So called “Greek” life has been an institution at our colleges and universities since the birth of the United States. A mere five months after Jefferson and his comrades penned the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, Phi Beta Kappa was established at the College of William and Mary in December of 1776.
For as long as Fraternities and Sororities have existed in the United States, symbols of membership in these organizations have been worn with pride by their members and alumni. Prominent among the many forms of symbolic expression are small pieces of jewelry in the form of pins, rings, pendants and other accessories. In many instances, these symbolic adornments are recognizable only by fellow members or members of related organizations.
Earlier pieces were generally made from precious metal and combined a variety of precious, semi precious and fake stones as well as often ornate enamel work. Seed pears were especially popular.
Identifying the Fraternity or Sorority with a little help from Google
Identification can be difficult and often requires a good deal of research. If the piece has either the letter-name of the organization (usually 2-3 Greek letters – for example “ΑΦΩ”) or it’s motto (usually as Greek phrase – for example – “ΩΦΕΛΟΥΝΤΕΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΥΣ”) you can decipher it using a Greek alphabet. Wikipedia has a decent alphabet page here but you can find better examples by searching “Greek Alphabet” in Google images. Keep in mind that the upper case and lower case letters can look very different.
1. If the piece has the letter name of the organization then you you can try to match the letters to the alphabet. Once you’ve identified them, you will need to actually spell them out. For example, “A” or “α” , is spelled out “Alpha”. Once you know all the letters, try searching them fully spelled out in Google. For example, if the letters are “ΑΦΩ”, you would Google “Alpha Phi Omega”. Because this is a large well known fraternity, you will immediately have your answer. For lesser known, or now defunct organizations, you will need to do substantially more digging and should consider an OCR search of old periodicals at your local library. You can also do a comparison to a list of all organizations – such as the one here.
2. If the letter-name of the fraternity is not present, but the motto is, then you have a slightly more difficult task ahead of you. You will again need to refer to the Greek alphabet. This time however, because you are looking at words rather than letters, you need to actually reproduce the motto in order to search it. This can be done in one of two ways: you can either use the Greek alphabet function of your word processor to re-type the motto; or you can copy each letter from the Wikipedia page and then paste them in order in a document or search box. Once you have the motto reproduced in typed form, it’s simply a matter of searching it out in Google. If you don’t get a good lead, then you can try to translate the motto from Greek to English using Google translate. Then you can search the English version of the motto.
Finally, if the piece has only symbols, you need to describe the symbols using words. For example, for the following piece you might try “Two Crossed Swords Fraternity Sorority”.
You can usually figure them out this way, but some will remain a mystery.
If you’re having a lot of trouble with a piece, feel free to message us and we’ll take a look.