Organization’s roots date to the 1800s

There are millions of people who have seen grown men riding around in little miniature cars. Likewise, there are millions of people who have seen maroon hats on men, and thinking they were from the Middle East. They might have even seen Sydney Greenstreet wearing such a hat in the movie Casablanca.

Well, the little cars (called tin lizzies) and the hats (called fezzes) are part of an organization called the Shriners, which is part of the overall Masonic organization.

The Shriners is usually referred to as the “fun” part of the Masons. The Shriners got its start in 1870, when a group of Masons were having lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage in Manhattan. There, they discussed starting a unit, or part, of the Masons which would stress fun and fellowship. Two of those at the lunch, Dr. Walter Fleming and William Florence ran with the idea.

Florence was a well-known actor, and while on tour in France, attended a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The entertainment at the party included the guests becoming members of a secret society. Florence took notes, and shared them with Fleming when he returned to New York. Fleming then took the ideas and converted them into what later would become the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.)” If a person rearranges the first letter of each of those words, you have the word MASON. Fleming also created the ritual, emblem, and costumes. Florence and Fleming were initiated as the first Shriners on August 13, 1870, and eleven others were initiated ten months later.

A Middle Eastern theme was adopted, and Temples were soon established. Temples were replaced by Shrine Centers or Shrine Auditoriums. By 1878, there were 425 Shriners in 13 temples in eight states, and ten years later there were 7,210 members in 48 temples. By 1938 there were 340,000 members in the United States. By the mid-1900s the Shriners were generally thought of as the leading secret lodge in prestige and wealth in the United States.

The Shriners Hospitals for Children is the Shriners’ charitable arm. There are 22 hospitals in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The original goal of the hospitals was to treat orthopedic injuries, diseases, and birth defects in children. However, they now deal with orthopedic care, burn treatment, cleft lip and palate care, and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

For many years the Shriners have been noted for sponsoring the East-West All-Star football game. That game has raised a great deal of attention to the Shriners.

Likewise, many notable Americans have been Shriners. Among the lengthy list of high-profile men who have been Shriners are John Wayne, Arnold Palmer, Brad Paisley, Gerald Ford, “Buzz” Aldrin, and Gene Autry.

In particular, John Wayne’s Shriners items have been very popular among collectors. For example, five of John Wayne’s Shriners identification cards from the 1970s sold for $2,151 in a Heritage Auction in 2011.

Also, three of Wayne’s fezzes from the 1960s and 1970s went for over $4,000. All of the fezzes were maroon felt with tassels. One fez also said “Ambassador-at-Large” on the front, a designation that meant that his Shriners responsibilities included meeting and talking with prospective members.

However, it was John Wayne’s 14K Shriners ring from the 1960s that sold for over $13,000 at a Heritage Auction. Most likely he wore it as a pinkie ring.

Finally, a vintage piece of Shrine memorabilia went for nearly $4,000 at auction. It was a 1934 formal invitation signed by the likes of Hollywood celebrities Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Frank Morgan, Will Rogers, Bing Crosby, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Gary Cooper, and many others, requesting that the 1935 Shrine Imperial Council Session be held in Los Angeles. It makes you think that the Shriners who attended that Imperial Council Session would have undoubtedly been royally entertained.

So the next time you see a maroon fez, or you see a little tin lizzie, you will associate them with the Shriners, a philanthropic organization that does wonderful work.  

Jeff Figler has authored more than 700 published articles about collecting. He is a certified professional appraiser and one of the world’s leading experts on collectibles. His latest book, “The Picker’s Pocket Guide to Baseball Memorabilia” has been #1 on Amazon. He can be reached at info@jefffigler.com.