I’ve mentioned before that for a while I wore several hats at an insurance company, but my collection isn’t really focused on that job. While I worked for Noridian/Lincoln Mutual/Pioneer Mutual, I sat high atop the 6th floor of the Pioneer Mutual Building in Fargo. Across the front of the third floor cornice (formerly the top floor; the upper 3 floors were added in the fifties) is a huge sign reading “Pioneer Mutual Life and Casualty Insurance Company” — but what I didn’t know until later is that underneath that sign, carved into the stone cornice, are the words “Ancient Order Of United Workmen“. Our companies hadn’t just taken over the building; Pioneer Mutual was the successor to the AOUW. Like the Freemasons, Elks, and IOOF, the AOUW was a social brotherhood steeped in ceremony, friendship, and social reform. The AOUW, however, has the distinction of being the first fraternal insurance company, founded shortly after the civil war.
I didn’t understand the scope of Pioneer Mutual’s history until I pulled a bunch of old AOUW records from the dumpster behind the building. Probably like a lot of people, I had associated fraternal groups with private bars and funny hats. However, I have since come to realize that most communities’ histories owe something to the lodges on their area.
Social reform in fraternal groups is still around — Shrine Hospitals are a prime example of such, despite funny hats. The insurance fraternals were a bit more practical with their purpose than the men’s clubs of many fraternal groups. While full-time employment nearly always comes with insurance of one kind or another today, a century and a half ago it wasn’t so. The fraternals took the best aspects of social brotherhoods, their culture and ceremony, and added financial support for families in need. Part of membership dues included an ‘assessment’, a contribution to an insurance pot. When a member died, the widow was paid from the pot and all the members contributed a new assessment. Eventually, this simplistic insurance changed once they started to discover the ‘kinks’ of the pyramid-scheme-like insurance, and started to act more like a traditional insurance company. Almost unanimously, the insurance became more important than the ritual, and, like the AOUW-to-Pioneer-Mutual change, the fraternities gave way to corporations.
At this point, Wifey looked over my shoulder, saw what I was writing, and said, “Oh no…oh, no, you’ll never stop writing. You could do it in parts, you know.” With that, I’ll stand on the chair and bang on pots and pans to wake y’all up — I know, I can be long-winded when it comes to fraternal insurance history, but that’s what makes me so much fun at social gatherings.
I needed to give a broad overview in order to set the groundwork for what’s collectible about these groups. The scope of these groups is huge: their members ranged from mayors and governors to mechanics and carpenters, they provided social benefits for communities, and they revolved around ritual and moral learning. What this means is: ephemera. Oh, these groups had uniforms and artifacts and jewelry galore (the latter being a huge collectible on its own), their architecture is prominently featured throughout the National Register of Historic Places, and genealogists rely on the records of fraternals for information. However, the paper produced by these groups is huge. Fraternal groups published books and pamphlets of instructions and guidelines for their members; insurance tables and sales-pieces for distribution; newspapers and newsletters to keep their members informed on group actions; policies and applications; the list is immense. I’ve started because of my connection to that earliest of fraternal insurance companies, but with a little research most people will probably find that great-grandpa had a badge or ribbon from his participation in a fraternal order in some capacity. Fraternal groups were a part of many families lives, as a way for people to connect with others and make friends, as a way to protect their family against tragedy, and as a part of the lodge’s place in the community at large, as a meeting place, a source of private funds for community-building, down to the lodge as the annual organizer of the Armistice Day parade.
When I feel the urge, I go and put the various permutations of the A.O.U.W’s name into eBay or Google Products, to see what’s out there. I usually find two main items: the ribbons worn by higher-ranking officials, and the smaller enameled pins worn by most members. The ribbons are of historical importance — they include the lodge’s name, number, and location, so while I don’t usually buy these (they usually get quite expensive) I’ll take notes on where they’re from. What I’m looking for is the paper: insurance policies, brochures, programs, and advertising. Ephemera collectors largely know that what they’re looking for is probably under a hundred feet of dirt at the landfill, but we keep shopping in hopes of finding something saved from the garbage can. I’ve found an insurance policy from the early 1930s, complete with an etching of the newly built Grand Lodge of the Dakotas — yup, that building whose lobby I walked through daily for seven years. Collecting this ephemera is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle; the fun for me is looking for the pieces and assembling them into a picture. This research and learning are what I like so much about ephemera, and collecting artifacts from fraternal insurance give me plenty to look for.