degrees and related organizations have developed beyond the degrees of the Masonic Blue Lodge. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (A.A.S.R.), developed in France and the West Indies, was first installed in Albany, New York, in 1767. The first Supreme Council was established in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801, followed by the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction founded in New York City in 1813. The symbolism found on their pieces is usually the crowned double-headed eagle, bearing a flaming sword, triangle breastplate depicting the letters of the 32nd or 33rd Degree, with the Latin motto: Spes mea in Deo est, that is, My hope is in God. (See Fig. 2)

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    Fig. 2 - Scottish Rite Freemasonry
  • Top Left - “E – Z Ope” made by Scharling & Co.
    to a May 23, 1916 patent
  • Top Right and Bottom - J. E. Mergott Co.
    patent applied for (pre-1921-23)

The first Knights Templar degree was conferred in Boston in 1769 and developed as a part of York Rite Freemasonry. The Templar tradition derives from the society of the same name which played so important a part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. York Rite Masonry is made up of three distinct bodies: the Royal Arch Chapter, Council, and Commandery. The symbolism usually found on their items is the Knights Templar Cross and Crown. The cross is a Passion Cross and is the cross on which Jesus suffered crucifixion. Their motto: In Hoc Signo Vinces means By this sign thou shalt conquer and is almost always present. (See Fig. 3)

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    Fig. 3 - York Rite Freemasonry
  • Top Left and Top Right - Manufactured by Whitehead & Hoag Co.
    Note the extra metal below the hinge
    (compare with Mergotts shown in Figs. 1, 2, and 5)
  • Bottom - One of the few holders manufactured by
    Greenduck Co., Chicago.

The Order of the Eastern Star is an adoptive order open to Blue Lodge Masons and their female relatives. The stated purposes of the organization are: Charitable, Educational, Fraternal, and Scientific; but there is much more to it than that. Dr. Rob Morris, the Poet Laureate of Masonry, founded the Order using beautiful and inspiring biblical examples of heroic conduct and moral values. The symbolism found on Eastern Star pieces is the inverted pentagram, an altar in the center, and each star point depicting an emblem of their Order. (See Fig. 4)

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    Fig. 4 - Order of the Eastern Star
  • Plastic holder made
    by Neva-Clog Products Inc.,
    Bridgeport, Conn.,
    to a December 25, 1934 patent.

The A.A.O.N.M.S. “Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine,” called Shriners, was established in 1872. The idea by its founders was to establish a fun fraternal order with an Arabic theme. Their charity supports thirteen Shriner’s Burn and Orthopedic Hospitals for Crippled Children across the United States. Their symbolism depicts the scimitar, crescent moon, pharaoh and suspended star. (See Fig. 5)

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    Fig. 5 - Shriners
  • Top Left - J. E. Mergott Co. Patented April 26, 1921 & October 23, 1923
  • Top Right - Unmarked, but conforms to the 1921-1923 Mergott patent
  • Bottom Left - J. E. Mergott, patent applied for
  • Bottom Right - Unmarked, relatively recent.
    Includes paper instructions on how to insert a matchbook:
    “Tear off front of package and insert into holder.
    Always Close Cover Before Striking Match.
    Book Match Cover.”

NOTE: All Matchbook holders are from the collection of, and captioned by, Andy Denes.


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