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One key concept in distinguishing secret societies from fraternities is that, on campuses that have both kinds of organizations, one can be a member of both, (that is, membership is not mutually exclusive).Usually, being a member of more than one fraternity is not considered appropriate, because that member would have divided loyalties; however, typically, there is not an issue being a member of a secret society and a fraternity, because they are not considered similar organizations or competing organizations.As the term is used in this article, a secret society is a collegiate society where significant effort is made to keep affairs, membership rolls, signs of recognition, initiation, or other aspects secret from the public.Some collegiate secret societies are referred to as 'class societies', which restrict membership to one class year.Some of these frankly state that they are honoraries, other seek to perpetuate the image of a continuing active society where there is none.
There are several common traits among these societies.
Since the 1840s, Phi Beta Kappa has operated openly as an academic honor society.
The spread of Phi Beta Kappa to different institutions likely sparked the creation of such competing societies as Chi Phi (1824), Kappa Alpha Society (1825) and Sigma Phi Society (1827) many of which continue as American collegiate social fraternities (and, later, sororities) to the present day.
Sigma Phi remains the oldest continuously running national collegiate secret society, and has been rumored to have declined the founding members of Skull & Bones a charter prior to their becoming their own society.
Yet there was also a second strain of development, when at Yale College Chi Delta Theta (1821) and Skull and Bones (1832) were founded — ultimately serving as antecedents for what would become known as class societies.
The first collegiate secret society recorded in North America is that of the F. C Society, established on November 11th, 1750 at The College of William & Mary. The Phi Beta Kappa society had a rudimentary initiation and maintained an uncertain level of secrecy.