Aprons may be the best-known symbol of Freemasons. When the fraternity was established in the 1700s in England and America, its founders looked to the traditions and tools of actual stonemasons to develop their rituals and philosophy. Masonic aprons evolved from the protective work aprons that stonemasons wore during the 1600s and 1700s. When he joins the lodge, each Freemason receives a white lambskin apron, to symbolize innocence. James Russell wore the one shown here during the 1810s. As the candidate moves through the degrees of Freemasonry, he wears aprons with different symbols and colors to signify rank and responsibilities.
Initially, working men's aprons were made from animal skin, so early Freemasons shaped their symbolic aprons the same way. Over time, Masonic and fraternal aprons developed standard shapes: square or rounded bodies with triangular or rounded flaps. The decorated apron seen here was made around 1791 and worn by John Rowe (d. 1812). Rowe joined Gloucester, Massachusetts' Tyrian Lodge in 1789. His apron retains the animal shape, but employs a colorful painted design. The motto that appears, “Time Deum et Patriam Amor,” translates to “Fear God and Love Your Country.” The apron also shows a Masonic date, “5791,” suggesting that it was made in 1791. Known as "Anno Lucis" (or A.L.), which is Latin for "In the Year of Light," this date expresses a year that is 4,000 beyond "Anno Domini," and is assumed to be the date for the creation of the world. Embraced by Freemasons as the beginning of Light, Anno Lucis dates are often seen on Masonic documents and objects.
Above: Masonic apron, 1810-1820, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum, gift of Russell Lodge, 94.041.
Right: Masonic apron, ca. 1791, Massachusetts, Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.0137, photograph by David Bohl.