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Objects from secret groups on display

“Oft Unseen: Art From the Lodge and Other Secret Societies" features art and objects that many Americans would have never seen otherwise.
/ Source: The Associated Press

You don’t need to know a secret handshake or remember a password to enter the College of Charleston’s Halsey Gallery.

But what is inside offers a fascinating glimpse of various fraternal groups, such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, who have long held ceremonies in secret.

On view 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.

Also displayed are yellowing photos of lodge members in their regalia along with such things as a coffin with a papier-mâché 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 millions of Americans knew about a century ago.

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 who were looking for a place to socialize and form new associations as they moved from city to city.

“There just aren’t the kinds of old networks like church-related and extended family as in more rural places,” Karpiel said, adding that rituals and ceremony also had a powerful hold.

“There is this amazing diversity and this amazing visual pageantry associated with it,” Buff Ross, the gallery’s curator, said.

Lodge members divided on exhibitSome of that has declined over the years, as access to other forms of entertainment grew. 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, a Mason and an Odd Fellow, 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.

“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.

“It’s not so much about these things being secret as this imagery is part of American culture.”

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

There have been modest increases in lodge membership in Texas and along the West Coast, where membership dropped from 500,000 a century ago to 1,200 today, according to Webb. The reasons for the growth 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.”