Friday, February 28, 2014

Fraternal Organizations: By Their Nips Shall You Know Them

This post is devoted to the ceramic figural containers, often called “nips,” that were issued by American fraternal organizations during the late 19th and early 20th Century.  These bottles usually held booze and I have a personal back story. All grist for this blog.  The back story is alluded to obliquely by the male face right.  It is of a Papuan warrior in full battle dress who will become relevant later.  Now to the bottles and their issuing organizations.

The heyday of American fraternal groups roughly was in the century between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Overwhelmingly white male in their constituency, membership numbered in the millions.   One reason for their popularity was that a Moose or an Elk or an Eagle or an Owl could taste liquor outside of disapproving looks from his spouse or other females.   It is said that even during the 14 years of National Prohibition fraternal clubhouses remained “wet.”  Earlier, these groups had celebrated their alcoholic environments by authorizing ceramic flasks,  emblazoned with their symbols, holding a swallow or two of whiskey.  Popularly called “nips,” many fraternal bottles have survived to the present day and are avidly collected.

The Loyal Order of Moose was funded in Louisville, Kentucky, in the spring of 1888 purely as a men’s social club.  After spreading to a number of other cities, it did not prosper and by the fall of 1906 had only two lodges, both in Indiana.   Enter James Davis, a Welsh immigrant with strong organizing skills.  He saw the Order as a way to provide a social safety net for working class men. By establishing a low annual membership fee Davis built the organization into a strong force and created an educational facility and a town in Indiana called “Moosehart.”  In 1923 the Order of Moose boasted 1,669 lodges “in every civilized country controlled by the Caucasian race.”  After hitting a peak in 1966 of more than one million members, the Moose have steadily declined in numbers to an estimated 800,000 in 2013.

The two Moose nips shown here,  as was common with fraternal organizations, featured the likeness of the animal for which the organization was named.  The second one shown here was produced by the Weller Pottery, a company founded by Samuel Weller in Fultonham, Ohio, in 1872.  Ten years later he moved it to Zanesville in a region of Ohio with rich deposits of pottery-making clay.  It is estimated Weller created this bottle for the Moose about 1890.

The next three nips are from the Elks, including the one above.  That organization officially is the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks or BPOE.   This organization had a modest beginning in 1868 as a private club in New York City, formed to avoid laws limiting the opening hours of local saloons. Early members were mostly from theatrical performing groups.   The Elks soon evolved into a major U.S. fraternal, charitable and service order with more than a million members.  Unlike many other such groups, the BPOE traditionally been all-male without an official female auxiliary.

Eating and drinking have always played a part in BPOE socializing and so proliferation of their nips is not surprising.   Elks meetings were generally held at night around victuals and alcoholic beverages.   Note that two nips have clocks on them, set to 11 p.m.  A Order website explains why:  "At every meeting of the BPOE, and every social function, when the hour of 11:00 p.m. tolls, the Lodge conducts a charming ceremonial known as the "Eleven O'clock Toast." In fact, the clock tolling the eleventh hour is part of the BPOE official emblem, and is directly behind the representation of an elk's head in the emblem of the Order.

The second Elk nip shown here, the one with a clock and elk head contains what appears to be a motto, “Cervus Alces.”   In actuality it is the scientific name for a European elk species.  Note that the ceramic is shaped like a flask but its irregular base identifies it as a replica of an “Elk’s Tooth,” an symbol of the organization that many members sported as a watch fob or tie clasp.   By such symbols members identified each other. The the third Elk nip shown here was imported from Germany.  It was the work of Shafer & Vader, famed Thuringa creators of thousands of whiskey nips.  (See my February 2010 post on Shafer & Vader).   Also in the shape of an elk’s tooth, this nip was commissioned for a Portland lodge of the BPOE.  It was a promotional item for M. Nelson, proprietor of the Lotus Saloon.  He used it to advertise that he had H. Weinhard’s Rheingold Beer on tap.

The Order of Owls, a lesser known and today virtually extinct fraternal organization, was founded by a group of businessmen in South Bend, Indiana, in 1904.  By 1911 the Owls claimed more than 300,000 members in the U.S. Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Australia and South Africa. Unlike other such groups, the Owls disavowed any religious ties.  Its literature boasted that their Order was "a secret society of good fellows, who believe in love, laughter and the Kingdom of Heaven ON EARTH.  It does not believe in postponing one’s enjoyments until after death.”   Such declarations brought attacks from church groups and may have led to the organization’s decline.

The unabashed hedonism of the Order obviously meant attention to drinking and nips.  The Owls did not disappoint.   The small blue flask with the ceramic closure featuring three owls is among the most attractive of those artifacts.   A second Owl mini-flask is an imitation ear of corn with what appear to be ritual symbols on the body.  .

Our final group of bottles can be attributed to the Fraternal Order of Eagles,  founded in 1898 by a group of six theater owners in Seattle, Washington.  Hoping to avoid a musician’s strike they banded together in an informal group that met on local theater stages and after taking care of business rolled out a barrel of beer.   With that “wet” beginning, no wonder the Eagles  issued nips.  Shown here are three of them, all bear the figure of the eagle.  On one the eagle looks left, on the other, right.  The third resembles the official U.S. eagle emblem, with olive branches in one claw, arrows in the other.  It appears to be the work of Shafer & Vader.

From its theatrical beginnings the Eagles grew into a member service organization, providing funeral costs, medical services and other benefits to members.  It also took on social and political causes. The Eagles pushed for the founding of Mother's Day, provided  impetus for Social Security and pushed to end job discrimination based on age.  In 2011,  the Order claimed 850,000 members and 250,000 members in its auxiliary.
We have identified one commonality among all four fraternal organizations:  significant consumption of alcohol among members.  Another common thread was racial discrimination.

All four organizations have had some form of exclusionary membership policy, expressed as “whites only”  or as with the Moose and Eagles excluding all but “Caucasians.”  Over the years the Elks, for example, have faced lawsuits about violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Because of the Eagles’ sponsorship of social legislation, many Democratic politicians belonged to that organization, including a Congressman for whom I was once worked.  Reacting to its “Caucasian only” clause, the National Democratic Party asked its office holders to resign from the organization.  My boss was a Eagle.   Enter the gent shown above.  Asked to do a report on the situation by the Congressman, I discovered a 1920s book on ethnology that declared that the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea were “the true Caucasoids.”   My report  included that information and contained a photo similar to the one here, with the caption:  “Wait ‘til this gent bellies up to the bar at the Eagles Club.”   The Congressman subsequently quit the organization.

Whatever the future of fraternal organizations,  whatever their gender, religious or racial policies are or might become, one can assume that social hours and refreshment will be ever a part of their existence.   Although the nips shown here are all about a century old, they continue to be a reminder of that liquid reality. 


  1. The nip shaped like an ear of corn is from the Shriners.

  2. The nip shaped like an ear of corn is from the Shriners.

  3. I have the eagle nip. Probably been in my family for 70-80 years. Possibly came from Idaho. Numbers on bottom 11043. More info?