Ever since I started working at the Museum, Masonic signs along the roadways have jumped out at me. Once you understand the significance of the square and compasses, you start to see them everywhere – along your town’s roads and on lodge buildings themselves. At a glance, they signify the existence of a lodge in a town, provide its name and indicate its location.
Today’s signs tend to be painted on metal, or sometimes feature neon or electric lights, but they are just the modern version of a Masonic tradition. Looking back to the 1700s and 1800s, Masonic signs were painted on wood and could often be found outside the local tavern. Virtually every town had a tavern in the 1700s and 1800s. They began by providing accommodations for travelers, but evolved into important community institutions providing food and drink, beds, stables and meeting space.
During the 1700s, few buildings were devoted exclusively to lodge meetings and activities. Many American Masons met in coffee houses or taverns, which were conveniently located in town centers near major roadways. This makes it tempting to assume that a Masonic symbol on an antique tavern sign means that a lodge met in that building; however, research has shown that this was not always the case.
A tavern sign in the National Heritage Museum collection shows the common style of the 1800s. The dark-colored oval sign has gold decoration with a prominent square and compasses symbol in the center. Around the symbol, lettering reads “Entertainment by J. Healy 1819.” Jesse Healy’s (1769-1853) tavern was located in the Trapshire, New Hampshire, area. Healy was raised a Master Mason on May 7, 1800, in Hiram Lodge #9 of Claremont, New Hampshire. When Faithful Lodge #12 was chartered in Charlestown, New Hampshire, the next month, Healy was appointed Senior Warden. He continued his service in that lodge as Master from 1802 to 1803, Chaplain from 1812 to 1814 and Senior Warden in 1815.
Although Healy’s tavern sign includes a Masonic symbol, it does not mean that the tavern hosted Masonic meetings. Sometimes a Masonic symbol on a tavern sign merely indicated the owner’s membership. During the early 1800s, a man's Masonic involvement was often understood as a sign of prestige. Travelers saw the symbol and knew that the owner was a Mason who could be relied upon to provide good service at an honest price. Additionally, the use of Masonic symbols in such a visible way allowed lodges and members to generate interest in the lodge within their community. In a sense, these signs offered publicity, allowing the fraternity to continue to grow and prosper.
Healy Tavern Sign, 1819, New Hampshire, collection of the National Heritage Museum, Special Acquisitions Fund, 92.003. Photograph by David Bohl.