When DeMolay was founded in 1919 there was a specific piece of men's fashion that was all the rage - the pocket watch. Time keeping technology has a unique history, but to summarize, by the time our Order was founded, the height of this trend was the man's pocket watch. These watches were entirely mechanical, keeping time with a complex series of springs and gears. There were no batteries, no digital outputs, and they certainly would not have been comfortable to wear on a wrist. When you think about it, it's pretty amazing that man designed such precise mechanical means to keep track of the world, down to the second. But, how does this relate to the Key awards?
Since their first inception in the 16th Century, many clocks and watches required a little piece of metal to wind them using a small stem. These would be inserted into a hole on the timepiece and turned, just like a key in a lock. Hence, these little tools became known as watch keys. They remained common for clocks and watches up until the last quarter of the 19th Century, when other winding mechanisms were developed.
Often, watch keys were attached to a pocket watch chain and affixed to a piece of clothing. This served a two fold purpose. First, it would "catch" the watch should a man have dropped it, thanks to the chain. Second, the chain provided a nice way to attach the key and keep it with the watch so it wouldn't be lost. Over time, men took to this fashion trend and watch keys started to become ornate pieces of jewelry all to themselves. As watch makers standardized their key sizes, jewelers were able to sell specially crafted keys on the secondary market as a luxury product, commonly made out of silver and gold. This gave way to the fashion trend we have today - watch keys as gifts and awards.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, it became common for high schools and universities to award a watch key to their graduates. These could be very plain or very ornate, depending on the wealth of the institution. When schools stopped giving away the keys, the Greek letter system picked up the trend (which continues to this day for many fraternities and sororities.) Think of it as the first "rear window cling." A young man, fresh out of school, would wear his institution or fraternity's key with pride, giving him a way to discover other alumni throughout his travels.
|This Past State Master Councilor's Key belonged|
to Bro. Kendig C. Bare, who served as SMC
Hence, today, we still give out these awards. In modern times, they are suspended from a breast ribbon; but, if you stumble across old versions of these jewels, you'll often find them loose, not being connected to anything. In the early days, they would have been presented and worn using a pin or on the traditional pocket watch chain. Attaching them to a ribbon is a more modern invention, implemented when the trend of watches fell out of style.
So, next time you wear a "key" award, realize you are continuing a trend that is close to two hundred years old!
Frat! ~ "Dad" Seth Anthony (with research from several books and internet sites.)