Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts

Bicorne Hats and Beavers

Hat with Box, 1830-1840Hat with Box, 1830-1840. Boston, Massachusetts. Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.0138a-c.

Continuing along the lines of last week’s post, here we’ll look at another meticulously crafted hat at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library: a folding bicorne-style hat, pictured to the left. Stylistically related to the tricorne hat and an antecedent to the formal top hat popular in the 1900s, the bicorne could be conveniently folded and tucked between the arm and body when removed. For this reason it was also known as a chapeau-bras or “under the arm” hat.

This extraordinary example, with its own hand-made case, is from the collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, cared for at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. Thought to date to the 1830s, this hat was owned by William Pierce, Jr. A member of the Boston Commandery, No. 2, Pierce may have worn this headgear as part of his regalia. If so, it would be one of the earliest known items of Knights Templar regalia in New England. In the image below, you can see one example of the full regalia of this Masonic order as it would have appeared slightly later, in the 1850s-1860s (although the hat pictured in this image was not a folding type). While Knights Templar regalia has changed over time, the bicorne hat, or chapeau, often adorned with an ostrich feather, remains a distinctive element of it.

Isiah Frazier in Knights Templar Uniform, 1855-1860.Isiah Frazier in Knights Templar Uniform, 1855-1860. Isaac Rehn. Possibly Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Museum Purchase, 97.017.

Like many fine hats manufactured in the early 1800s, the one shown above was made from beaver pelt instead of the more affordable (and less water-repellent) wool felt. Beaver hats, as all styles of hat from this pelt were known, were labor intensive to create. To felt (or mat down) the fur of the pelt, hatmakers first had to remove its longer, coarser hairs. Then they brushed it with a solution of mercuric nitrate and washed, dried, and shaped it. The phrase “mad as a hatter,” incidentally, arose from a very real phenomenon, as the fumes created during this process gave workers terrible symptoms of mercury poisoning such as tremors, confused speech, and vision disturbances. Luckily for both beavers and hatters, by the mid-1800s silk plush and other materials began to supplant beaver pelt in hat fashions.

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 online exhibitions and our digital collections. And, as always, we welcome your comments below.

 

Reference:

Tabbert, Mark A., 32º. "Sifting through the Past: Gems from the Massachusetts Grand Lodge Collection." The Northern Light, Scottish Rite Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA. Nov. 2005. 9. Accessed April 2, 2020 at https://scottishrite.nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/downloads/The-Northern-Light/2005/TNL-November2005.pdf?mtime=20191205111233

 


Jewels in Blue

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Cyanotype of a Past Master's Jewel made for Otis E. Weld, 33°. Probably Boston, Massachusetts. Loaned by The Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.10643g.

In 1842, British scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) invented the cyanotype process—a photographic printing method that produces a cyan-blue print, commonly known as a blueprint. Engineers, scientists and photographers used the process as a simple and low-cost way to produce copies of drawings, photographs, and technical and architectural plans, from the 1870s through the 1950s.

Some cyanotype examples are in the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts collection at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. These particular cyanotypes are photographs of Masonic jewels and likely belonged to Otis Everett Weld, 33°(1840-1897). They are part of a larger group that appear to be documenting jewels owned by Weld. Weld, born in Boston, was head of the Otis E. Weld & Co, wine merchants and director of the Third National Bank and Bolyston Insurance Company.

Initiated in 1866 in the Lodge of Eleusis, he served as Junior Grand Warden and Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1880 and 1894, respectively. Weld was also a member of St. Bernard Commandery and St. Andrew’s Chapter, both in Boston, and a trustee and financial benefactor for Masonic organizations.

In the June 1897 Grand Lodge of Massachusetts proceedings Thomas W. Davis (1844-1914) offered these kind words in his memorial, "His advancement in our Order was due not alone to his gifts of popularity, boundless though they seemed; not because he was an appreciative student of the ritual, but because the teachings of the Institution permeated his very being...".

These photographs show the varied ways the cyanotype process could be utilized beyond architectural plans. Have you encountered images using this photographic process? Have you seen jewels similar to Otis E. Welds's? Let us know in the comments section below.

References:

Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, (Boston, Massachusetts: Rockwell & Churchill, 1897) 101.

Cyanotypes, The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes The Getty Conservation Institute,https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/atlas_cyanotype.pdf, accessed June 2019.

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Cyanotype of Grand Master's Jewel made for Otis E. Weld, 33°. Probably Boston, Massachusetts. Loaned by The Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.10643e

A Freemason's Heart

2013_026_1DP1DBIn late 2013, when Supreme Council staff packed up to move down to their new offices inside the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library building, a number of treasures were found in storage spaces and were added to the Museum’s collection.  One of the oldest items discovered was this engraving titled “Freemasons Heart.”  Dating to about 1820, the engraving depicts a large heart under compasses and an all-seeing eye and flanked by allegorical figures of Liberty and Justice.  The heart is divided into sections, each labeled with a virtue central to Masonic teachings, such as fidelity, mercy and charity.  At the center of the heart is a space marked “Christianity” with a G and square and compasses emblem on a Bible.  A verse below the Bible reads “The Bible rules our faith without factions, the square and compass rules our lives and actions.”

When we add a new object to our collection, we catalog it into our database system so we can track it for use in our exhibitions, programs and publications.  We try to do as much research as we can, although that can be an ongoing process, as it will be for this print.  We have learned some history about it, but we still have a number of questions that require further study.  Unfortunately, we do not know much about who originally owned this particular example.  A handwritten inscription on the back of the frame reads “Cap. Joseph Burnett, Stowe, Vermont.”  Possibly, this is the Joseph Burnett born in 1816 who died in 1875, but additional research is needed to conclusively identify him.  It does make sense that the engraving would have been owned in Vermont because the engraver and publisher produced this print in that state.

Engraver Moody Morse Peabody (1789-1866) and publisher Ebenezer Hutchinson worked together in the Quechee area of Vermont, near the New Hampshire border.  As early as 1819, the two men produced a map of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Additional research is ongoing about the lives of these two men.  Scholars George R. Dalphin and Marcus A. McCorison were able to track Peabody, who was born in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to Vermont and then to Whitehall, New York, in 1826.  Later he moved to Utica, New York, where he was listed in city directories from 1828 to 1840 as an engraver and copperplate printer.  He died in Ontario, Canada, in 1866.  Less information is currently known about Hutchinson; there are a couple of men with this name in the same general area around the time he was active, so it is difficult to know which one he was.

It seems likely that Hutchinson and Peabody were Freemasons.  The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection, on extended loan to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, includes an engraved Royal Arch apron that is signed “Printed and Sold by E. Hutchinson Hartford Queechy Village VT.”  Masonic scholar Kent Walgren found an 1820 advertisement in the Vermont Republican newspaper for Peabody who was selling Masonic aprons and diplomas through Hutchinson.  Walgren also suggests that the inclusion of the motto “Supporters of Government” at the top of the print may allude to the Illuminati scare of the late 1790s.  In an attempt to win back public approval and explain that American Freemasons were not part of the alleged Illuminati plot, the printmakers noted that they backed government.  If you know of other Masonic prints by Ebenezer Hutchinson or Moody Morse Peabody, please let us know by writing a comment below!

Freemasons Heart, ca. 1820, Moody Morse Peabody, engraver, Ebenezer Hutchinson, publisher, Hartford, Vermont.  Gift of the Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A., 2013.026.1.  Photograph by David Bohl.

 


Busy Beaver Lodge

2014_099_6DS1One of my favorite things about being a curator is connecting objects to each other. Recently, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library received a photograph of the officers of Beaver Lodge in Belmont, Massachusetts, in 1932. Two rows of men are arranged in their Masonic best in the lodge room with the Master’s chair and two columns visible behind them. They wear aprons, collars and jewels. The Deacon and Steward each hold their respective rods. Accompanying the photo in the gift to the Museum & Library were these rods – a wonderful opportunity to connect the objects to the photograph to help visitors and researchers to visualize how the lodge room looked in the early 1930s and the scale of the rituals that these men performed. 2014_099_9DP1DB

Beaver Lodge was chartered in Belmont in 1922. The population of the town had doubled between 1910 and 1920 and would do so again between 1920 and 1930. Members of the existing lodge, Belmont Lodge, numbered more than 500 and the officers realized that the time had come to form a second lodge in town. The name “Beaver Lodge” was chosen due to the location of Beaver Brook and the beaver ponds and dams nearby, as well as the inclusion of the beaver on the official seal of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. 2014_099_8DP2DB

The lodge’s history recounts that “most of the Lodge equipment was donated by various Brethren, and the aprons, jewels, collars and other articles of equipment procured as soon as they could be made.” Presumably, this included the two rods shown here. Both are decorated with silver depictions of the lodge seal and the top of each is engraved “Beaver Lodge.” The Deacon’s rod is also marked “Presented to Thomas Stewart,” suggesting that he served the lodge in this office at some point. Stewart (1885-1968), who was born in Scotland, worked as an electrician and joined Belmont Lodge in 1917. He became a charter member of Beaver Lodge when it formed.

Reference:

Amos L. Taylor, “History of Beaver Lodge,” Proceedings of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the Year 1947 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Cosmos Press, Inc., 1948), 330-341.

Beaver Lodge Officers, 1932, Fairfield Studio, Boston, Massachusetts. Gift of Keith C. MacKinnon, 2014.099.6.

Beaver Lodge Deacon’s Rod and Steward’s Rod, circa 1922, United States. Gift of Keith C. MacKinnon, 2014.099.8 and .9. Photographs by David Bohl.


Skeletons in the Lodge Room

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As we often like to remind our readers, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library actively collects materials associated with any and all American Masonic and fraternal groups.  This recent acquisition is a pin that was produced for members of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction (SJ) in 1905.  The two American Scottish Rite jurisdictions co-exist in the United States.  The Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (NMJ) oversees Scottish Rite groups in fifteen states in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.  The SJ administers Scottish Rite groups in the other 35 states, as well as Washington, D.C. where their headquarters is located.  The NMJ founded the Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1975.

The two jurisdictions don’t always follow the same ritual, but the symbols on this pin were also used by the NMJ during the 1800s and early 1900s.  An illustration in The Book of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, written by Charles McClenachan (1829-1896) in 1867 – who served as Chair of the NMJ’s Ritual Committee from 1882 to 1896 – shows the same skeleton holding a chalice and a banner (at the left side of the illustration - click on it to see a larger version).  This prop was used in the ritual for the fraternity’s honorary 33rd degree ritual. When McClenachan wrote his book in 1867, the Scottish Rite conferred degrees in much the same way as local lodges.  McClenachan’s illustration shows the men wearing sashes over their street clothes.  A few years later, members changed their rituals to theatrical endeavors complete with sets, costumes and props. RARE14.7.M126 1867DP1DB

The shape and materials of this pin were popular among fraternal groups during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The shield shape relates to fraternal symbolism, while the enamel face allowed for colorful and detailed decoration.  The Museum’s collection includes at least one similar pin associated with the NMJ from 1901, while the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection includes several round enamel pins produced for local Knights Templar Commanderies in 1895.

This pin was probably given or sold to attendees of the SJ’s biennial meeting in Washington, D.C., in October 1905.  Along the bottom is the Latin phrase, “Post Tenebras Lux,” which translates to “Light After Darkness.”

Top: Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction pin, 1905, unidentified maker, United States, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 2014.057.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Bottom: Frontispiece, The Book of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, 1867, Charles T. McClenachan, author, Masonic Publishing and Manufacturing Company, publisher, New York, New York, Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.  Photograph by David Bohl.

 

 


New to the Collection: A Masonic Punch Bowl

Punch Bowl Inside BottomAs the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library’s current lobby exhibition, “Called to Refreshment,” makes clear, Freemasons often socialized as part of their meetings.  Masonic lodges invested in pitchers, platters, bowls and other kinds of serving ware for the time when they were “called from labor to refreshment.”  Freemasons – then and now – also socialized outside of the lodge.  Using objects decorated with Masonic symbols on these occasions let everyone know that their owner identified with Freemasonry and valued his association with the group.

This bowl, which was recently acquired by the Museum & Library, is almost thirteen inches in diameter and shows a total of eleven transfer-printed images in the bottom and on the inner and outer sides.  Bowls of this size and shape were generally used to serve punch.  The image inside the bottom of the bowl features two classical figures with a series of five architectural columns.  Several Masonic tools are scattered on the ground.  A verse reads “To heavens high Architect all praise / All gratitude be given / Who design’d the human soul to raise / By secrets sprung from heaven.”  This verse appeared as early as 1769 in A Candid Disquisition of the Principles and Practices…of Free and Accepted Masons by Wellins Calcott.

Punch Bowl Masonic SceneThe decorations on the outside alternate between Masonic and non-Masonic.  The Masonic image shows a temple with three figures wearing their aprons and other Masonic symbols.  Another image is American in subject with a liberty cap at the top.  Dating back to ancient Rome, the liberty cap was often used as a symbol of freedom during the American and French Revolutions.  A verse below the cap reads “As he tills the rich glebe the old peasant shall tell, / While his bosom with Liberty glows. / How your Warren expir’d, how Montgomery fell. / And how Washington humbled your foes.”  These lines come from the poem “American Freedom,” written by Edward Rushton (1756-1814) of Liverpool, England. Punch Bowl Liberty Cap

The name of the original owner, Ephraim McFarland, is printed inside the bottom of the bowl.  The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts lists an Ephraim McFarland as a member of Boston’s St. Andrew’s Lodge.  This man was initiated in January 1801 and received the second degree in December 1801, but his membership record does not indicate that he ever received the third degree of Master Mason.  Information given to the Museum & Library with the bowl suggested that the original owner was the Ephraim McFarland who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1763 and married in 1782. 

Further research suggests that the bowl’s owner might actually have been the Ephraim McFarland who lived in Belfast, Maine.  This Ephraim was born in 1765 in Boothbay, Maine, and died in 1849, also in Maine.  This Ephraim was a ship captain who sailed between Maine and Boston.  He both owned and commanded several ships.  His travel to Boston would have provided opportunities to join St. Andrew’s Lodge and to purchase this bowl.

Masonic punch bowl, 1790-1820, England, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 2015.029.


New to the Collection: Master Mason Apron

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Master Mason Apron, 1800-1820, unidentified maker, United States, Museum purchase, 2014.115.3. Photograph by David Bohl.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library was very excited to purchase this apron at auction last fall.  It has a rather jaunty painted decoration on silk.  The central image includes a mosaic pavement with two columns supporting a distinctive pedimented archway, hung with pink drapery.  At each side is a taller column, one with an allegorical figure of Faith, the other with Charity.  In the center, in the midst of a blue sky, sits a figure of Hope with an anchor.  Scattered along the sides are several Masonic symbols, often included on Master Mason aprons.  Unfortunately, we do not know who made or owned this apron.

But, it does bear a striking similarity in style and design to an apron now in the collection of the Detroit Historical Society.  That apron shows the same blue and white mosaic pavement and a very similar pedimented archway with drapery, although in blue rather than gold.  It also has the allegorical figures of Faith, Hope and Charity.  According to family history, this apron was owned by Oliver Williams (1774-1834), who became a Freemason in Corinthian Lodge in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1813, but moved his family to Detroit a few years later.

Family history for that apron attributes it to a William Marshall.  And there was a William Marshall in Boston who joined the city’s Lodge of St. Andrew in 1797.  However, he is listed as a merchant on his membership card at the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.  Advertisements in the Boston newspapers from 1808 to 1815 note that Marshall specialized in wallpapers:  he “has on hand, a good assortment of new figured Paper Hangings and Borders, some of which are his own making,” as well as beds, bed ticking, mattresses and upholstered furniture.  Given this evidence, this apron may have been purchased from Marshall’s store – or there was another William Marshall who worked actively as an artist. 

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Master Mason Apron, 1800-1820, unidentified maker, United States, gift of Robert U. Brown, 85.76.2. Photograph by David Bohl.

The pedimented archway that is so prominent on this apron calls to mind the elaborate doorway pediments that were popular in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts during the mid-1700s.  Perhaps the artist of this apron was from that area, or had visited and was influenced by the doorways.  The bright color scheme was popular during the early 1800s.  Here are examples of two other aprons from our collection that employ similar colors and symbols.  The history of ownership and manufacture has been lost for each, but taken together with the one we just purchased, we can see that Freemasons of the early 1800s enjoyed bright colors and a similar rendering of central Masonic symbols.

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Master Mason Apron, ca. 1836, unidentified maker, United States, Museum purchase, 98.063.1. Photograph by David Bohl.

To learn more about our apron collection, see our new book, The Badge of a Freemason: Masonic Aprons from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, available June 2015 at www.scottishritenmj.org/shop.

 

 


Souvenirs from Solomon's Temple

GL2004_4583DP4DBAn inscription on the lid of this silver octagonal box tells its story:

"This piece of Magnesian lime stone was broken off from the side of one of the large foundation stones on which stood the renowned Temple of Solomon. It was procured by myself with considerable difficulty, the place being guarded by an armed Turkish soldier, in the spring of 1851 in the ancient city of Jerusalem, & it is affectionately presented to Hammatt Lodge, East Boston, as a memorial —J. V. C. Smith Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Boston. Feb. 22, 1860."

Applied to the front of the box is an open book, representing the Bible, with a square and compasses symbol. The box is lined with dark blue velvet. Inside rests the piece of white limestone.

Masonic ritual is based on the biblical story of the building of King Solomon’s Temple. The structure is described in 1 Kings 6–7, including its dimensions and the materials used in its construction. Builders erected the Temple in the tenth century BC as a sacred resting place for the Ark of the Covenant, which contained fragments of the Ten Commandments’ tablets. In 597 BC, Babylon conquered Assyria and laid siege to Jerusalem. Ten years later, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, destroyed the Temple and stole most of the artifacts inside; the Ark of the Covenant vanished and its location remains a mystery.

For centuries, Solomon’s Temple has captured the imagination of Freemasons. Individual Masons, as well as groups of lodge brothers (like those in the photo to the right), made pilgrimages to the site of the Temple in Jerusalem throughout the late 1800s and the 1900s. These men often brought back souvenirs made out of limestone from King Solomon’s Quarry, thought to be the source of the stone for the Temple. GL2004_11735DS1

Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith (1800–1879), who obtained the stone in this box and donated it to Hammatt Lodge, of which he was a charter member in 1860, was born in Conway, New Hampshire. He attended Brown University and Williams College, eventually becoming a physician. In 1826, Smith took the post of health officer of the port of Boston, a position he filled until 1849. He also worked as a medical journalist.

Smith became a Mason in 1822 when he joined Boston's Mount Lebanon Lodge. In 1857, he demitted from that lodge and became a charter member of Hammatt Lodge. From 1852 to 1854, he served as District Deputy Grand Master of District No. 1, and, in 1860, he was Deputy Grand Master of Massachusetts. During the early 1850s, Smith traveled, going to Jerusalem in 1851, where he procured the piece of limestone from Solomon’s Temple illustrated here. He also obtained another set of stones that he presented to Boston’s Mount Lebanon Lodge in 1852. Smith published three books about his travels: Turkey and the Turks, A Pilgrimage to Egypt, and A Pilgrimage to Palestine. He also gave lectures to Masonic groups about his trips.

When Smith returned from abroad in 1854, his fellow citizens elected him mayor of Boston; he served into 1855. He also resumed his work as a medical journalist and, in 1854, became editor of the Medical and Surgical Journal. In 1870, Smith retired and moved with his wife to New York City, where he lived until his death in 1879.

Today, this box is part of the collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, which is on extended loan at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts. This box is one of more than 100 objects from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection featured in the recent book Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection.  You can order a copy here.  You can see this box and other souvenirs from Jerusalem in our current (July 2014) exhibition, “Prized Relics: Historic Souvenirs from the Collection.”

Box, 1860, unidentified maker, probably Boston. Gift of Hammatt Lodge, Collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.4583a-b. Photograph by David Bohl.

Massachusetts Masons at King Solomon’s Quarry, 1899, unidentified photographer, Jerusalem. Gift of King David Lodge, Collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.11735.

Sources:

Joseph Gutmann, “The Temple of Solomon and Its Influence on Jewish, Christian and Islamic Architectural Thought” in Companion to Contemporary Architectural Thought, ed. Ben Farmer and Hentie Louw (London: Routledge, 1993): 215-219.

Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1879 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1879), 67–68.


New Book: Curiosities of the Craft Available Now!

Curiosities CoverThe Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library have partnered to produce Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection.

On July 30, 1733, Henry Price (1697-1780), appointed by the Grand Lodge of England, gathered his Masonic brothers at a Boston tavern and formed what would become known as the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts.  Over the following 280 years, the Grand Lodge withstood wars, anti-Masonic sentiment and fires.  At the same time, the Grand Lodge amassed a collection of Masonic and historic objects, mementos and documents that tell not only its story, but also the story of Boston, New England and the United States.

Drawing on new research by authors Aimee E. Newell, Hilary Anderson Stelling and Catherine Compton Swanson, the book includes over 130 highlights from the Grand Lodge collection of more than 10,000 items acquired since 1733.  These objects represent the rich heritage of Freemasonry in Massachusetts and tell stories of life in the fraternity, in the state and around the world.  Some items were made or used by Massachusetts Masons, while others have associations with famous American Freemasons, such as George Washington (1732-1799) and Paul Revere (1734-1818).

Introduced with a history of the Grand Lodge collection, the catalog treats the themes of Traditions and Roots, Ritual and Ceremony, Gifts and Charity, Brotherhood and Community, and Memory and Commemoration.  Through the treasures of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts collection, this publication explores the ordinary men, craftsmen and extraordinary leaders who built and sustained Freemasonry in Massachusetts for centuries.

To purchase the catalogue for $44.95 (plus sales tax and shipping), contact the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts at 617-426-6040 or order online at www.massfreemasonry.org.

 


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.

References: 

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.