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September 2012

Keeping Cozy: A Masonic Fireback

Joseph Webb fireback 83_26As autumn takes hold, keeping warm reemerges as a daily concern.  One of the most fashionable and intriguing heating-related objects in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library is this fireback, made for and sold by merchant and ship’s chandler Joseph Webb (1734-1787) sometime between 1756 and 1787.

In Webb’s day, people installed thick cast iron plates like this one into the back of their fireplaces.  They could be set into or rest against the rear of a fireplace.  Called chimney backs at the time, these plates served a dual purpose.  The iron protected bricks in the fireplace from heat and flame.  The substantial metal slabs also trapped heat that helped extend the warmth of the fire. 

Webb’s fireback, with its bow-shaped top and exuberant folliate decoration, would have brought style into its setting.  Its iconography would have said something about the values and interests of its owner.  Webb belonged to the Lodge of St. Andrew's in Boston.  Perhaps seeking clients among his Masonic brethern, he had a large version of the arms of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge (derived from the arms of the Grand Lodge in London) cast into this fireback.  Along with the arms, the Massachusetts Grand Lodge's motto, "Follow Reason," ornaments this fireback. Webb held several offices at the Masschusetts Grand Lodge and served as the Grand Master from 1777-1783 and again from 1784-1787.  The symbols on this fireback certainly spoke to Webb's identity and likely resonated with Masonic consumers.  When a homeowner displayed this fireback in his domicile, he proclaimed himself not only fashion conscious, but also allied with Freemasonry.  

Joseph Webb had a flair for advertising.  To promote his business, he had a message cast into the bottom edge of this fireback:  "Sold by Joseph Webb, Boston."  In 1765 he commissioned fellow entrepreneur and St. Andrew’s Lodge member, Paul Revere (1734-1818), to engrave a splendidly ornamented trade card (view a copy in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society).  The card listed and depicted many of Webb’s products and let shoppers know where to find him.  As noted on his trade card, Webb sold household necessities such as pots, kettles, spiders (a kind of skillet with legs), window sash weights and chimney backs.  He also provided more specialized iron goods to craftsmen like “Fry Kettles for Whaling” and “Hatters Basons & Irons.” 

Researchers have suggested that the enterprising Revere may have cast firebacks for Webb.  He owned a furnace in Boston and paid craftsmen to carve the kinds of wooden patterns used in producing firebacks.  A 1793 receipt from Revere to David Greenough  shows that Revere did sell firebacks.  Greenough purchased three “Iron backs” as well as some “Window Weights” from Revere.  A receipt or other documentation would help clarify if Webb ordered this and other firebacks he sold at his shop from Revere.

Another of Webb’s firebacks decorated with arms and motto of the of Massachusetts Grand Lodge survives.  It forms part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and came out of a Cape Cod home.  A similar example, with a history of having been taken from the cargo of a British trading vessel captured during the American Revolution and installed in the John Cabot House in Beverly, also survives.  Decorative and intriguing, these objects offer clues about both business connections and domestic life in the 1700s.

Photo credit:

Fireback, 1756-87.  Boston, Massachusetts.  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard W. Johnson, 83.26.  Photo by John M. Miller.


Donald L. Fennimore, Iron at Winterthur, The Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum, Inc., Winterthur, Delaware, 2004, page 53-54, 400.

Morrison H. Hecksher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775:  Elegance in Ornament, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992, page 51, 220-222.

D. A. Massey, History of Freemasonry in Danvers, Mass., C. H. Shepard, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1896, page 48.

Research Department, Beverly Historical Society, Beverly, Massachusetts.

Lecture: A Massachusetts Soldier Experiences the Civil War, Sept. 29

CFMorse_FromLettersThe Museum resumes its Civil War lecture series on Saturday, September 29, with a talk presented by Megan Kate Nelson of Harvard University. Join us at 2 PM for “Among the Ruins: Charles F. Morse and Civil War Destruction.” The lecture is free and is sponsored by Ruby W. Linn.

Nelson will share the Civil War experience of one Massachusetts soldier, Charles F. Morse, an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment Volunteer Infantry. His letters, drawings, and other contemporary images speak eloquently across the years of the world of ruin and destruction that participants in the war found themselves confronting. 

The immense-scale destruction that the Civil War brought to southern farms, cities, and landscapes is no longer part of the world we live in. Unlike other countries, America did not choose to preserve landscapes of ruin as memorials to past wars, opting instead to rebuild or replace what was lost. Because we have forgotten, today we must employ the words and the images recorded by soldiers who saw the Civil War and its consequences if we wish to gain an understanding of the enormity of the ruin they experienced. When we do so, we encounter chaotic and brutal worlds that challenge the coherent narratives of war that popular books and films, reenactments and memorials have given us. For those who lived through the Civil War, as soldiers or as civilians, wartime ruins held vast imaginative significance, powered the emotional reactions they unleashed.

Charles Fessenden Morse was a Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate who led Company B of the 2nd Mass. Rgt. as its captain in the battles of Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. A successful company captain in his early twenties, Morse was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after Gettysburg. The young man corresponded extensively with family members and friends throughout the four years of his war experience, during which he participated in some of the Union Army's most devestatingly successful forays into Confederate territory. Morse shared his thoughts with the likes of close friend and fellow Harvardian Robert Gould Shaw; look for a fictionalized portrayal of Morse in the film Glory. To learn more about Morse, explore this letter posted by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Morse self-published some of his correspondence in Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865 in 1898. You can access the very copy that Morse donated to the Harvard College Library in 1898 at Google Books.

Nelson_MeganKateFor her lecture, Nelson draws on dozens of letters written by Morse, held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. She places Morse's observations in the context of her innovative scholarship on the meaning of the destruction caused by the Civil War, the impact of which on the American landscape is almost unimaginable for us today. Megan Kate Nelson is a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University. Her second book, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War was recently published in May 2012 and has garnered critical acclaim from scholars and Civil War buffs alike. It will be available for purchase after the talk and the author will be on hand to speak with visitors and sign books. You can sample Nelson's work by reading her contribution to the New York Times' Civil War blog Disunion or by exploring the University of Georgia's "Weirding the War" project, to which she was a contributor.

Save the date of the next talk in the series: on October 20, 2012, Pamela Weeks, Curator of the New England Quilt Museum, will speak on "Quilts for Civil War Soldiers: Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield."

Photo credits:

Charles Fessenden Morse, ca. 1861-1865. Frontispiece of Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1898), available via Google Books.

Megan Kate Nelson. Courtesy of Drew Fritschel Photography

Masonic & Fraternal Gift Books: "To the Wives, Daughters, Sisters, and Sweethearts of Freemasons"

Masonic_Offering_cover_webGift books were a popular mid-nineteenth-century publication. Usually issued in a highly decorative binding and illustrated with engravings, gift books were collections of poetry, fiction (both usually of a sentintmental nature), and various non-fiction selections. Among middle-class Americans they were a conspicuous way to express friendship or love - with their fanciful bindings, gift books were intended to be displayed in the parlor where they could be seen. The audience for gift books was primarily - perhaps exclusively - women. Women also contributed to gift books; a number of the collected poems and stories in gift books were written by women. So it may come as some surprise that there were a number of gift books published in the 1840s and 1850s that were associated with exclusively male organizations like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows. Covers of two of these books are pictured here: The Masonic Offering for All Seasons (above) and The Odd Fellows' Offering for 1849 (below).

In the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives, we have a number of fraternal gift books. One otherwise excellent source on gift books placed fraternal gift books under the heading "Gift Books as Propaganda," writing, "the Odd Fellows, Freemasons, Sons of Temperance and Know-Nothing Party often published 'souvenir' books of similar make-up to literary annuals but with content to serve their purposes." While it is true that these fraternal gift books contain a majority of material that is either directly related to the organization, or which focuses heavily on the goals and tenets (e.g. friendship, love, truth, charity, benevolence, etc.) of the group, it is possible to look at these fraternal gift books in a slightly different way.

Odd_Fellows_Offering_for_1849_cover_webFreemasonry in the nineteenth-century lodge room was an exclusively male event. Home life, however, was different. As we've written in earlier posts, nineteenth-century women were familiar with Masonic symbols and participated in Freemasonry through the decoration of Masonic aprons, the making of Masonic-themed samplers, the making of quilts embellished with Masonic symbols, and even the illustration of a Masonic "Mark book." Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a man who was a Mason might have wanted to share his enthusiasm about Freemasonry or other fraternal organizations with a female member of his family in a way that was both culturally and fraternally approved. A fraternal gift book, given as a birthday, Christmas, or even New Year's gift, would have fit the bill perfectly.

The evidence of Masons wanting to share their knowledge about the teachings of Freemasonry with female loved ones is made explicit in these gift books. In the preface to The Masonic Offering for All Seasons, published in the early 1850s and dedicated to the "Wives, Daughters, Sisters, and Sweethearts of Freemasons," the editor writes:

"Every Society of any standing has its Annual [i.e. literary annual, or gift book]; and why not the Masonic Order? It has principles inferior to none--evidences equal to any; and, if antiquity has aught to do with the matter, Masons undoubtedly take precedence.

The gentler sex should learn more of Masonry; and this is one object of this book. It sets forth these truths that will not only prove a blessing to them, but to those around the social circle; and it will enable them more powerfully to wield that influence they are so admirably adapted to exercise, for the benefit of themselves and others."

While not all of the gift books in our collection are inscribed, some are, and show evidence of these books having been used as intended. Nearly all of these books contain elaborately decorated presentation pages, intended to be filled out by the gift-giver to the recipient. One of our copies of a Masonic gift book called The Emblem: A Gift for All Seasons, for example, reflects the nineteenth-century activity of exchanging gifts at New Year's and is inscribed to "Mollie K. Randolph, New Year's 1859."

If you're interested in learning more generally about gift books, a couple of good online resources can be found below.

"Gift Books and Annuals." American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States.

"Tokens of Affection: Art, Literature, and Politics in Nineteenth Century American Gift Books." Publishers' Bindings Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books.

 To see what gift books we have in our collections, do a subject search for "gift books" in our online catalog.


Rev. John Perry and Paschal Donaldson, eds. The Masonic Offering for All Seasons: Faith, Hope, Charity. New York: Cornish, Lamport & Co., [between 1851 and 1853]. Gift of Wallace M. Gage.
Call number: RARE 60 .P463

The Odd Fellows' Offering for 1849. New York: Edward Walker, 1849. Gift of Grant B. Romer.
Call number: RARE HS997 .D676 1849
[A digitized copy is available via Google Books]

Counting Down to 2013

Lectern Front2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the parent organization for the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.  In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA, was formed.  Over the coming months, you will read more about this anniversary and the history of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction on our blog.  We will also open an exhibition about the NMJ next spring (check our website for details as Spring 2013 approaches!).

The Museum & Library actively collects objects and documents from the Scottish Rite.  Many of the objects already in our collection are gifts from a Scottish Rite member or local group to the governing body, the Supreme Council, which is located in Lexington, Massachusetts, on the same campus as the Museum.

One of the most eyecatching gifts now in the collection is a lectern that was presented to the Supreme Council in 1931 by the DeWitt Clinton Consistory of the Valley of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Constructed from several different woods, and inlaid with miniature Masonic symbols, the lectern shows an Egyptian Revival style and sports a book holder at top supported by the Scottish Rite's double-headed eagle symbol.  A silver plaque on the lectern credits the design of the piece to Edgar A. Somes, the inlay to T.A. Conti, and the fabrication to Century Furniture Company and Associates.  Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a center of American furnituremaking during the late 1800s and early 1900s; the pride that makers took in their craft is evident from this lectern.Lectern plaque

The lectern was presented to Commander Leon M. Abbott at the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's 1931 annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan.  At the meeting, a representative from Michigan explained that the Egyptian style was chosen because of its connection to Masonic rituals and symbols.

Scottish Rite Lectern, 1931, Century Furniture Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Gift of the Supreme Council, 33o, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA, 2010.042.31.  Photographs by David Bohl.

"Threads of Brotherhood" Gallery Talk on Saturday, Sept. 15

Join us at 2 PM on Saturday, September 15 for an intriguing free talk in the “Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles" gallery. Aimee Newell, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library's Director of Collections, will explore women's contribution to Freemasonry in the 1800s and the 1900s.

How could women play a role in the impact that Freemasonry, an exclusively male organization, has had on American culture? Tangible evidence of women's support for their male relatives' Masonic activities are the skillfully executed textile work on view at the Museum in the "Threads of Brotherhood" exhibition.

Since the 1700s, this work has connected women not only to family and tradition, but also to the larger community. Auxiliary groups of women have contributed to Masonic organizations for centuries, helping them fundraise, sewing their regalia, and providing lodge decoration. By stitching a quilt or hooking a rug, a woman could both demonstrate support of her relations’ Masonic activities, as well as her knowledge of Masonic symbolism and ethics. These cherished family heirlooms that signified family identification with Freemasonry also functioned as educational tools – teaching family members about Masonic symbols and reminding Masons of the lessons they learned in the lodge. And, like the quilts used to fundraise for political or social causes, Masonic quilts and textiles were – and still are – used to raise money for Masonic projects and charities.

76_33_1 3 figures_croppedOne of the objects you will see in the exhibition is this needlework picture, stiched on silk that has been painted with watercolors. The young woman who created it in 1808 copied the design of a Past Master’s certificate to commemorate Benjamin Russell’s (1761-1845) term as Master of Boston’s Rising States Lodge. You can read a previous blog post by Aimee Newell that explores how the detail in the image celebrates Bejamin Russell's tenure as Master of the Rising States Lodge. If you are curious about Benjamin Russell himself, here is a link to J. L. Bell's Boston 1775 posts on this very interesting personality.  

Textiles can teach us about the individuals who them.  Between the end of the 1700s and the 1820s, some young women, and possibly the unknown maker of this object, attending female academies.  These educational institutions catered to daughters of elite and middling families.  At these academies students honed their needlework skills and may have received instruction in making silk and watercolor embroidered pictures like this one. Needlework pictures were often vibrant scenes done in rich - and costly - materials based on Biblical, historical, memorial, and literary sources. Many female academies also offered instruction in academic subjects such as French, geography, and mathematics, in addition to needlework.  An education at a female academy in the early 1800s represented an investment on the part of a young student's family.  In some cases, costs for tuition, board, and materials at a female academy could rival that of sending a young man to college.

Join us for this gallery talk and see what other stories can be told through the Masonic quilts and textiles featured in "Threads of Brotherhood." There will be another staff-led gallery talk about this exhibition on Saturday, October 20. It will be held at 1 PM so that participants can attend the 2 PM lecture by Pamela Weeks on "Quilts for Civil War Soldiers: Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield."

The gallery talk is free. For further information, call the Museum's front desk at 781-861-6559 or refer to our website.

Photo credit:

Masonic Needlework Picture, 1808. Massachusetts. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.33.1.  Photograph by John M. Miller

Lions, Rotarians, and Kiwanis, Oh My!: Service Club Singing

Songs_of_Kiwanis_webKiwanis International, Lions Club International, and Rotary International comprise the "big three" of American service clubs. Although often confused with fraternal organizations, service clubs differ in that they do not have a lodge system with a ritualistic initiation ceremony. Instead, service clubs were, and continue to be, voluntary membership organizations whose aim is connect with other business people, promote ethical business practices, and use their professional skills to give back to their community through a variety of service-oriented programs.

Rotary, the first service club, was founded in 1905 and was later followed by the Kiwanis Club (1915) and the Lions Club (1917). Service organizations caught on quickly after that - by 1920 there were 300,000 Americans who belonged to a service club. Ten years later, in 1930, service club membership worldwide numbered in the millions. As Jeffrey A. Charles argues in Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions, the emergence and success of service clubs in the first few decades of the twentieth century was tied to the continuing nineteenth-century "appeal of the fraternal order and the emergence of the women's club."

The mission of service clubs focused primarily on a "service" ideal - for example, by establishing community charities to improve towns and neighborhoods. The businessmen (service clubs did not allow women to join until 1987) who were members of service clubs planned, organized, and carried out events, while also donating supplies, time, and labor to complete projects. Taking root in the 1920s and 1930s, service clubs reacted to and created a certain type of social change following World War I. Fraternal organizations reacted to these changes as well, placing a greater emphasis on the type of service that Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis were committed to. It is no coincidence, for example, that one of the most well-known Masonic charities - Shriners Hospitals for Children - was first established in 1922 and throughout its history has treated patients who have no connection to the Shriners or Freemasonry. (Acceptance for treatment at a Shriners Hospital is based solely on a child’s medical needs.)

Songs_for_Lions_webBut on a lighter, more whimsical note, what about service clubs and singing? We have two wonderful booklets in our library collection that suggest a rich singing tradition in service clubs. Songs of Kiwanis, "the Official Song Book of Kiwanis International," was published in 1927 and distributed to members. Songs for Lions, published in 1926, is, according to the foreword, the first song book that was published for Lions Clubs. The songs in both books include patriotic songs, peppy tunes about the club, and familiar pop hits from the teens like "Ain't We Got Fun" and "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."

But when, exactly, did service clubs sing? The Kiwanis songbook provides a lot of guidance on this topic in noted musicoligist Sigmund Spaeth's "Foreword to Song Leaders" at the beginning of the book. Noting that there should never be a lack of songbooks at a Kiwanis luncheon and that the meeting should start with a patriotic number and also include at least one Kiwanis song. Spaeth also suggests that

"Singing during the progress of the meal is entirely feasible, but the leader should be careful to ask for cooperation only when most of the members are not actually eating, i.e. between courses. Even with the inevitable noise of waiters and dishes, one can do much with 'gang songs' and the livelier, more obvious type of music."

Spaeth wasn't just interested in Kiwanis members singing. In the 1940s he wrote a series of articles for the official Rotary International magazine, both encouraging members to sing and talking about the history of some of popular songs that were sung in Rotary meetings.

Of course, singing is a small, but important part of service clubs. As Sigmund Spaeth noted about the Kiwanis in 1927, "no matter how vital the other activities may be, the fact remains that the spirit of congeniality and good fellowship, which is the foundation of every club, finds its best and most natural expression in the common bond of music."

As for service clubs today, some clubs still incorporate singing into their meetings while others do not. It appears that there has been some recent interest among service club members to connect to their singing roots - at least among Lions and Rotarians.


Songs of Kiwanis: The Official Song Book of Kiwanis International. Chicago: Kiwanis International, [1927]
Call number: M1920 .K5 [1927]

Songs for Lions. Chicago: Lions International, 1926.
Call number: M1977 .L53 1926