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The Rise of America's Secret Societies

Rafael Ben-Ari
The Masonic symbols such as the square and compass (pictured above) attaches a moral lesson to the manual tools of stonemasons.

The Simpsons sang about their fictitious secret society, the Stonecutters, based on the very real group known as the Freemasons.  And it was the Masons that started Americans’ love affair with secret clubs.

Writer Dave Luhrssen's latest book, Secret Societies and Clubs in American History, explores American's unique relationship with secret clubs. The book covers looks at such groups as Freemasonry, the Ku Klux Klan, Scientology, and even the mafia, as well as their influence on American culture, including our currency. 

While secret societies existed in other countries long before becoming established in America, the evolution of Freemasonry and other similar groups took a rapid hold in America - particularly as the country became more industrialized in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

"Suddenly secret societies became very mainstream in America in a way that I don't think was true of other cultures at other times," explains Luhrssen.

The shift from a rural agricultural small society to a larger urbanized landscape created more anonymity and less community among American populations. The rise of secret societies created a place for working men to participate in an after work activity away from their home lives.

"The big push here was what we would call lower-middle class men had this opportunity and desire really to belong to something," says Luhrssen.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.