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August 2012

A “Segar Box” and Its Intriguing History

If you come to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library this summer, look for this luminous Japanese lacquer box decorated with Masonic symbols. Although the box is small in size, there is a lot of history behind it.

Whitman family box 78.20.1Japanese craftsmen decorated the top of this metal box with designs taken from a book about Freemasonry that had first been published in London in the 1760s, Jachin and Boaz; or An Authentic Key to the Door of Free-Masonry. The decorators built up the box’s surface with layers of smooth, glossy varnish that covered golden Masonic emblems. Specks, chips and shaped pieces of iridescent mother-of-pearl highlight the different symbols. Gold diagonal bands and sprigs of gingko, chrysanthemum and lotus blossoms ornament the sides of the box. In 1797 publishers issued a new edition of Jachin and Boaz; or An Authentic Key to the Door of Free-Masonry. This version included changes to the book’s frontispiece. The frontispiece, an illustration of a Masonic medal, had formerly shown an oval shaped medal. The new image featured a rectangular medal with clipped corners, similar to the corners of this box. As well, the refigured illustration included additional symbols such as “Hiram’s Tent” and the “Entrance or Porch to Solomon’s Temple.” The craftsman who made this box used the 1797 frontispiece as a model for his rendition of Masonic symbols. He included both of these newly-added symbols on the container, one at the center, one on the left.

The museum purchased this box in 1978. With it, the seller included an 1835 letter which outlined the history of the “segar box,” or cigar box.  In this note, a past owner of the container, Benjamin Whitman, said that the box “was given to Genl Stevens of New York-a revolutionary Officer by Genl George Washington-Commander in Chief of the American Armies.....” The missive goes on to relate that after Washington died [in 1799] Gen. Ebenezer Stevens (1751 or 1752-1823) presented the box to Gen. John Winslow of Boston. He continued to recall that, “in it was placed a leaf, that grew on a bush that grew over the Tomb of Washington, the first year after he was deposited in the Tomb.” Winslow cherished the gift and when he died, the writer reports, “he gave the same precious memorial to me—and I now give the same to my beloved son—George Henry Whitman, whose former name was John Winslow Whitman, having been named for my esteemed friend.”

Before a Boston family valued this heirloom for its associations with America’s first president, the little box had to travel a long way. In the 1700s, Japan was closed to Westerners, only the Dutch enjoyed an agreement which allowed them to trade with Japan. So how did this box get to the United States? One possible explanation is that in the late 1700s Dutch traders, to avoid British warships, chartered a few American ships to help them move cargo from Nagasaki to Java and back. Captain James Devereux of the Franklin undertook one of these voyages from April to December of 1799 and returned to Boston in 1800. He brought back several items from this journey, some of which are now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.  Rearchers have suggested that he traded for this box on that voyage. If so the box did not make it to the United States in time for Washington to give the exotic present to Stevens himself--Washington died in 1799. The 1835 letter written by John Whitman that accompanied the box does not tell this story.  It does, however, suggest that Stevens, the intended recipient, eventually owned the box. Based on Whitman’s letter, sometime after Washington's death, Stevens presented the box to John Winslow of Boston. In 1819, Winslow gave it to Benjamin Whitman, who in turn passed it on to his son in 1835. 

If you have any thoughts or questions about this box and its intriguing history, please leave us a comment below.


Cigar Box, ca. 1799. Nagasaki, Japan. Special Acquisitions Fund, 78.20.1.

Masonic Melodies: Singing in the Lodge

Masonic_Melodies_cover_webWhen the average person thinks about Freemasonry, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is not singing. Yet there's a rich history of music and Freemasonry. In fact, the very first Masonic book ever printed - Anderson's Constitutions, published in London in 1723 - contained not only the lyrics of Masonic songs, but even some musical notation. Irving Lowens's A Bibliography of Songsters Printed in America before 1821, in which he defines a songster as "a collection of three or more secular poems intended to be sung," lists Benjamin Franklin's 1734 edition of Anderson's Constitutions as the very first songster printed in America.

The book pictured here is from our collection - a clearly well-used copy of Masonic Melodies: Adapted to the Ceremonies and Festivals of the Fraternity, published in Boston in 1844. The songs were written, or in some cases, collected by Thomas Power (1786-1868), who served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts from 1820-1833.

The January 1, 1844 issue of Charles W. Moore's Freemason's Monthly Magazine, contains a positive review of Power's book, noting that 

"[the songs are] chaste in style, pure in diction, and classical in allusion. As a merely literary work, it will be honorable to the Institution; while its practical utility and refreshing moral influence, will render it a popular and desirable acquisition in every Lodge, and to every Brother, who has an ear for music, or a taste for poetry. It is designed to drive out from among us, and, we trust, out of remembrance, the coarse and vulgar Bacchanalian songs, which, however tolerable in the age when they were written, are now a disgrace and a reproach to the Institution. If it shall effect this, it will entitle its accomplished author to the lasting gratitude of his Brethren."

Perhaps that's a slightly unfair quote to pull, since Charles W. Moore (1801-1873) was hardly a dispassionate observer. The title page states: "published by Oliver Ditson, 135 Washington Street; and at the Office of The Freemason's Magazine, 21 School Street." Although the title given is slightly different (i.e. The Freemason's Magazine, instead of Freemason's Monthly Magazine) they are one in the same and indicate that Moore was one of the two publishers of this book. A London Masonic periodical from 1844, however, raves equally about Power's work:

"As a repertory of Masonic Lyrics, it is incomparably beyond any previous competitor, and embraces every point it professes to treat of, and may be referred to by every Lodge, Chapter, and Encampment. We consider ourselves fortunate in having a copy, and would advise any Brother desirous of these Melodies to enquire of Brother Spencer, the Masonic Librarian, London, as to the readiest mode of obtaining one for himself."

Although presumably intended for use by members of the fraternity, our copy, interestingly, is inscribed by Thomas Power to a "Mrs. Rachel Carnes." More research may reveal who Rachel Carnes was and why Power might have given her an inscribed copy of his book.

If you're interested in reading more on this topic, you might start with Sion M. Honea, "Nineteenth-Century American Masonic Songbooks: A Preliminary Checklist," Heredom, vol. 6 (1997), 285-304. (The article originally appeared under the same title in Music Reference Services Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4 (1995), 17-32.)

And if you are interested in singing some Masonic tunes, Harvard's copy of Masonic Melodies has been digitized and is available via Google Books.


Thomas Power. Masonic Melodies: Adapted to the Ceremonies and Festivals of the Fraternity. Boston: Oliver Ditson, and at the Office of the the Freemason's Magazine, 1844.
Call number: RARE 65.1 .P887 1844

Celebrating a Past Master

76_33_1T1This silk needlework picture from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection is one of my favorite pieces.  It shows allegorical figures of Wisdom (Athena wearing a helmet), Strength (Hercules wearing a lion skin and holding crossed keys) and Beauty (Venus trailing a rose vine) and commemorates the service of Benjamin Russell (1761-1845) as Master of Boston's Rising States Lodge in 1808.

The silk background fabric has been painted with watercolors to create the blue sky with white clouds and the grassy ground.  An all-seeing eye at top, symbolizing watchfulness, and the faces of the figures have also been painted onto the fabric, likely by a professional artist.  The unidentified maker of this picture, probably a young woman, then used silk thread to stitch the central monument.  Masonic symbols and an inscription complete the picture.  Pictures like this one were expensive to make and required a stitcher to have skill with the needle.  If the stitcher made mistakes and stitches had to be pulled out, it could cause holes in the fabric, ruining the piece.

The design for the needlework comes from a Masonic Past Master's Certificate, originally engraved by John Hawksworth, active in England between about 1815 and 1845.  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library holds eight examples of the printed certificate.  One, for Richard Colton of Northfield, Massachusetts' Harmony Lodge is dated 1818, but the other seven were presented during between 1896 and 1954, suggesting that the design remained popular for a long time and was restruck at least once.  The collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, on extended loan to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, also includes two examples of the certificate, one dated 1821 and one dated 1916.

The inscription on the needlework picture reads: "To all regular Lodges / The Rt. Worshipfull presiding and / past Masters / thereof / The / Members of / Rising States Lodge / situate in th[e] Town of Boston / No. under our jurisdiction / Elected Bror. / Benj. Russell / the bearer Most Worshipfull Master / A.L. 58 In which / station he was a Light to his / Brethren and an ornament to the / Craft / This testimonial of his meritorious / service recommends him to / the hospitality A.L. / and protection due to a faithful overseer / 5808 / by order of the Most Worshipfull Grand Ma[ster] / John Proctor Grand Secretary."

Benjamin Russell, who published Boston's Columbian Centinel newspaper from 1784 until 1829, joined the city's Rising States Lodge in the 1790s, later affiliating with Boston's St. John's Lodge in 1811.  From 1814 through 1816, Russell served as Grand Master of Massachusetts.

The picture is currently (August 2012) on view at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in our exhibition, Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles (see our previous post about the exhibition and this post about related gallery talks).  We hope you will plan a visit soon to see this picture in person!

Masonic Needlework Picture, 1808, Unidentified Maker, Massachusetts, Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.33.1.  Photograph by John M. Miller.

Pronouncing "Zerubbabel" in 1914

AASR_Pronouncing_Dictionary_webScottish Rite ritual abounds with names that might trip up even the most well-read Mason. A number of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek names and phrases show up in the rituals of the Scottish Rite's Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. What's a man to do when faced with memorizing lines that might contain Biblical names like Adoniram, Nebuchadnezzar, and Zerubbabel?

How about a handy reference book?

In 1914, the Scottish Rite's Northern Masonic Jurisdiction saw a pressing need for providing guidance on the pronunciation of a number of words that show up in the staged productions that are the Scottish Rite degrees. The Supreme Council published a Hand-Book of Pronunciation of Words Used in the Ritualistic Ceremonies and Work of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A., "for the purpose of securing uniformity in the pronunciation of words used in the Rituals, Ceremonies, and Work of the various Degrees of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States of America," according to the book's introduction.

The introduction continues,

"It is not intended to indicate the classical pronunciation or to supply the frequently obsolete forms of the languages from which the words may be derived. The work of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in this Jurisdiction is rendered in the English tongue, and where Hebrew, Latin, Greek, or other proper names and words have been authoritatively represented by English substitutes or by English forms it appears pedantic and unwise to adhere to original forms or to attempt pronunciation often impossible to English utterance.

For the same reason compromise has been sought between conflicting schools of pronunciation of Latin words and phrases, and the pronunciation here given, it is believed, will avoid the extremes of the classical scholar while being in full accord with polite usage."

Today, there isn't a single book that contains a pronunciation guide for all of the Scottish Rite degrees. Instead, the introductory material to each of the individual degree rituals [pdf] includes a pronunciation guide for the difficult words found in that particular degree.

As for Zerubbabel, who appears as a character in the 15th and 16th degrees, the name was pronounced the same in 1914 as it is today: accent on the second syllable.

Hand-Book of Pronunciation of Words Used in the Ritualistic Ceremonies and Work of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A. Published by the Supreme Council for the use of the Bodies of the Rite, 1914.
Call number: 00 .S959d 1914