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Ethnic Fraternal Societies and Mutual Aid

American fraternal societies have existed since 1700s. New immigrants were usually welcomed as members in these organizations.  By the 1890s, however, when millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began arriving in the United States, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and racist attitudes created a bias against allowing new immigrants and African Americans to join the older societies. Prevented from joining established societies like the Freemasons or Knights of Pythias, new immigrants and blacks formed their own.

“Ethnic Fraternal Societies and Mutual Aid” is a cross-curricular lesson that explores the origins, functions, rise and eventual decline of fraternal and self-help organizations among immigrants and African Americans. By studying diversity through the lens of such societies, students will learn how immigrants and African Americans developed alternative social structures that served their social, psychological, and economic needs.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a rich archival collection on mutual assistance. Archival sources range from early American mutual assistance organizations, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, to those organized by newly arrived immigrant groups including Italian, Irish, Polish, Russian, and Slovak. In this lesson, students try their hand at the complex task of critical analysis and historical interpretation by using primary sources drawn from HSP’s collection.


20th century

Ethnic history


Big Ideas

Pennsylvania History

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to Pennsylvania society?

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Conflict and cooperation among social groups, organizations, and nation-states are critical to comprehending society in the Pennsylvania. Domestic instability, ethnic and racial relations, labor relation, immigration, and wars and revolutions are examples of social disagreement and collaboration.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.


  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Summarize how conflict and compromise in Pennsylvania history impact contemporary society.

Background Material for Teacher

  • Beito, David T. From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
    Beito’s book-length study adopts the premise that the fraternal model was America’s best effort at providing services such as low-cost medical care as well as a way to provide survival skills such as thrift, reciprocity, and individual responsibility. He adopts the premise that the fraternal society efficiently provided social welfare services that were not available otherwise in America.

  • Beito, David T., Gordon, Peter, and Tabarrok, Alexander, ed. “This Enormous Army”: The Mutual-Aid Tradition of American Fraternal Societies before the Twentieth Century. In The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, edited by David T. Beito, Peter Gordon, Peter, and Alexander Tabarrok, 182-203. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
    This article outlines highlights of fraternals in the United States before the twentieth century making a case for their social and economic importance in members’ lives. Beito’s claim that the rise of the governmental welfare system was the key factor in the decline of the importance of fraternals is a tenuous one.

  • Bodnar, John. “Ethnic Fraternal Benefit Association: Their Historical Development, Character, and Significance.” In Records of Ethnic Fraternal Benefit Associations in the United State: Essays and Inventories, edited by Susan H. Shreve and Rudolph J. Vecoli, 5-14.  St. Paul, MN: Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, 1981.
    Bodnar, an immigration history expert, discusses the significant impact of fraternal associations in ethnic communities. He cautions, however, that the economic assistance fraternal societies provided to members must not be overstated and that it never equaled the importance of family and kin.

  • Carnes, Mark C. Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
    Carnes begins on the premise that men’s passage to manhood in Victorian America was particularly problematic. The author argues that by providing comfort and psychological guidance, the initiatory rites of fraternalism were a way to facilitate men’s transition to manhood during this period.

  • Clawson, Mary Ann. Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
    This book looks at fraternalism as a social construction and analyzes its many variations and transformations as they occurred with each succeeding generation. The author especially focuses on the use of ritual to create solidarity, group identity, and to deal with social differences.

  • Nardini, Gloria. Che Bella Figura!: The Power of Performance in an Italian Ladies' Club in Chicago. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
    Nardini's ethnographic study analyzes the language and behavior operating in an Italian women's social club. Included in this list because it is perhaps the only book-length study of a women's ethnic club and because of its performance approach.

  • Stolarik, Mark M. Growing Up on the South Side: Three Generations of Slovaks in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, 1880-1976. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985.
    In Chapter 2, “Lodges for Everyone,” historian Stolarik outlines the development of fraternal benefit societies among one ethnic group demonstrating how the lodges played an important role in reestablishing community life disrupted by the migration process.

  • Stolarik, M. Mark. “Slovak Fraternal-Benefit Societies in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania Folklife. V. 44:2 Winter, 1994, 78-83.
    This article discusses the origins, growth, purposes, rituals, and decline of Slovak fraternal organizations in Pennsylvania.

  • Toll, Jean Barth and Gillam, Mildred S., ed. Invisible Philadelphia: Community through Voluntary Organizations. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1995.
    This is a comprehensive guide to Philadelphia’s voluntary organizations including fraternals. It includes histories of individual organizations as well as general histories of the organizational life of particular ethnic groups.

End of Unit Assessment

Using all the information they have learned about mutual assistance and fraternals, have students write an essay either supporting or arguing against about the following statement: Modern government should carry the primary burden of providing assistance to its needy citizens. That is to say, voluntary organizations cannot be expected to relieve government’s responsibility of providing basic needs to those who require forms of social and economic assistance (e.g. due to disability, medical conditions, or conditions of  poverty).


Plans in this Unit

Ethnic Fraternal Societies and Mutual Aid: An American Tradition with Old World Roots

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content



PA Core Standards

CC.8.5.11-12.I     CC.8.5.11-12.G    CC.8.6.11-12.A


This lesson was created as part of a series about immigration that was placed on an older HSP website and was not created in the format we presently use. Therefore, please excuse some discrepancies in formatting and lack of fully digitized sources.

About the Author

This lesson was created by Joan Saverino and updated by Clara McGrath and Eden Heller, Education Interns, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Unit Plan

Italian Immigrants in Pennsylvania

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