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.
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Extensive mortuary imagery is associated with many secret societies, maintaining a pretense of great seriousness, and clubhouses are often called "tombs." The archetypical selection process for entry into a collegiate secret society began at Yale University by a process called tapping.
On a publicly announced evening, Yale undergraduates would assemble informally in the College Yard.
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.
Phi Beta Kappa is the most well-known such example, where it originally operated on a secret chapter basis, and it became the progenitor of all college fraternities, and at the same time, some time after its secrets were made public in the 1830s, Phi Beta Kappa continued on as an honorary.
Virtually all the oldest honoraries were once clearly secret societies, and to the extent that they are distinct now is at least ambiguous.
Current members of Yale's secret societies would walk through the crowd and literally tap a prospective member on the shoulder and then walk with him up to the tapped man's dorm room.
There, in private, they would ask him to become a member of their secret society; the inductee had the choice of accepting or rejecting the offer of membership.
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.