While Freemasonry is an exclusive society, limiting its membership to men, female relatives of Masons were familiar with many of the fraternity’s activities and symbols. Wives and daughters of Freemasons made aprons that the men wore at lodge rituals and meetings. From the aprons, as well as from household objects decorated with Masonic symbols, women could recognize and understand Masonic motifs.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, three techniques were used to decorate Masonic aprons: printing, painting and embroidery. Using skills they learned at the local academy, girls and women painted or embroidered some of the aprons in the National Heritage Museum’s collection, while professional artists painted others. Local engravers and printers often provided designs printed on silk, which could be stitched into the familiar apron shape.
John Tarbell (1774-1852) of Massachusetts originally owned the apron shown at top. He was raised a Master Mason in Cambridge’s Amicable Lodge in 1814 and held several Masonic offices between 1816 and 1820, becoming Worshipful Master in 1821. The apron is embroidered and hand-painted with many familiar Masonic symbols including: the all-seeing eye, signifying watchfulness; a trowel, the symbolic tool that spreads the cement that unites Masons in brotherly love; and the square and compasses, symbolizing reason and faith. Family history suggests that one of Tarbell’s nieces made this apron for him.
The second apron shown here is also embroidered. It bears the phrase “Cemented with Love.” Masons are taught that the cement of brotherly love binds men together and that the lodge is cemented with love and friendship. This apron was brought to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when the Alexander Stuart McKee family emigrated from Ireland. Under the flap is the name, “Wm. Leigh,” probably the apron’s original owner, and the date “1796.”
Above: Masonic apron, 1815-1820, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum, Museum Purchase, 96.014, photograph by David Bohl.
Right: Masonic apron, 1796, County Down, Ireland, National Heritage Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Streeter Jr., 79.70.