Walter Fleming and William Florence in 1872
Knickerbocker Cottage on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan
In 1870 a group of Masons gathered frequently for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage on Sixth Avenue in New York City. At a special table on the second floor a particularly fun-loving group of men met regularly. Among the regulars were Walter M. Fleming, M.D. and William J. “Billy” Florence, an actor. The group frequently talked about starting a new fraternity for Masons – one centered on fun and fellowship, more than ritual. Fleming and Florence took this idea seriously enough to do something about it.
Billy Florence had been on tour in France, and had been invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The exotic style, flavors and music of the Arabian-themed party inspired him to suggest this as a theme for the new fraternity. Walter Fleming, a devoted fraternity brother, built on Florence’s ideas and used his knowledge of fraternal ritual to transform the Arabian theme into the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.).
With the help of the Knickerbocker Cottage regulars, Fleming drafted the ritual, designed the emblem and costumes, formulated a salutation and declared that members would wear the red fez.
The first meeting of Mecca Shriners, the first temple (chapter) established in the United States, was held September 26, 1872. As word got out about the fledgling organization, membership grew rapidly, spreading across the U.S. In the early 1900s, membership spread into Canada, Mexico and Panama. Today, Shriners International is a fraternity with nearly 200 temples in several countries, thousands of clubs around the world and hundreds of thousands of members dedicated to the principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.
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The fez is one of the most recognizable symbols of Shriners International and was adopted as the Shriners’ official headgear in 1872. Named after the city of Fez, Morocco, the hat represented the Arabian theme the fraternity was founded on. It also serves as an outward symbol of one’s membership in the fraternity. Much like the white apron worn by Masons as a symbol of their brotherhood, the fez is worn only by Shriners as a symbol of their membership in this unique fraternity.
Nobles from Zenobia Shiners wearing their fezzes
Today the fez is worn at Shriners’ functions, in parades and at outings as a way of gaining exposure for the fraternity. Members customize their fez to show their allegiance to their temple. Look closely at a fez and you will also learn other important information about its wearer, such as membership in Shrine clubs, special roles within the organization and much more. Each fez is custom made and a Shriner may own more than one fez depending on his activities and memberships.
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The emblem on the front of the fez, the crescent and scimitar, is an important part of the fraternity’s theme, and is representative of the characteristics embodied by the Shriners.
The scimitar stands for the backbone of the fraternity, its members.
The two claws are for the Shriners fraternity and its philanthropy.
The sphinx stands for the governing body of the Shriners.
The five-pointed star represents the thousands of children helped by the philanthropy each year.
The emblem also bears the phrase “Robur et Furor,” which means “Strength and Fury.”
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Shriner’s band units and other clubs perform at parades, picnics and other events.
During the early part of the 20th century membership in Shriners International grew at a steady pace. By 1946, membership had jumped to 150,000 Nobles and another 250,000 had joined by 1958. In fact, Shriners International experienced one of its largest periods of growth in the years following World War II as returning soldiers looked for new ways to continue the camaraderie they had experienced with their fellow soldiers.
The Shrine Circus has been raising money and entertaining families for generations.
As the number of temples and nobles grew, so too did the hospitals. By 1958 the hospitals’ endowment was valued at $125 million and growing. The nobles were proving themselves to be excellent fundraisers. The Shrine Circus, founded in 1906 for fun and entertainment, began to play a role as a significant fundraiser in support of the hospitals.
Today, there are nearly 200 temples across North America, South America, Europe and Southeast Asia. In addition to the Shrine Circus, temples hold events throughout the year ranging from fish fries to concerts, car shows to fishing tournaments. It is fun with a purpose – supporting the important mission of Shriners Hospitals for Children®.
Distributing food and other aid to families in need after a natural disaster or disease epidemic was one of the Shrine’s earliest philanthropic activities.
From its earliest days the Shriners were known for their philanthropic efforts across the country.
During a yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Fla., members of the new Morocco Shrine and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to help the sick. In 1889 Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown, Pa., flood victims. In fact, by 1898 there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 temples were engaged in some sort of philanthropic work.
By the early 1900s the fraternity was growing quickly. And as the fraternity was growing, so was the support for establishing an official charity. Most temples had local philanthropies and sometimes the Shriners’ organization offered aid. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Shriners sent $25,000 to help the fallen city. Shriners contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither of these efforts, nor the projects of individual temples, satisfied the membership.
The idea to establish hospitals for children was brought to the membership in 1919 by Freeland Kendrick (P.I.P., Lu Lu Shriners, Philadelphia) after he visited a Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta. This visit made Kendrick aware of the overwhelming need to care for children with orthopaedic disorders.
During his tenure as Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920, Kendrick traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 Shrine temples and campaigning for an official philanthropy to be established.
All Shriners are Masons, but not all Masons are Shriners.
Shriners International is a spin-off from Freemasonry, the oldest, largest and most widely known fraternity in the world. Freemasonry dates back hundreds of years to when stonemasons and other craftsmen gathered after work in shelter houses, or lodges. Over time, the members organized into Masonic guilds and the tools of their trade – the square and compass – became the symbol of their brotherhood.
Over time, Masonry evolved into an organization that began to accept members who were not craftsmen. Today, Masonry is built upon a foundation of improving character and strengthening communities, though the square and compass are still the symbols of the fraternal brotherhood.
When Shriners International was first founded in 1872, the organization built on the principles that guided Freemasonry, while adding an element of fun and ultimately, philanthropy, that set Shriners International apart. The two organizations are also structured similarly:
- Shriners have temples; Masons have a Blue Lodge or Craft Lodge.
- Members of the Masonic lodges are required to learn about their fraternity and earn a series of Masonic degrees.
- When a member has completed the third and final degree he becomes a Master Mason and is then eligible to become a Shriner.
- Additional courses of Masonic study are available – these are known as the Scottish Rite and the York Rite.