How many times have you looked up at a building? At the plaque at the top? Sometimes it tells you the year it was built. Sometimes it names the building. Sometimes it says I.O.O.F.
Go on, look up! Do you live in a town which still has buildings from before 1930? If so look up. You’ll almost certainly find at least one building which says I.O.O.F. at the top.
They’re usually in commercial districts, like this one in the Short North of Columbus, Ohio. From the early twentieth century, the ground floor houses a tattoo parlour. It’s a pretty tall building for the area, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Why are there, all across the country, these I.O.O.F. buildings? What does it mean? Well, this one, in Columbus, wasn’t always a tattoo parlour.
From the time of the Civil War until the late 1920s, the I.O.O.F. was the largest fraternal order in the United States. A social and benevolent organisation, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows had a similar structure to the Freemasons. They still exist today, but are a far smaller organisation.
So what happened to them?
One of the biggest draws was that membership included health insurance. In fact, it was a key provider of health insurance at a time when it was almost impossible to come by. The I.O.O.F. became a core component of American society, which is why you’ll find buildings in almost every town you look.
But then came the twentieth century. In the 1920s, membership declined for the first time. Mass media such as the cinema maybe made the fraternal meetings seem old-fashioned. Then came the Great Depression. Members stopped paying their dues. Further developments, such as the creation of the Blue Cross in 1929, meant that people no longer needed I.O.O.F. to provide health insurance.
Today, these buildings—scattered across the country—are the most visible reminder of a whole side of America that simply no longer exists. These grand buildings have almost all been sold and repurposed.
So go on, next time you’re downtown, look up. Read that plaque and remember a whole world that’s disappeared.
IOOF Building, Columbus Ohio
Address: 1042 N High Street, Columbus OH
Visible: 24/7. Incidentally it’s next door to the Fireproof Building.