Masonic Apron, 1780-1800, Unidentified Maker, Probably Massachusetts, Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts Collection, GL2004.0143. Photograph by David Bohl.
I love learning about regional styles of craft and the cultural reasons that associate a particular style or design with a specific area. This is why when I saw a striking apron from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts on long-term loan to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, I was excited.
As recounted in Curiosities of the Craft the name “William O’Brien” is written on the underside of the apron’s flap. William O’Brien (1753-1784) was a member of the O’Brien family of Machias, Maine. William's brother, the famous Captain Jeremiah
O'Brien (1744-1818), is credited with capturing a British ship during the first naval battle of the American Revolution. The most common story associated with this apron was that it was worn during the procession held in memory of George Washington in 1800. However, this story conflicts with existing dates since William O’Brien died in Spain in 1784 and he would have been unable to participate in the processions. It is possible that the apron may have belonged to William but was worn by one of his brothers for the procession. William was a member of the Philanthropic Lodge in Marblehead, Massachusetts, while Jeremiah belonged to the St. Andrews Lodge of Boston.
The apron is made of white leather with “Memento Mori” (Remember Death) written in black ink across the front. While it is easy to be drawn in by this intriguing message, the black lace trimming on the apron also helps to illuminate the object’s history. The lace’s pattern is nearly identical to a pattern made in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ipswich was the home of a lace industry from approximately the 1750s to 1840. A sample from
Whipple House detail from The Laces of Ipswich by Marta Cotterell Raffel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
the Whipple House in Ipswich, an Ipswich historic property named for its first owner, entrepreneur Captain John Whipple (1596-1669), shows striking similarities to the Grand Lodge apron. Both use thicker thread (called gimp) to outline parts of the design. The “spider” motif pattern under the gimp outline near the scalloped edge of the apron lace is very similar to the Whipple House sample. In Laces of Ipswich, Marta Cotterell Raffel explains that lace makers developed the Whipple House pattern in the region. In fact, the Whipple House sample was sent to the Library of Congress as part of a survey of early regional American industries. The marked similarity between the lace on the apron and the Whipple House lace sample supports the story that this apron originated in New England.
No matter who wore the apron, the time and places William and his brothers were active in a time and place when Ipswich lace would have been available. Due to trade embargoes and boycotts of British goods, Ipswich lace may have been a patriotic and also a practical decision. Though delicate and purely ornamental, this black lace helps tell a story of early industry on the North Shore and of the men who fought to win American Independence.
Kayla Bishop is a volunteer in the Museum's collections department. For the past 5 months, Kayla has assisted in all aspects of collections management. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
Marta Cotterell Raffel, The Laces of Ipswich (Lebanon, New Hampshire, 2003); 86-87, 142-143.
Aimee E. Newell, Hilary Anderson Stelling and Catherine Compton Swanson, Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection (Boston and Lexington, Massachusetts: Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, 2013), 234.