The Grand Lodge of Ohio celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2008, commemorating generations of Freemasons who were raised in the state. Today there are more than 520 Masonic lodges in Ohio with a combined membership of 114,000 men. The National Heritage Museum holds over 600 items in its collection that can be documented as made in Ohio. One of the more unusual of these items is a handcrafted Master’s chair fashioned in a rural style and painted with Masonic symbols. Some of the paint used on the chair employs metallic powders, which would have glowed under the lodge room lights.
The chair was made around 1870 and is marked by maker John Luker (b. 1838). Another inscription on the chair reads, “JHM Houston’s.” Historical records tell us that Houston was Master of Swan Lodge No. 358 in New Mount Pleasant, Vinton County, Ohio, from 1867 to 1873. The lodge was relatively new when the chair was made, having been chartered in 1866. In 1871, a lodge building was dedicated, so the chair may have been made for the new space. The chair came to the Museum accompanied by a pair of matching columns and two candlestands (presumably a third completed the set originally, but is now lost).
Records about maker John Luker’s life are sparse. His Masonic membership is unclear, although a Joseph Luker was initiated into Swan Lodge in 1870. That same year, John Luker is listed on the U.S. Census as living in Washington Township, part of Ohio’s Hocking County, and north of Vinton County, where the chair was used. At the time, Joseph Luker, 21 years old and presumably John’s younger brother, was living in the same house. Joseph’s job is listed as “metallic roofing business,” suggesting a supplier for the metallic powders that John used when painting the chair.
The chair is decorated with Masonic symbols. The most prominent symbol appears at top center – a square and compasses with G in the center. When the chair was originally painted, the G must have stood out – it was painted bright blue and has blue glass mixed in, giving it a texture that glints in light. The sides of the chair's back form columns topped with globes. Additional symbols are painted on the back, the arms and the front of the seat, including five-point stars, candelabra, sabers, an apron with an all-seeing eye on the flap, and a cabletow. In addition, there are symbols for officers – a square, level and plumb; a slipper representing the Entered Apprentice degree; and symbols for the Royal Arch Mark Master – chisels, crossed mallets and an archway with a keystone.
The symbols are painted onto the chair, but give an appearance comparable to popular inlay motifs on high-style furniture from the mid- and late-1800s. Inlay was often made of mahogany or ivory – materials that were expensive and hard to find, so were used sparingly. The inlay was usually darker or lighter than the base wood. This contrast set off these elements and motifs. Many of the painted motifs on this chair are lighter than the darker blue paint.
The chair's maker mixed elements of several furniture styles. The “legs” are X-shaped supports known as “Grecian” or “curule” bases. Initially made popular in the 1810s and 1820s by high-style craftsmen like Duncan Phyfe (1795-1856), this element enjoyed a resurgence as part of the Renaissance Revival in the 1860s and 1870s, when this chair was made. The “curule” style was originally taken from a Roman magistrate’s folding chair. And, the carved paw-shaped feet seem to be inspired by the elegant ball and claw feet that were so common on Chippendale-style furniture from the 1760s. By combining these features, the chair is a great example of folk art and rural style.
Masonic Worshipful Master’s Chair, ca. 1870, John Luker, Vinton County or Hocking County, Ohio, National Heritage Museum, gift of the estate of Charles V. Hagler, 126.96.36.199. Photograph by David Bohl.