Fraternal, Societal, and Ceremonial Swords
by Mike McWatters
Many people have been asking questions about fraternal/societal swords, so I'm attempting to circumvent the need to answer similar questions many times by trying to answer them all at once.
Fraternal swords are most easily identified by the ornate, yet martially useless nature of their construction. Although this also describes many officer's swords, the nature of their decoration sets them apart. The pommels, hilts and scabbards are often exquisitely detailed with forms relating to their society, and the blades are often etched for most of their length. Common etched motifs include knights, middle-east scenes, Samson, and military displays. The blades are usually straight, always unsharpened, and are quite flexible.
Some of the more common features of these swords include a cast, decorative pommel (often a knight's head), initials of some sort on the hilt and/or scabbard, the owner's name etched into the blade, and fraternal markings to identify which group the owner belongs to. The swords also are usually etched with the maker's name, often such well-known makers of military swords as Ames, Roby, Pettibone, and Emerson & Silver. While all these names are desirable in weapons, they do little to improve upon the value of these swords. A common pattern for this type of sword is nearly identical to the M1860 Staff and Field officer saber-a warning to collectors of both types of swords.
Fraternal organizations and secret societies were most common in this country from about 1850-1930, heading into a decline after the great depression. Not surprisingly, most swords come from those dates. Millions of people were members, thus accounting for a huge number of swords. The purposes of these groups were greatly varied-some were social clubs, others served a philanthropic cause, some were military in origin, and some were religious. The most prolific group was (and still is) the Freemasons, having existed at least since the middle ages, and having included many of this country's founding fathers (most notably, George Washington). Other common groups are the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Elks, the Eagles, the Shriners (actually Masonic), and the Knights of Columbus. Most societies developed some sort of ritual (often based upon the Masons), and regalia to go with it. It is here that we find the need for swords.
The purpose of a fraternal sword is that of a chivalric blade, not of a martial one. It is the tradition of the sword and the honor of carrying one that is reflected. It is here that the western sword has a symbolism similar to that of the samurai sword. If you want a sword that will cut down a tree, look somewhere else. To their owners, these were swords that embodied what it means to live by a code of honor, serve a greater purpose, and fight for a noble cause. In a way, it's sad to see them sold as mere antiquities.
The prices of such swords generally range from $50-$200, depending upon the condition of the sword and presence of its accompaniments. Most swords were bought with a scabbard, storage bag, and carrying case, all of which add to the value. If a sword belonged to a relative or ancestor, it would probably be better to keep it for your future generations, rather than to try to sell it. My great-grandfather's sword means more to me than any money I could ever get by selling it. Also, as I said before, many famous people were in these organizations-their swords might bring a higher price if the proper provenance is provided. Some organizations have special historical significance, and their swords might also fetch a premium. Fraternal swords are great for a collector on a budget, a beginning collector who wants an inexpensive sword to start, or a person looking for a nice wall hanger. Most experienced collectors prefer to collect the more valuable and historically significant military weapons instead. This fact, plus the sheer number of societal swords available keeps prices low.
Some common identifying marks:
K of C Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Men's group
K of P Knights of Pythias, a benevolent society
FCB Friendship, Charity, Benevolence-found on K of P swords
KKK Yup, them
IOOF Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a social/benevolent group
AOH* Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish group
GAR* Grand Army of the Republic, Union Civil War veterans
FOE Fraternal Order of Eagles
A red cross inside a crown Freemasons/Templars
Columbus head pommel Knights of Columbus
Globe shaped pommel Knights of the Globe
*I have observed these in M1860 S&F variations.
There are far more groups than I have listed, as I have only listed the ones whose swords I have seen. A trip to the library will give more information about any of these groups.
Links to other pages about Fraternal Swords:
1 2 3 4
A listing of Fraternal Group Abbreviations, by Rich Hartzog