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Dumpster divers find odd bits of treasure in the trash

April 27, 2015
The front of a 1929 receipt for the annual $5 dues received

The front of a 1929 receipt for  $5: dues received from a 3rd degree IOOF member.

Last Thursday evening a “merch”-hunting homeless person that I know cornered me on West Broadway Avenue. He asked me to check the Internet to ascertain the value of something he’d dumpster-dived: a mitt-full of paper receipts, all issued in 1929 by a Nanaimo, British Columbia, Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Interesting bits of history, just not very rare bits

The back of the same 1929 receipt showing the meaning of telegraphic

The back of the same receipt showing the IOOF’s telegraphic cipher in 1929.

One thing you should know about people who dumpster dive in search of things (merchandise or “merch”) they can sell is that they are all, without exception, massive optimists; they all live in hope and expectation of making the big score. Amongst themselves, dumpster divers circulate all the old stories of envelopes of cash and diamonds and gold that have been fished out of the garbage.

And it’s fair to say that the stories are all based on grains (or slivers) of truth. There really are very valuable needles (in addition to the other kinds) to be found in the haystacks-worth of garbage that people in Vancouver throw away.

The belief that at any given moment some dumpster diver somewhere in Metro Vancouver is finding something really valuable keeps the rest of them looking in hopes of making their own big find.

Like I said, optimists, every one of them.

So Thursday I nearly bit my tongue to avoid contradicting this bright-eyed fellow when he told me that he’d been led to believe that the slips of flimsy 86-year-old paper he held in his hand could be worth a thousand dollars each.

I did take some photos. And I pointed him in the direction of the Odd Fellows Hall (Vancouver #90) located at 1443 West 8th Avenue. I also said I’d check the Internet but I suggested, diplomatically, that scarcity likely wouldn’t play a role in the value of his receipts.

When I next see him I’ll let him know that these receipts can be had from a number of sellers on Ebay for USD$11-$13 each. I’m sure he’d be happy to sell each of them for that much but sadly no one’s offering to buy them for that or any other price, that I can see.

One person’s trash isn’t always another person treasure

The fact is, by 1929, when all the receipts this dumpster diver had dug up had been issued, the exact same style of printed receipt had already been issued many millions of times.

I’ve seen examples on the Internet of these receipts dating back to 1906 and forward to 1936 from jurisdictions all over North America. The 1929 version bears lines stating that the it was printed in the United States and that the design was patented in 1912 by the Sovereign Grand Lodge (presumably the one located in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.).

This suggests that all IOOF jurisdictions across North America used the exact same style of receipt, for something like a quarter of a century, to record the payment of members’ dues — and there were a lot of IOOF members once upon a time.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was, in its day, the largest friendly society operating in North America, with an estimated peak North American membership of  1.9 million in 1921.

So I bet that there are still literally thousands of boxes of these receipts gathering dust in IOOF Lodges all over the North American continent.

There are Lodges and there are Lodges

It’s worth pointing out that friendly societies, such as the IOOF, existed in some contrast to fraternal societies, even though they often borrowed many superficial fraternal trappings, such as meeting in Lodge halls and awarding degrees.

When friendly societies began to spring up in England in the late 1700s, they were part of a wider social movement striving to provide a bit of safety net at a time when governments provided almost nothing to protect people who fell into poverty — poverty, the likes of which we can’t even imagine occurring in a Western country today, involving, as it did, the real threat of death from starvation.

As opposed to a fraternity, such as the Freemasons, which has (especially since the 19th century) been about all-male privilege and exclusivity, wrapped up in Judea-Christian mumbo-jumbo, the friendly societies came about in order to provide mutual aid to working class men and their families.

With the American offshoot of the British Odd Fellows: the Independent Odd Fellows, chartered in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland, this mutual aid principally took the form of offering life and funeral insurance to its members.

One distinction repeatedly claimed for the Independent Odd Fellows, is that it was the first fraternity in the U.S. to include both men and women when it adopted the Rebekah Degree in 1851. However, this was originally a separate female auxiliary for the wives and daughters of male IOOF members and seems little different than the Order of Easter Star, an appendant body created by American Freemasons in 1850 for the wives and daughters of Masons.

The IOOF says the Rebekah Degree is now open to both men and women and the Freemasons say the same about the Order of the Eastern Star. In the later case I can say that in British Columbia. the OES is a co-ed lodge only to the degree of having one male officer called a Worthy Patron: a Third Degree Master Mason who, in letter, “provides general supervision” over the women, but in practice, is just along for the ride.

Social safety nets replace patchwork quilts

By the time the dumpster-dived receipts had been issued in 1929, friendly societies such as the Independent Odd Fellows were in decline and about to be put on the ropes by the global calamity of the near decade-long Great Depression, which was triggered by the New York stock market crash of 1929, and exacerbated in North America by the long drought known as the Dust Bowl.

During the depression, many people simply couldn’t afford Independent Odd Fellows membership fees, and, by the mid 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms signaled a move (followed by all western governments) toward national, government-administrated social safety nets and away from the old patchworks of ad hoc private charities and cooperative aid organizations.

Under the impact of the New Deal, the importance of friendly societies like the Odd Fellows in the U.S. diminished greatly and (more significantly) the corrupt political machines which had risen in parallel to dominate U.S. cities by trading charity for votes were decimated.

 A memento from the golden age of wireless

An interesting feature on the back of the 1929 IOOF receipt is the telegraphic cipher key listing.

By 1929, the telegraphic system had been a true global communications network for well over 50 years. Virtually every adult in the western world was familiar with sending and receiving telegrams and every major company that dealt with the public had its own unique telegraphic address, much the way that some 70 years later major companies would all have email addresses and websites.

It’s not such a stretch to compare the mature telegraph system of the late 19th and early 20th century with the Internet of, say, 1998, which is exactly what science writer Tom Standage did in 1998 with his classic little book, The Victorian Internet, a wonderfully succinct look at the inevitability of a global communications network.

The telegraph continued to dominate long distance communication in the 1920s and 1930s because it was better and so much cheaper than the younger telephone system.

Even some 20 year later, when the phone system had improved no end and the price gap had significantly narrowed, sending a message long distance in 1948 was still nearly half the cost via telegram as speaking it over a long distance phone line.

And in 1955, Western Union could still advertise in the U.S. that at an average distance of roughly 580 miles, an average 16 word Telegram cost $1.28, compared to $2.75 for an average seven minute toll call.

Phone calls were charged by time and distance, while telegrams were charged by the distance and the number of words to be sent.

Back in the 1920s, a ten-word telegram sent within, say, the city of Chicago could cost as little as twenty cents, while the same telegram sent from Chicago to New York City might cost more like 60 cents (in the Chicago of 1929, a pound of bread cost about 10 cents and a pound of butter about 56 cents).

Words were the only cost people could control in telegrams so they tried to use them as sparingly as they now do in tweets. This gave rise to telegram messages devoid of pronouns and articles and often employing ciphers: short codes which stood for longer phrases and sentences, again, not unlike Twitter codes such as “MT” for “modified tweet”.

The period just after the First World War saw an explosion in the publication of every kind of commercial telegraphic cipher.

The cipher and key listed on the back of the 1929 receipt was adopted by the U.S. Sovereign Grand Lodge of the IOOF in 1895 for inter-lodge telegraphic communication. I reproduce it here, if for no other reason, because I can find no instance of it on the Internet in the exact same order or with the exact same punctuation. Click the images to enlarge them.

  • Benefit — What sick and funeral benefit do you pay?
  • Black — He is a fraud, and if he has a card or other papers from this Lodge they are forgeries.
  • Boat — He is an expelled member, and has not been in good standing for____ ____ ____.
  • Cash — Is in our city asking financial assistance, and claims membership in your Lodge in good standing.
  • Caution — Look out for a fraud named____ ____.
  • Doubt — Identity in doubt. Wire description.
  • Final — A member of your Lodge died here.
  • Funds — Shall we aid him and draw on you to the extent of $____?
  • Green — Wire instructions to us at once as to the disposition of his remains.
  • Grip — Draw on us for amount of expenses incurred.
  • Help — Will your Lodge pay nurse hire, and how much per day?
  • House — Is in our city holding a Visiting Card from your Lodge, and asking of us financial assistance.
  • Lodge — Forward remains to this place by____ ____.
  • Purple — We think best to bury him there.
  • Red — Holding a Visiting Card from your Lodge died here.
  • Regalia — Assist him, and we will honor draft to the extent of $____ ____.
  • River — Has your Lodge a member in good standing by the name of____ ____?
  • Rock — A member of our Lodge is in your city needing assistance. His name and address are____ ____.
  • Secretary — He has a fraudulent card.
  • White — We don’t know any such party, and he does not belong to our Lodge.
  • Widow — Wife or child of a deceased member of your Lodge is in the city asking assistance. Shall we draw on you to the extent of $____ ____?
  • Yellow — Is in our city and very sick. Claims membership in your Lodge. Shall we give him attendance on your account?
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