George Washington

"Washington's Reception on the Bridge at Trenton in 1785" Designed by John Ludlow Morton

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"Washington's Reception on the Bridge at Trenton in 1785," 1845-1849. Designed by John Ludlow Morton (1792-1871), New York, New York. Engraved by Thomas Kelley (b. ca. 1795), probably New York, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 85.8.2.

In 1789, President-elect George Washington (1732-1799) traveled from his home in Virginia to New York City for his inauguration. On his journey, well-wishers gathered along the road to fête him and to celebrate an important moment—the swearing in of the new nation’s first president. This print, Washington's Reception on the Bridge at Trenton in 1785, (at left) shows an event that took place during Washington’s journey. The image was created at least 50 years after Washington traveled to New York.

In 1776 Washington had won an important battle in Trenton, New Jersey.  Later called the Battle of Trenton, during this conflict on December 26, 1776, Washington routed Hessian soldiers from Trenton, where they had established their winter quarters.  Washington and his troops surprised the Hessians.  After a brief fight, the Continental Army captured over 800 Hessian soldiers.  Historians credit this victory with improving colonists’ moral and helping the Continental Army sign on more recruits in the following weeks and months.  A week or so later, Washington fought a smaller battle at Assunpick Creek, near Trenton.  At this battle, Washington and his troops defended a position near the bridge over the creek and kept the British soldiers from crossing the creek.

As Washington journeyed to his inauguration over ten years after the battle, Trenton residents called attention to Washington’s battles in the area. At the bridge over the Assunpick, townspeople built an evergreen arch decorated with flags for Washington to pass through. This lithograph shows Washington in Trenton as a group of young girls in white dresses pay him tribute by strewing flowers in his path.  In the distance, men doff their hats. The print shows the arch draped with a banner that reads, “The hero who defended the mothers [in] Decem 26, 1775 will protect the daughters."  The motto linked Washington’s work as a military leader with his future role as United States President.

This print, designed by New York artist John Ludlow Morton (1792-1871) for Columbian Magazine, may have been based on the watercolor pictured below.

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“The Hero who Defended the Mothers will Protect the Daughters,” 1845-1849. John Ludlow Morton (1792-1871), New York, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 85.8.1

If you are interested in this and similar prints of scenes from American history, be sure to come to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library to enjoy a new exhibition, “The Art of American History,” which opens to the public Saturday, November 17, 2018.

 

 


George Washington Masonic Folk Art

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Cigar band plate, 1890-1920. United States. Gift of Milton and Berry Walter, 2005.006.

George Washington died of complications from an infection at the age of 67, at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, in December of 1799. The American public produced many elaborate and public displays of mourning after Washington’s death. Artists and manufacturers also marketed mourning art and memorabilia in his name. In addition to mass-produced memorial items, unknown individuals often also created memorial folk art to commemorate Washington’s legacy.

Decades later an unknown artist fashioned this glass plate into a Masonic portrait of George Washington using paper cigar bands and cut-outs of Washington. The decoupage plate depicts Washington as a Freemason and celebrates his Masonic connections.  Washington wears a Masonic apron and collar. He is surrounded by Masonic symbols, including the all-seeing eye, columns, and an open bible with a square and compasses. Washington’s likeness and the aforementioned symbols appear to have been cut from a Masonic print. Washington’s stance and Masonic regalia suggest the print was modeled after an 1868 Currier & Ives print titled Washington as a Freemason. This popular Masonic lithograph was copied multiple times in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the mid-1800s, cigar manufacturers began to hire lithographers to produce decorative and aesthetically pleasing artistic cigar labels and boxes for their products.  These labels and boxes featured miniature portraits of historic figures, animals, logos, and landscapes. By the early 1900s, consumers began collecting the cigar labels and sharing information about them in groups like the International Cigar Band Society, founded in 1934. Individuals also started to create folk art using the paper cigar bands.  A popular homemade craft in the early 1900s, “cigar band art,” as it was commonly called, included decorated ceramics, glassware, and jewelry. 

Do you or someone in your family have Masonic related “cigar band art”? Let us know in the comments section below.

To learn more about George Washington memorial art, visit our online exhibition, The Many Faces of George Washington.


The Many Faces of George Washington

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library

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George Washington, President of the United States of America, 1796. H.D. Symonds, publisher, London, England. Gift of Dr. William L. and Mary B. Guyton Collection, 83.50.57.

owns over 500 prints that depict president and Freemason George Washington. Dr. William L. Guyton (1915-2011) and his wife Mary B. Guyton (1915-2003) donated the majority of the prints to the Museum in the mid-1980s. Guyton, a retired surgeon and World War II combat veteran, was a well-known collector of silhouettes and George Washington prints and books.The prints in the collection illustrate the vastly different ways in which artists interpreted Washington’s likeness throughout his lifetime and after his death. Many of these prints are newly digitized and featured in the online exhibition The Many Faces of George Washington, currently available on our website. The exhibition highlights illustrations of Washington that reflect not only his different roles but also Americans changing perception of Washington as an iconic American figure.

The collection includes some lesser-known prints of George Washington that illustrate idiosyncratic interpretations of Washington in imaginative settings or have only a vague likeness to his physical appearance. Some historians attribute these fanciful interpretations to the “geographical remoteness” of printmakers and their potential audiences to George Washington. 

This engraving on the right, titled George Washington, President of the United States, is one published by Henry Delahoy Symonds (1741-1816) in London in 1796. Symonds, a British bookseller and publisher, produced a series of prints similar to this one, the same year. The prints included the same design elements—the ornamental border, the subject's posture— but featured different historic statesmen including English politicians Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) and Lord William Russell (1639-1683).

Interestingly, in 1792, Symonds had been prosecuted and jailed for publishing a pamphlet written by political philosopher Thomas Paine (1737-1809). The pamphlet titled, Letter Addressed to the Addressers, on the late proclamation, was a response to the Royal Proclamation forbidding publication of "seditious" materials similar to Paine's book, Rights of Man. This work advocated for equal political rights and condemned hereditary government. In spite of running afoul of the law, Symonds continued publishing in the political realm, as his print of Washington attests.

Explore the online exhibition to learn more and to see these prints in high resolution detail!

References:

Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Cherry Lewis, The Enlightened Mr. Parkinson: The Pioneering Life of a Forgotten Surgeon, New York: Pegasus Books, 2017.

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George Washington Silhouettes

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is currently researching and digitizing the many prints in our collection that depict first president and Freemason George Washington (1732-1799). Among these are two silhouettes of George Washington. We own many examples of silhouette portraiture in the Museum & Library collection but have only a few profiles of Washington.

Silhouettes, also known as shades or profiles, were a popular and ubiquitous style of portraiture from the mid-1700s through the  1800s. They were less expensive than a painted portrait but declined in popularity with the invention of photography.  The word silhouette was derived from the name of French Minister of Finance Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) in the late 1700s. Silhouette cut shadow portraits as a hobby and was well known for his unpopular austere economic restrictions in France under king Louis XV (1710-1774). The term a-la silhouette  became synonymous with cheap. Profilist August Edouart (1789-1861) is thought to have popularized the word silhouette when he began using it to describe his profile portraits. 

There are four basic82_54_22DS1 techniques in the production of silhouettes: Hollow-cut, cut and paste, painted, and printed (engraved or etched). Hollow-cut ones are created by cutting the profile from the center of a piece of paper or other material and mounting it against a background of contrasting color, allowing the silhouette to show through the cut-out space. Cut and paste silhouettes are created by cutting out a profile and pasting it to a contrasting background.  

The Washington silhouette on the left is a bookplate engraving from Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) seminal work Life of Washington, Vol. IV, published in 1857. The engraving is based on the George Washington silhouette cut by Sarah De Hart (1759-1832) in 1783. De Hart, one of the earliest recorded American woman silhouettists, made her hollow-cut profiles without the popular physiognotrace device used to cut silhouettes in the early 1800s.  

The print includes this caption, “From the Original (cut with scissors) by Miss De Hart, Elizabethtown, N. J. 1783, Presented by Mrs. Washington to Mrs. Duer, daughter of Lord Stirling.” Catherine Alexander Duer (1755-1826) was a member of the prominent Livingston family from the Hudson Valley in New York. Her uncle Phillip Livingston (1716-1778), a New York delegate to the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. Her family was well acquainted with the Washingtons and George Washington gave her away at her 1779 wedding to Colonel William Duer (1747-1799).86_62_19DI1

The silhouette on the right is an engraved print from Johann Friedrich Anthing’s (1753-1805), Collection de cent silhouettes des personnes illustres et célèbres dessinées d'après les originaux [Collection of 100 silhouettes], originally published in 1791.  Dr. William L. Guyton (1915-2011) and Mary B. Guyton donated these silhouettes as part of a larger donation of George Washington engravings and prints. Guyton, a retired surgeon and World War II combat veteran, was a well-known collector of silhouettes and George Washington prints and books. He donated most of his silhouette collection to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. To see the newly digitized George Washington engravings, visit our online collection: http://www.srmml.org/collections/online-collections/

Stay tuned for more additions to the online collection in the coming months!

Captions:

George Washington, ca. 1857, Unidentified Engraver; G. P. Putnam and Co., publisher; Sarah De Hart, silhouettist, United States, Gift of Dr. William L. and Mary B. Guyton, 82.54.22

Washington, ca. 1791, Johann Friedrich Anthing, Germany, Gift of Dr. William L. and Mary B. Guyton, 86.62.19.

References:

Alice Van Leer Carrick, A History of American Silhouettes: A Collector's Guide-1790-1840, Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968.

E. Nevill Jackson, Silhouettes: A History an Dictionary of Artists, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981.

 

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A Centennial Textile Souvenir

2008_025DS1The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library has many images of George Washington (1732-1799) in its collection (stay tuned for more on that over the coming months!).  This banner features an image of the first president standing next to his horse.  So far, the source for this image of Washington is unknown.  The portrait may be original to the banner. 

The banner was probably produced as a souvenir in 1876, when the United States was celebrating its centennial.  Textiles like this one, along with many other items, were available for sale around the country and especially at the Centennial Exposition held that year in Philadelphia.  The red, white and blue color scheme was popular, along with the star, stripe and shield motifs, which were clearly understood as American symbols.  The shields are expressly identified on the banner as "Shield of U.S. America." 

Washington is reading a letter inscribed "Victory is Ours, Paul Jones."  This seems to be a reference to Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones (1747-1792).  Jones's best-known battle occurred in September 1779 while he served as captain of the Bonhomme Richard.  Jones engaged the Serapis, a British warship.  Outgunned from the beginning, Jones's ship suffered an onboard accident early in the battle when two of its guns exploded.  To compensate, Jones brought his ship close to the Serapis and secured the two ships using grapples and lines.  When the British captain asked Jones if he surrendered, Jones is famously said to have answered "I have not yet begun to fight."  Indeed, Jones led his crew to victory by repelling a British boarding party and causing significant damage to the Serapis

George Washington is well known as a Freemason; he joined Virginia's Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in 1753.  John Paul Jones was also a Freemason.  He joined Saint Bernard Lodge No. 122 in Scotland in 1770, later becoming a member of the Lodge of Nine Sisters in Paris.

Do you have a centennial souvenir in your collection?  Have you ever seen a similar portrait of George Washington?  Let us know in a comment!

George Washington Banner, ca. 1876, unidentified maker, United States or England, gift of the Valley of Peoria, Illinois, A.A.S.R., N.M.J., 2008.025.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Samuel Newman's Society of the Cincinnati Certificate

A1997_025_DS 400_webAmong the many treasures in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library's collection is this Society of the Cincinnati certificate, issued to Samuel Newman. It is dated May 5, 1784 and is signed by both George Washington (1732-1799) in his capacity as President of the Society of the Cincinnati and by Henry Knox (1750-1806) in his capacity as Secretary.

At first glance, the document seems to tell a straightforward story - one where the Society of the Cincinnati issued this certificate to Samuel Newman on May 5, 1784. But, as further research reveals, this seems not to be the case. Intriguingly, the date of Newman's certificate coincides with the first general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, which had been founded by officers of the Continental Army a year earlier, on May 13, 1783. Major General Henry Knox is credited with the idea of founding the Society, which was originally open to "commissioned officers in the Continental and French service who had served to the end of the [American Revolutionary] war and those who had resigned with honor after a minimum of three years' service as a commissioned officer."

Although dated May 5, 1784, it is unclear when this certificate was actually issued or when it was signed by Washington and Knox. Ellen McCallister Clark's article "The Diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati," provides well-researched information about the creation of early Society of the Cincinnati certificates. Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825) was responsible for designing the certificate. L'Enfant's design, which did not include the printed text, was approved on May 17, 1784, at the Society's first general meeting in Philadelphia. However, it was not until November 1784 that the first certificates, with L'Enfant's design and including the printed text, were printed. Close readers will note something strange here. It does not seem possible that Newman's certificate could have been signed or dated on the actual date shown on the certificate, since the first certificates were printed six months later.

Clark's article clears up much of this confusion by noting the process by which these certificates were issued. She notes that both Washington and Knox signed many blank certificates and then had them distributed to the state secretaries who would fill out the rest of the document. Clark also observes that the date on the document does not always correspond with the membership date of the individual it was issued to. She writes, "the dating of the diplomas also varied from state to state...the Pennsylvania and New York diplomas are marked uniformly with the date Washington signed, regardless of when they were actually issued to the members. Several surviving diplomas issued to members of the Rhode Island Society, on the other hand, bear the date 1 January 1784—predating L'Enfant's arrival from France with the copperplate [etched with his design]." The Samuel Newman certificate, dated May 5, 1784, also falls into this category of those certificates carrying a date earlier than the actual printing of the certificate.

Samuel Newman (d. November 4, 1791) served two years and seven months as a lieutenant in Crafts' Artillery Regiment, beginning in May 1776. He later served in the navy under Captain S. Nicholson until 1783. On March 4, 1791, he was appointed lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment upon its founding. On November 4, 1791, Newman, serving under General Arthur St. Clair was killed at the Battle of Wabash, one of the worst defeats suffered by the U.S. Army. Newman's journal, kept in the months before his death in 1791 is in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. A transcription of the journal was published in 1918 and is available online.

So just when did Newman become of a member of the Society of the Cincinnati? The minutes of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati indicate that he first applied for membership in 1786. Because he had not served a full three years as an officer, the Society deliberated over his membership application. Two years later, he was admitted as a member in July 1788, with the minutes noting that "his service in the State Regiments may be considered & allowed to supply the place of one year in the Continental service, which by the institution [i.e. Society of the Cincinnati] is required to qualify him to become a member...."

It may be unsurprising to learn that Newman, like many members of the Society of the Cincinnati, was also a Mason. He was raised a Master Mason in Massachusetts Lodge on January 4, 1781. In this way, Newman was like many of his fellow Cincinnati members. As Minor Myers, Jr. writes in Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati, "In many instances the Cincinnati were the Masons. In Connecticut, 40 percent of the Cincinnati were Freemasons, in Pennsylvania 36 percent. In many instances individuals joined the Masons after joining the society."

Caption:

Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate for Samuel Newman, ca. 1788, Probably Boston, Massachusetts, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Collection, Lexington, Massachusetts, Gift of Mrs. Gordon W. McKey, A1997/025.

References:

Bugbee, James M., ed. Memorials of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati (Boston: Printed for the Society, 1890)

Clark, Ellen McCallister, "The Diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati," Cincinnati Fourteen: Newsletter of the Society of the Cincinnati, Fall 2000 (37:1), 8-14. http://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/pdf/reading_lists/scholarship_lists_Cincinnati_Diplomas.pdf.

Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati: Minutes of all Meetings of the Society up to and Including the Meeting of October 1, 1825. (Boston: Privately printed, 1964)

Myers, Minor, Jr. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983)


Washington's Buttons or Shady Hoax?

86_62_10a-cDP1DBAt the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, we love objects that have a good story. This framed pair of buttons, which were donated in 1986 as part of a large collection of ephemera and prints associated with George Washington (1732-1799), have a fantastic story framed with them. However, years of curatorial experience have also made us somewhat suspicious of stories that seem too good to be true.

According to the information with the buttons, they are “General George Washington’s Military Waistcoat Buttons,” which he wore during the Revolutionary War. The typewritten note framed with the buttons goes on to trace their descent from George Washington through several generations of his family to William Lanier Washington (1865-1933). At the bottom of the note, William Lanier Washington signed his name and had his signature notarized. The buttons were part of an auction in New York City in February 1922 – they are listed as lot #198 and a note in the catalog indicates that they are “framed, together with the statement, made under affidavit, setting forth the history of these Revolutionary War relics of General Washington, and line of descent to the present owner.”

However, a little research into William Lanier Washington turns up some questions about the authenticity of the buttons. The auction at which these buttons were sold was at least the third that offered items from William Lanier’s collection. A catalog from a 1920 auction also includes multiple lots of buttons from George Washington’s clothing. And, there had been an auction in 1917, as well. Some accounts suggest that William Lanier Washington was known as a pariah in his family, although little has been written by scholars about these auctions or William Lanier. One story related to the 1917 auction ends tragically. At the sale, G.D. Smith (1870-1920), who helped Henry Huntington (1850-1927) assemble his famed library, purchased a pair of candlesticks thought to have been used on Washington’s desk at Mount Vernon. Three years later, William Lanier came to see Smith and attempted to sell him a set of candlesticks that Washington used on his desk at Mount Vernon. Smith related that he had already purchased one such set, got into an argument with Washington and dropped dead in the heat of the moment.

While the stories about William Lanier Washington and the repeated sales from his collection call the authenticity of these buttons - and the other objects in his auctions - into question (see also the survey scale at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, and the seal ring at the Sons of the American Revolution), he did have a direct family connection to George Washington and some of the items he sold were owned by George. You can judge for yourself in our new exhibition (June 2014), Prized Relics: Historical Souvenirs from the Collection, where the buttons will be on view.

Pair of Buttons, 1770-1840, unidentified maker, United States, Dr. William L. and Mary B. Guyton Collection, 86.62.10a-c. Photograph by David Bohl.

 


New to the Collection: A Masonic Stamp Collage

2013_051DS1The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently received this charming stamp collage as an addition to its collection.  The Masonic square and compasses symbol, representing reason and faith, along with the G in the middle, symbolizing God, geometry or both, is made out of postage stamps cut to fit the shape.  Above the symbol, the maker trimmed the portraits of George Washington (1732-1799) and six other presidents who were Freemasons out of stamps and applied them to the page.  More presidential portraits appear below the square and compasses emblem.

The collage is signed at the lower right corner: "John J. Buechler / 1929."  Unfortunately, although Buechler would seem to be a less common last name, a search of the 1930 U.S. Census records turned up several possibilities and we are currently unable to precisely identify which Buechler made this collage. 

We are very pleased to add this piece of intriguing folk art to our collection.  Donor Albert K. Resnick, who purchased it at a stamp show, generously gave it to the Museum & Library after enjoying it for forty years.  As he explained, "It represented my two main interests - Freemasonry and stamp collecting."  We look forward to preserving it for and exhibiting it in the future.

Masonic Stamp Collage, 1929, John J. Buechler, United States, gift of Albert K. Resnick, 2013.051.  Photograph by David Bohl.

 

 


George Washington Welcomes You!

Museum_Washington_CloseUp for portalIf you have visited the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library since 1979, you have been greeted by a statue of George Washington (1732-1799) outside the building.  As you may know, Washington was a Freemason.  Initiated in 1753 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, he became the first Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1788.  That lodge was later named Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 to honor the first President.  (For more posts related to George Washington, click here.)

The statue that greets our visitors today is pictured at left.  In 1784 the Commonwealth of Virginia commissioned the well-known French artist, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), to make a sculpture of George Washington.  Houdon traveled to Mount Vernon in October 1785, where he took measurements of Washington and made plaster casts of the man's face and limbs (check out this link for more on Houdon's process).  In 1791 Houdon completed the work and in 1796 it was installed in the Virginia State House.  The statue, which is 81 inches high, combines elements representing aspects of Washington's life.  In it he holds the cane of a gentleman, wears a soldier's uniform, stands in front of a farmer's plow, and rests his arm on an ancient Roman "fasces" or bundle of thirteen sticks - signifying his authority and the unity of the thirteen original states.  In 1910 the General Assembly of Virginia authorized the Gorman Company to make bronze replicas.  The one on view in front of the Museum is one of twenty-two made in the 1910s and 1920s.Library GW resized

Prior to the installation of the Gorman Company statue in front of the Museum in 2006, a statue of Washington by sculptor Donald DeLue (1897-1988) welcomed visitors.  Recently, that statue has been reinstalled in the reading room of the Museum's Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives (at right).  This is a half-size replica of the original statue, which the Grand Lodge of Louisiana commissioned from DeLue in 1959.  That nine-foot-tall statue was erected in front of the Public Library in New Orleans.  According to DeLue, the museum's sculpture is the "original model from which the large one was made."  It depicts Washington wearing his Masonic apron and holding a gavel as he stands next to an column-shaped altar.  The statue was a gift of the Stichter family in memory of Wayne E. Stichter, the Grand Lieutenant Commander of the Supreme Council and the Scottish Rite Deputy for Ohio.  Brother Stichter had served as Vice President of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library prior to his death in 1977.

Top: George Washington, 1924, from original by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), Gorman Company, Providence, Rhode Island, loaned by the Scottish Rite Valley of Columbus, Ohio, EL2004.001.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Bottom: George Washington as Master Mason, 1959, Donald DeLue (1897-1988), United States, gift of the Stichter Family, 2010.042.1.

 


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.

Photograph:

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