A 1794 Masonic Medal from New London
March 26, 2013
In 1794 Freemasons in New London, Connecticut, had much to celebrate. After several years of inactivity, Union Lodge (now Union Lodge #31) received a dispensation from the newly organized Grand Lodge of Connecticut. As a sign of enthusiasm, one lodge member had this attractive gold medal manufactured and engraved.
Around the time this medal was crafted, Masons on both sides of the Atlantic commissioned personal badges or medals made out of precious metals to wear to lodge meetings and at processions. Unlike jewels of office that were owned by a lodge, these badges belonged to individual Masons. Men wore them as a sign of their connection with Freemasonry, its ideals and place in the community. Engraved with Masonic symbols and often the owner’s name and initiation date, these badges linked, in an enduring way, Masons with the organization they valued.
Many of these badges, sometimes called chapter medals, although engraved by different craftsmen and owned by men in different parts of the country, share similarities in shape, size and iconography. Decorated on both sides, this small oval medal—about 1 ½ inches long—bears a Latin motto, multiple Masonic symbols, the owner’s initials, J. S. (or possibly J. P.), and the year, 1794, with the words, “Member of Union Lodge N. London.” This medal also features Masonic symbols such as an open bible, square and compasses, various working tools, an all-seeing eye, a dove and ark, pillars, suns, moons, stars, and a coffin; symbols associated with Freemasonry’s first three degrees. On the medal the engraver also illustrated symbols related to Royal Arch Freemasonry.
New England chapter medals emerged from an English practice. As early as 1776 the frontispiece of a London-printed Masonic expose, Jachin & Boaz, or An Authentic Key to the Door of Free Masonry, showed an engraved medal featuring many of the same symbols as seen on this and other chapter medals. Text within the publication also described the badges noting that: “These medals are usually of silver…on the reverse of these medals…some even add to the emblems other fancy things that bear some analogy to Masonry.” American engravers might have used illustrations in Jachin & Boaz or other publications as models for their depiction of Masonic symbols. As well, American publishers issued versions of Jachin & Boaz that opened with the same frontispiece as the British editions. Additionally, small emblems similar to this one were easily carried when their owners traveled. One craftsman might copy or seek inspiration from another engraver’s work; be it a medal, jewel, a certificate or Masonic apron. Residents of New London, a seaport, likely had the chance to socialize and do business with Masons from other parts of the country and the world.
So far, research has not confirmed who fired owned this medal, but Joseph Skinner, a member of Union Lodge who joined on December 23, 1794, is a good candidate. Although small, this carefully engraved medal, because it was made of gold, a scarce and costly material, was not ordered or worn casually. Whoever commissioned and wore this medal took pride in his association with Freemasonry.
John D. Hamilton, The Material Culture of the American Freemasons. Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1994. pp. 121-133, 140-142.
Barbara Franco, Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1976. pp. 25-26.
Many thanks to John Birdsall of Union Lodge #31.
Medal, ca. 1794. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Museum Purchase, 2000.059.7b.
Graeme--Thanks so much for your comment on the 1794 medal blog post--I agree, it is a lovely object. I will be sure to update this post if we learn anything else about who owned it.
Posted by: Hilary Anderson Stelling | March 28, 2013 at 04:18 PM
What a supremely beautiful item!
One imagines it was worn as a pendant, suspended from a ribbon. There are still such Masonic pendants in use, although I doubt if any of them is ad hoc, as this one is. You'd get to wear a medal if you were a Prestonian Lecturer, or had received other signal honors.
The museum does our community great service in owning and showing such artifacts. It's great to have access to a large image, so that we can admire the details!
Posted by: Graeme Marsden | March 28, 2013 at 10:46 AM