Write On, Brothers!

     Once upon a time, tuna fritters, when “social media” was that fence you leaned over to gossip with the neighbors, people had to think of reasons to get together and discuss mutual concerns.  Some of these grew out of the guilds, or professional associations of their time, some of these sprang up in the corners of bars (those corners not taken up by the professional associations), and other were survivals of ancient organizations going back to primordial time and passed along by pharaohs and druids and…I’m sorry.  Forget I said that.  The Illuminati and its ilk can wait for some future blog.  I’d spill the beans now, but I hate to have my body drawn and quartered just before a three-day weekend.

     Some of these groups practiced right out in the open, but others were Secret Societies: that is, everybody knew about them and generally knew who in town belonged to them, but part of the glamor of belonging was knowing the secret code words and handshakes and ritual.  Some of the groups which became famous created sub-groups within the order, with even more secret codes and requirements.  Someone slipped up and allowed me to read the rules of such a group.  What impressed me most was the regulation that if you applied for membership in this sub-group, you automatically incurred a lifetime ban from ever belonging.  THAT’S elite.

     Of course, those groups existed in the golden age of postcards and produced postcards, either as souvenirs or as invitations.  How sending a postcard easily readable on both sides maintained your secrecy was their problem, not mine, but it is a puzzlement.

     The organization whose postcard appears at the top of this column was not so VERY secret, though I’m not sure the sun itself was a member.  The Order of United Commercial Travelers was founded in the late nineteenth century as a meeting place, support group, and eventually financial assistance organization for commercial travelers, also known as drummers or traveling salesmen.  This card is obviously a recruitment device, showing the people wearing the insignia of the group getting together to enjoy life.  As its partial purpose was to invest money so they could tide over members during periods of bad sales, keeping things very secret was not essential.  (Thanks for noticing, but I was going to let that “tide” joke pass without so much as a wave.)

     If you look closely at this damaged postcard, you will note the owls at the bottom have the same letter on their backs.  This is because THIS card is for members of the Order Of Owls, which valued its secrecy a little more than the UCT boys.  This group started just after the twentieth century began, and was intended to promote friendship and good deeds among businessmen.  They were not too serious to make a joke like this one, and like a lot of these organizations did sell club pins, which would sort of seem to make things less secret.  Still, there was no harm in letting people know you were a member of the O.O.O.; you just didn’t have to tell them what it meant.

     We come now to the B.P.O.E., which comedian Nat Wills broadcast to the world stood for the Best People On Earth.  It stands, among other things, for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.  At least part of what made it popular in the second half of the nineteenth century was that a private club could serve liquor long after closing hours for public saloons (leading to a general impression of Elks immortalized by Groucho Marx with his nature travelogue about the elks coming down to the waterhole and then running away because it is just a waterhole, when they were looking for an elkohole.)  Several of their secrets are spread out on this card for any and all to see.  (As a club greeting, “Hello Bill!” has its advantages.  Simple beat, easy to dance to.)

     The Masons are one of the oldest groups in this column, going back to, well, you pick a date.  From at least the late nineteenth century, when Sherlock Holmes pointed it out to a Mason who was consulting him, they violated their deep secrecy by wearing this emblem on lapels and tie tacks and what-have-you.  Once you joined, of course, you were…well, you can figure out the joke here for yourself.

     And we shall conclude with this little red postcard made specially for a national meeting of the Shriners over a century ago.  Like the other groups on the list, they mixed good works with good times, and everybody knew a dignified chap wearing a fez in the United States was EXACTLY the sort of person who might find himself making a phone call using a camel.

     All of these groups still operate today, though they have found radio, television, and the Internet to be challenges to their good old round of meetings.  They insist they are still viable and serve a useful purpose in this wild new century.  (Did I ever tell you about the collection of national meeting cocktail napkins I got from a member of the…tut, out of room.  We’ll keep it a secret.)

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