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March 2020

Top-Quality Toppers

Worshipful Master's Top Hat, ca. 1900
Worshipful Master's Top Hat, ca. 1900. Collins & Fairbanks, retailer. Boston, Massachusetts. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, 98.011. Photograph by David Bohl.

Top hats, now mostly regarded as relics of a bygone era, nonetheless reigned as the be-all, end-all in formal headgear from the late 1700s through the early 1900s—an impressively long time in the fickle realm of fashion. While thanks in part to their iconic shape these hats may appear simple, their construction was anything but, demanding the highly practiced handiwork of experienced tradespeople.

Take, for example, the hat pictured here, from the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. This particular topper was likely produced in Europe around 1900, and offered to American consumers by Boston retailer Collins & Fairbanks. The manufacturing process for such a hat started with the creation of an inner form made from cambric, a cheesecloth-like textile, which was bathed in shellac and then dried on racks in a heated room. Stiff but still moldable, the resulting material was shaped on a hat block and covered with silk plush, a material so expensive that only the most skilled artisan in the shop was allowed to cut it. Next the brim was cut, and curled just so, using a specialized tool and a few well-practiced flicks of the wrist. There was no room for error in this process: the final product had to have perfectly straight lines and, most magically of all, no visible seams. You can see step-by-step photos in this 1899 issue of the English Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine.

In the Masonic lodge, the Master wears a top hat to signify the authority of his office and to command respect. The height of a top hat’s crown, the curl of the brim, and the material used to form the hat have all changed repeatedly over the years to reflect prevailing fashion, but the meaning of this symbol in Freemasonry has stayed the same, as illustrated by the photograph below.

Members of Union Lodge No. 5, 1964.
Members of Union Lodge No. 5, Dec. 16, 1964. Hamilton Photo Co. Stamford, Connecticut. Gift of George Talisse, 2015.062.6.

The hat featured here is one of many objects that will be displayed in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s upcoming exhibition “What’s in a Portrait?” This exhibition of paintings, prints, and photographs from the collection explores portraits and some of the signs, symbols, and objects in them that tell the viewer the subject belonged to a Masonic or fraternal group.

To keep in touch while the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is closed due to the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts, please join us on Facebook, and check out our virtual exhibitions and our online collections. And, as always, we welcome your observations and ideas in the comments section below.

References:

Gavin Macdonald,“How A Silk Hat Is Made.” The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, 1899, Vol. 2. 235-238. Retrieved from this Google Books page.


A Supreme Council, and a Nation, Mourns the Death of a President

In commemoration of President Abraham Lincoln's life and the impact that his assassination in April 1865 had upon the nation and the fraternity, the staff of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library wish to present this highlight from the collection, Supreme Council member Benjamin Dean's hand-written preamble and resolutions regarding the death of President Lincoln. This document demonstrates how, as Freemasons, one of the fraternity’s governing bodies, the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, expressed not only their sorrow for the President's death, but how the Lincoln assassination was an affront to what Freemasonry embodied.  

A2019_097_003DS1Handwritten preamble and resolution of Benjamin Dean, 1865 May 17.
 

In the Supreme Council of Sovereign Inspectors General 33º for the Northern Jurisdiction of the United States,

May 17, 1865.

Since the last annual meeting of this Supreme Council the nation has been deprived of its chief magistrate by the hand of an assassin.

It is peculiarly fit + proper that a body assembled from all the States of our Jurisdiction, and representing so largely our numerous + influencial [sic] brotherhood, a brotherhood whose ancient charges inculcate among its first duties – “to be peaceable citizens + cheerfully to conform to the laws of the country in which we reside – to avoid being concerned in plots and conspiracies against government + cheerfully to submit to the decisions of the Supreme Legislature; it is fit + proper that such an assemblage – true to its teachings – should give some expression to the family of our deceased + honored President, of our sympathy with their misfortunes, + pray for the restoration of peace to their troubled minds.

Therefore, resolved – that we deplore the untimely end of our late honored President Abraham Lincoln – cut off by horrid violence – in the midst of the high dignities imposed upon him by this people.

Resolved – that we sympathize with the nation + with his distressed family in their unparallelled [sic] affliction.

Resolved, that this expression of our sympathy be spread upon our records, + a copy thereof be sent by our Secretary General to the family of our deceased President.

Unanimously passed by the Supreme Council, Dean’s measure was only one of many tributes paid by Freemasons to the martyred President throughout the summer of 1865. And although the President was not a Freemason, in an interview in October 1860 with the American poet and Freemason Rob Morris, presidential candidate Lincoln intimated his “great respect” for the fraternity, and it was widely speculated and reported that Lincoln had only “postpone[d] his application for the honors of Masonry” until after his second term as President and the great burden of office had passed.


Captions

Handwritten preamble and resolution of Benjamin Dean, 1865 May 17. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 300.002.

References

“A Conversation with Mr. Lincoln.” Voice of Masonry and Tidings from the Craft 3, no. 6 (June 1865): 248.