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The death (and unlikely rebirth) of the American social club

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Scott Monty, the CEO of a strategic communications firm, is something of a club aficionado. As a young adult, he was part of DeMolay, an international youth leadership club. As he started his career in Boston, he joined the Algonquin Club, a social club for business people that gathers in a building so beautiful, he chose to get married there.

But looking back, he can trace his love of clubs to a moment when he was in high school in Boston in the early 1980s. As a Sherlock Holme’s fan, Monty decided to write a research paper on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but he couldn’t find any good books about the author in his school library. That’s when Monty’s teacher encouraged him to get in touch with the local Sherlock Homes Club. Monty found the phone number of the man who ran the nearest chapter and gave him a ring. He will never forget that call. “He spent an hour regaling me with stories and details about Sherlock Holmes’s role in popular culture over the years,” Monty recalls.

Monty went on to attend to Sherlock Holmes Club biannual meeting at the Gillette Castle, where he was introduced to 50 people of all ages who were joined entirely by their love of the fictional detective. “I walked in and never felt so welcomed in my life,” he says. “It was everyone from presidents to plumbers and everyone in between, who just happened to share this common interest. Looking back, this was really my first social network.”

Until recently, American social life has revolved around small groups of people brought together by similar social interests, much like Monty’s many clubs. Some asked members to pay dues, but in many cases–like the Sherlock Holmes club and DeMolay–the fees were modest and served primarily to support the operations. Many were entirely free. And many believe they had an important role to play in American society.

“These organizations were important to American democracy because they were democratic in their internal governance,” says Peter Levine, a professor of political science at Tufts. “They were local, but they were also federated so they brought America together. They were gender and race segregated as a whole, but they went across class, creating cross-class solidarity.”

As Levine points out, while the clubs of the past brought together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, they were exclusionary in many other ways. Many clubs were gender segregated based on stereotypes about masculinity and femininity: Men tended to be in business organizations, while women were part of quilting and charity clubs, then later in suffrage groups. And, until the 1960s, clubs tended to be racially segregated. For instance, minorities were very literally excluded from business clubs that were historically white, making it impossible for them to create the kinds of networks that would be valuable for career advancement.

Over the last few decades, sociologists have found that American clubs of all stripes–from youth service clubs to bowling leagues–have experienced steep declines in their memberships. (Part of this is the direct result of American society becoming more racially and gender inclusive, but more on that later.) The Freemasons, which began as guild for men who worked as stonemasons but eventually opened its membership to men from other professions, has lost 3.8 million members since the late 1950s. The Elks, a social club whose members include six presidents, has seen its membership drop from 1.6 million in 1980 to 803,000 in 2012. The Rotary only has 330,000 members now and only 10% of them are under 40.

Meanwhile, a new kind of club is rising up in major cities. These are stylishly designed, members-only spaces that often come with a high price tag, thereby limiting membership to the wealthy and privileged. There are social clubs like Soho House, Spring Place, and the Battery, which serve as gathering spaces for well-heeled professionals. There are special-interest clubs like The Cultivist,........

© Fast Company