Lone socks make my ragbag swell, stray buttons eventually find their way into button jars, and clipped recipes clog my kitchen drawers. Somewhere along the way, my jewelry box filled up with a handful of assorted emblem pins.
Some, like my mother’s alma mater pin, I inherited. Some, like my New Jersey All State Orchestra one, I earned. The shiny blue one, I remember well. A Taiwanese student group, all smiles, was handing them out left and right, gratis, at the airport. As I finger those that marked my membership in this organization or participation in that biennial, I am bemused. Once they meant so much to me.
Emblem pins, whether straight pins or screw backs, feature add-on pictures or motifs. Today anyone can pick up emblem pins at retail stores or at turnpike gift shops. Others, found further afield, mark adventures in Israel, Iceland or India with colorful country flag pins. Sports fans enshrine victory basketball or unforgettable ice hockey tournaments with emblem-pins-to-order. Anyone crazy for Gatorade, sold on the Simpsons or hooked on Harley Davidsons can publicly strut their druthers. Specialty emblem pins can also perch an angel on your shoulder, proclaim political proclivities, even take a stab at humor.
Because they are generally inexpensive, a cinch to find, and so tiny, felt strips, miniature cases or picture frames can easily display extensive collections.
Emblem pins are also attractive adorning pieces of clothing. Consider how many pins and emblems can fit on a military uniform. Even a general, though he boasts a staggering assortment of stars and stripes, can always find room for more. Pins can spark up civilian vests or saunter across jaunty brimmed hats too. Beautiful. The only drawback, if you get into real quantity, is lugging around all that accumulated weight.
Over a century ago, emblem pins were just as popular as they are today. An early Sears & Roebuck catalog devotes two full pages to silver and gold emblem pins, with prices ranging from thirty cents to just over a dollar apiece. The Masonic and Elks pins of yesteryear are, of course, still familiar to us today. But the others, less known, offer surprising insights into the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Some emblem pins bear intricate designs, but offer no other identification except puzzling initials, like A.O.H and A.P.A. Others seem to be one thing, but in fact, are something else entirely. The Order of Red Men may appear, at first, to be a tribal organization. But no. This fraternity, which harks back to the Pre-Revolutionary, patriotic Sons of Liberty, is modeled after their sophisticated allies, the Iroquois Confederacy. Even today, its members continue to pattern their traditional customs, terminology, and rituals on early Native American practices.
A century ago, members of professional societies often sported emblem pins, too.
Pharmacists, for example, displayed tools of their trade, mortars and pestles. Railway employees proudly bore miniature, true-to-life steam engines on their lapels. Members of the Organization of Railroad Telegraphers wore the letters O.R.T. ornately intertwined.
So did members other American fraternal groups, sometimes known as Friendly Societies. When the country was young, there were very few organized trade unions and welfare organizations. So private fraternal societies, in addition to extending their hand in friendship, also offered its members health and economic protection. Even today, hundreds of similar fraternal societies still dot America. A peek into their parlors offers a fascinating glimpse into American life as it once was.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows seems, well, odd. Yet honoring their emblem, three intertwined circles signifying Friendship, Love and Truth, Odd Fellows did (and still do) aid those in need and “pursue projects for the benefit of all mankind.” And a hundred years ago, their female counterparts, Daughters of Rebekah, also rated special emblem pins.
The Order of The Eastern Star, symbolized by a five-point star, today boasts close to a million members worldwide. While it encourages charity, education and fraternity, it is not religious in nature. Many fraternities of old, however, were deeply rooted in religion. The Methodist Church, for example, founded the Epworth League, symbolized by an Iron Cross, to promote piety. Christian Endeavor, an interdenominational Christian youth organization founded in 1881 and still active today, is another example.
Some fraternal societies, besides offering social, economic and health benefits, also offered funeral benefits. The K. of P., the Knights of Phythias, also alive and well, once required its members to visit members who fell ill. Then, at their demise, it awarded their families $50 to cover burial expenses. The Independent Order of Foresters and the Modern Woodmen, were, besides pleasant social groups, also burial societies, too. Though basically fraternal still, both have evolved into financial service organizations, offering both economic aid and health coverage. The Maccabee fraternal society, named for the intrepid leaders of the historic Jewish revolt against Greek invaders, also expanded its death benefit program to include sickness and disability benefits. Soon afterwards, they abandoned their fraternal roots entirely, becoming The Maccabees Mutual Life Insurance Company.
So where, outside of an 1897 Sears catalog, can collectors find these vintage emblem pins? Antique stores, estate sales, garage sales, flea markets, in fact any place that features a jumble of jewelry, may harbor these tiny treasures. Vintage Masonic emblem pins, which traditionally feature masons’ tools, a square and a compass, abound of course. So do Elks’ pins, which feature that noble antlered beast. But others, rarer, command higher prices, depending on their age and condition. Emblem pins are but tiny bits of silver, gold, or enameled metal adorned with a handful of letters or a symbol or two. Yet they speak volumes.