In 1870 there were several thousand Freemasons in Manhattan, many of whom lunched at the Knickerbocker Cottage at a special table on the second floor. There, the idea of a new fraternity for Masons, stressing fun and fellowship, was discussed. Walter M. Fleming, and William J. Florence took the idea seriously enough to act upon it.
William J. Florence
Florence, a world-renowned actor, while on tour in Marseille, was invited to a party given by an Arab diplomat. The entertainment was something in the nature of an elaborately staged musical comedy. At its conclusion, the guests became members of a secret society. Florence took copious notes and drawings at his initial viewing and on two other occasions, once in Algiers and once in Cairo. When he returned to New York in 1870, he showed his material to Fleming.
Walter Millard Fleming
Fleming created the ritual, emblem and costumes. Florence and Fleming were initiated August 13, 1870, and they initiated 11 other men on June 16, 1871.
The group adopted a Middle Eastern theme and soon established Temples though the term Temple has now generally been replaced by Shrine Auditorium or Shrine Center). The first Temple established was Mecca Temple (now known as Mecca Shriners), established at the New York City Masonic Hall on September 26, 1872. Fleming was the first Potentate.
In 1875, there were only 43 Shriners in the organization. In an effort to encourage membership, at the June 6, 1876 meeting of Mecca Temple, the Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America was created. Fleming was elected the first Imperial Potentate. After some other reworking, by 1878 there were 425 members in 13 temples in eight states, and by 1888, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples in the United States and Canada. By the Imperial Session held in Washington, D.C. in 1900, there were 55,000 members and 82 Temples.
By 1938 there were about 340,000 members in the United States. That year Life published photographs of its rites for the first time. It described the Shriners as "among secret lodges the No. 1 in prestige, wealth and show", and stated that "[i]n the typical city, especially in the Middle West, the Shriners will include most of the prominent citizens." Shriners often participate in local parades, sometimes as rather elaborate units: miniature vehicles in themes (all sports cars; all miniature 18-wheeler trucks; all fire engines, and so on), an "Oriental Band" dressed in cartoonish versions of Middle Eastern dress; pipe bands, drummers, motorcycle units, Drum and Bugle Corps, and even traditional brass bands.