From Fraternally Yours by Bernie Lukco:
A New York State law that closed saloons and theaters on Sunday was directly responsible for the establishment of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks (BPOE) in 1866. A group of booze-loving actors in New York City found a way to sidestep the new Sabbath "blue" law by renting a room on the Bowery where they could enjoy Sunday drinking.
Charles Vivian [source]
They called themselves the Jolly Corks based on a "ritual" established by an actor Charles Vivian, who also became known as the Imperial Cork. A candidate would be brought in, and everyone was given a cork. The Imperial Cork would announce that the last one who placed a cork in front of his place would be required to buy drinks for everyone. The signal was given, and there was a mad scramble. The candidate picked up his hurriedly and found that he was the only one who had lifted his cork -- thus the last one. Such were the side-splitting pranks of the Jolly Corks. Members were required always to carry a cork under penalty of buying a drink.
In time, members decided that a permanent organization with a constitution was needed. A committee was formed to draft the constitution. A meeting was planned and members went into P.T. Barnum's Museum to see if a name might suggest itself. A fine moose head, which members mistook for that of an elk, and a description of the elk in Buffon's Natural History influenced the decision. The animal from which the Order took its name was chosen because a number of its attributes were deemed typical of those to be cultivated by members of the fraternity. The elk is distinctively an American animal. It habitually lives in herds. The largest of our native quadrupeds, it is yet fleet of foot and graceful in movement. It is quick and keen of perception; and while it is usually gentle, it is strong and valiant in defense of its own.
The BPOE considers Feb. 16, 1868, to be its date of founding. It states its own purposes as the practice of the four cardinal virtues of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity; the promotion of the welfare and happiness of its members; the fostering of patriotism; and the cultivation of good fellowship. The BPOE is organized into a grand lodge and subordinate lodges. Lodges may be established only in United States cities that have not less than 5,000 inhabitants. By 1924, there were 839,422 members. Like many other organizations, the numbers diminished during the economic depression of the 1930's.
Shaving mugs with paintings of an elk are some of the most common yet attractive of the collectibles. The U.S. flag and a clock with the 11:00 hour are frequently included. Elks consider themselves patriotic and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and at each meeting salute the flag. Whenever an Elk's lodge is in session at 11 PM the brothers participate in the "eleven o'clock toast" to absent brothers. Like other fraternal shaving mugs, the most desirable have the lodge number or name inscribed. The flower of the Elks is the forget-me-not. The colors purple and white signify "the love of truth and the highest degree of virtue."
From Elks History: The Original Jolly Corks Toast:
Now is the hour when Elkdom's tower
Is darkened by the shroud of night
And father time on his silver chime
Tolls off each moment's flight.
In Cloistered halls each Elk recalls
His Brothers where'er they be,
And traces their faces to well-known places
In the annals of memory.
Whether they stand on a foreign land
Or lie in an earthen bed,
Whether they be on the boundless sea
With the breakers of death ahead.
Whate'er their plight on this eerie night
Whate'er their fate may be
Where ever they are be it near or far
They are thinking of you and me.
So drink from the fountain of fellowship
To the Brother who clasped your hand
And wrote your worth in the rock of earth
And your faults upon the sand.
TO OUR ABSENT BROTHERS
The BPOE adopted several fraternal traditions similar to the Masonic Fraternity. An altar, decorated with the Holy Bible, is found in the center of every Lodge throughout Elkdom. Old Glory served as the altar's drapery until 1956, when it was given its own distinct place of honor to the right of the altar. An "Exalted Ruler" governs each Elks Lodge as the "Worshipful Master" does in a Masonic Lodge.
Elk Officers wear formal evening dress (tuxedos) during the Initiation Ritual and other ceremonials of the Order. Since 1874, the Exalted Ruler and officers of every Elks Lodge began wearing the new Elks regalia, composed of a purple velvet collar with a small, fawn colored roll and a jewel with an Elk's head with a gilt edge on the collar.
A "Tiler" guards the entrance of every Elks Lodge, and this officer prevents all outsiders from entering a Lodge without proving themselves to be an Elk in good standing.
The BPOE originally utilized a two-degree ritual; the second degree was discontinued in 1890. In fact, the BPOE Grand Lodge has outlawed any side degrees. The solemn and dignified BPOE Initiation Ritual of today is vastly different from the Initiation performed within our Lodges in those early days, with the early minutes of several Lodges, describing the now-solemn ritual in a far different vein.
Early candidates found that a physician's certificate of examination was necessary as a part of the joining process, and the male prospect had to be in top condition to even be considered. Then, once the candidate had met that criteria and was in the Lodge room, he was blindfolded, and instead of dimmed lights and beautiful words, he was subjected to much horseplay. The minutes of the Ashland Lodge No. 384 describe in detail of their candidates wearing shoes with lead soles designed to make the wearer walk as though intoxicated.
The old Ritual Book spells out other trickery, with members agreeing with the Exalted Ruler's declaration that the candidates be "shaved." Once this decision was made, a "City Barber" appeared to the blindfolded candidates whereupon, with a dull file simulating a straight razor, he literally scraped the faces of the men to "shave" them. A few other jokes, all of which were contained in the Ritual Book, described each ordeal in great detail, such as "walking on broken glass," actually egg shells, and it even mentioned how to end the "horseplay" session with real guns, loaded with blanks, being fired off behind the now-weary and very confused new members.
In 1895, the Elks ceased the use of lambskin aprons in their initiatory work, the password was eliminated in 1899, in 1902 the use of a badge was eliminated, with the secret grip falling by the wayside in 1904 and the "Test Oath" was removed in 1911. In 1952, candidates were no longer blindfolded prior to the Initiation. 1995, women were admitted into the Order.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks
ElksHistory.org A Wealth of Information and Links
A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian: Founder of the Order of the Elks By Imogen Holbrook Vivian