Masonic quilts

Quilted Celebrations of Masonic and Fraternal Activity

2011_059DP1DBThe Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library received the Masonic quilt at left as a recent gift.  It was made in 1981 and helps us bring our fraternal quilt collection closer to the present, allowing us to compare and contrast this quilt with others from the 1800s and early 1900s (see these previous blog posts!).  Anyone who quilted or sewed during the late 1970s and early 1980s may recognize some of the fabrics if you look at them closely.  We loved the story that the donor told about this quilt's history.  His aunt, a lieutenant commander and nurse in the U.S. Navy, made this bed covering for him on the occasion of his installation as Master of Crescent Lodge in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for the second time.  Edith Bowen, the quilt's maker, bought a book about Masonic symbols here at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library to help her design the quilt, which includes appliqued squares and compasses, cornucopias, a lyre and other recognizable symbols.

Shortly after we received this Masonic quilt, we were also given the fraternal quilt at right.  Made in 1989, it shows the symbol of the Pythian Sisters, a female auxiliary of the Knights of Pythias (for more on this group, see our posts), which was formed after the Civil War.  This quilt was a gift, honoring the accomplishments and volunteer efforts of one Pythian Sisters member, on the occasion of the group's centennial. 2011_066_4DP1DB

Have you made any Masonic or fraternal quilts?  Have you received one?  If so, we'd love to hear about it in a comment below.

Masonic quilt, 1981, Edith M. Bowen, United States.  Gift of Stephen J. Twining, 2011.059.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Pythian Sisters quilt, 1989, unidentified maker, United States.  Gift of the Estate of Geraldine M. Worley, 2011.066.4.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Brave the Snow to See our Cozy Masonic Quilts!

95.043.11 overall after consHere in New England, it’s the time of year when nothing seems more cozy than curling up in a warm quilt. There is no better time to visit our exhibition, “Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles.” The exhibit is on view through March 23, 2013, so make plans now to see it before it closes. The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with free admission and free parking.

Among the needlework on view is this quilt from about 1860, which is one of my personal favorites. I have always been drawn to its graphic nature. Unfortunately, it has rarely been exhibited because the red fabric was disintegrating and hanging it in the gallery would have caused more damage. Fortunately, we were able to perform some conservation work on the quilt to better preserve it and to finally show it off. You can see a “before” image below to the right.  As you can see, the blocks along the left-hand side of the quilt suffered the most disintegration. 95_043_11T1

This appliqué quilt is comprised of sixteen blocks showing the most common Masonic symbol – the square and compasses, signifying reason and faith. Freemasonry grew out of medieval stonemason trade guilds in England and Scotland, eventually becoming a fraternal society for men encouraging sound moral and social virtues. Freemasonry’s tenets are taught through a series of ritualized lessons using symbols to remind the initiates of important principles. Each block also shows the letter G, which stood for geometry, God, or both. At the corners of each block are four important Masonic symbols: a level symbolizing equality; a plumb signifying uprightness; a gavel reminding Masons to divest the heart of vice; and a trowel that spreads the cement that unites Freemasons in brotherly love.

95.043.11 detail after consTo get it ready for the exhibition, we worked with textile conservator Marie Schlag from The Studio for Textile Conservation in Scituate, Massachusetts. She painstakingly stabilized 35 different areas of the quilt with polyester organza.  The organza helps to reduce further disintegration and covers the areas where the foundation fabric is showing through.  This treatment allows the quilt’s red and green graphic pattern to come to the front once again. In this detail at left, you can see the muting effect of the organza where the red fabric has been lost. We are very pleased to be able to share this quilt in its newly improved condition with our visitors and look forward to caring for it for years to come.

Masonic Quilt, ca. 1860, American, Museum purchase, 95.043.11. Before photograph by David Bohl.

A Crazy Quilt

89_25S1As an amateur scholar of historic textiles and museum intern, I was excited when asked to assist the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum’s Collections Manager with transferring rolled textiles to a new, customized storage rack. During the process I was introduced to crazy quilts. Their heavily stylized designs struck me as modern and innovative for their time period. Crazy quilts became popular in the United States during the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1875-1900). Bright colors and embroidered motifs sprawling across a dark ground are characteristics of their Japanese influence. This brief glimpse at the treasures stored away inspired me to take a closer look at the textiles in the Museum’s current exhibition, “Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles,” which includes a crazy quilt.

I asked my friend and colleague, Kate Herron Gendreau, to join me in attending a gallery talk led by Dr. Aimee Newell, the Museum’s Director of Collections (see our previous post). By trade, Kate is a handcrafted artisan specializing in embroidery and hand sewing. We share an interest in the details of female domestic roles throughout American history. When I mentioned my fascination with the crazy quilts in the Museum’s collection, I learned that Kate recently inherited the unjoined blocks of her family’s crazy quilt. I was eager to hear her opinion on the quilt in the exhibition in hopes that she might be able to enlighten me with some uncelebrated details. We never could have imagined that on the day of the gallery talk, family members of J. Bruce Spilman, who donated the crazy quilt to the Museum (in memory of his relation, Charles Hadley Spilman of Illinois, for whom the quilt was made in 1886) would be present!

The size of this quilt tells us that it was a decorative piece - at 76 inches wide and 68 3/4 inches long it is not quite large enough to be used on a bed - likely used as a sofa throw blanket or piano cover. Crazy quilts often functioned as status symbols, demonstrating that their female makers had leisure time and wealth at their disposal. Textiles made in the homes of women belonging to the working class were often simple or purely functional since daily chores and household budgets limited women's time and resources.  Unfortunately, the Spilman family members present at the gallery talk could not add to the quilt’s history, but by sifting through the notes I scribbled down while Kate swooned over “heavy hand stitching” on velvet and silk, I could see the lost story of this quilt come to life.

As Kate began rhythmically rhapsodizing about “isolated daisy chain, turkey trot and fern stitch … or maybe this is a zigzag blanket stitch,” I began to feel as if I was sitting next to the woman who created this masterpiece. While Kate explained that variegated stitching with this many color changes is something that is rarely created or appreciated today, I could envision the quilt in progress spread across the embroiderer’s lap. I was delighted to learn that many of the blocks are composed of clothing scraps. Kate identified several men’s ties and shirts as well as women’s dress and blouse material in the quilt. From these scraps we can perhaps form an impression of the personal style maintained by the household in which the quilt was made. Often quilters of this era repurposed fabric from clothing that had been stained or torn and could no longer be worn. This decorative status symbol may exhibit more frugality than we initially assume. 89_46_138S1

One feature that distinguishes this particular crazy quilt is the abundant fusion of conventional fabric and Masonic ribbons. Most of the ribbons in this quilt commemorate Knights Templar meetings in Chicago and San Francisco, dating from 1880 and 1883 (similar to the one at right from a Knights Templar meeting in 1892). Twenty-nine of the quilt’s thirty blocks include ribbons, some arranged in geometric shapes to mimic symbols used in Freemasonry. Most of the ribbons are outlined with an embroidered motif in yellowish-gold stitching that resembles the glory rays surrounding the Masonic symbol of the all-seeing eye, signifying watchfulness. As do many of the textiles in this exhibition, this crazy quilt presents a noteworthy example of the way Freemasonry has intersected popular culture throughout American history.

Masonic Quilt, ca. 1886, unidentified maker, United States, gift of J. Bruce Spilman in memory of Charles Hadley Spilman, 89.25.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Masonic Knights Templar Ribbon, 1892, unidentified maker, probably Connecticut, gift of Jacques Noel Jacobsen Jr., 89.46.138.  


Gallery Talks: "Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles"

2010_006DP1 Statue Liberty quilt_WebCompressWhat contribution did women’s textiles make to Freemasonry’s vibrant shaping of American families and communities in the 1800s and the 1900s?

To find out, join Director of Collections Aimee E. Newell on Saturday, July 28, 2:00 p.m. in the "Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles" exhibition. This free gallery talk will offer visitors insights into how women demonstrated knowledge of Masonic values with their needles and created lasting reminders of their skills. This new exhibition features more than 25 quilts, coverlets, needlework pictures, and hooked rugs drawn from the Museum's collection. It tells a compelling story of connected lives and shared values.

We will offer two "Threads of Brotherhood" gallery talks in the fall:

Saturday, September 15, 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, 1:00 p.m.

2002_008T1 cover quilt_WebCompressThe October gallery talk is scheduled prior to Pamela Week's 2 p.m. lecture on Civil War quilts for soldiers.  Combined, the two programs provide an ideal opportunity to explore how women used their needlework to help shape public life in 19th century America.

Save the dates! We'll see you at the Museum!

Photo Credits:

Lady Liberty Lights the Way, 1985, Nancy M. Crasco, Massachusetts. Gift of Nancy Crasco, 2010.006.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Masonic Quilt, 1880-1920, unidentified maker, probably Ohio.  Musuem purchase, 2002.008. Photograph by David Bohl.

Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles

2002_008T1Make plans now to come see our newest exhibition, "Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles," which opens June 16, 2012, and runs through late 2012.  The exhibition includes over 25 objects from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection.

Textiles incorporating Masonic symbols, both home-made and commercially manufactured, have served many functions since the 1700s.  They have transmitted family memories and history, becoming cherished heirlooms.  They signified family identification with Freemasonry.  Creating these objects offered an opportunity for the maker to display their skills.  These textiles also functioned as educational tools - teaching family members about Masonic symbols and reminding Masons of the lessons they learned in the lodge.  Like the quilts used to fundraise for political or social causes, Masonic quilts and textiles were - and still are - used to raise money for Masonic projects and charities.

The quilt above employs several Masonic symbols, appliqued in red, green and gold, a popular color combination during the late 1800s.  The central motif in each block is a square and compasses symbol (representing reason and faith) with a stylized G in the middle (symbolizing God, geometry, or both).  Trowels, mauls, plumbs and levels decorate the borders.  The quilt offered its maker a way to learn about the values represented by the symbols.  It may have been a gift to a Freemason and could have reminded the recipient of Masonic lessons.

The exhibition also includes other forms of needlew76_33_1T1ork, such as embroidery and rug hooking.  The needlework picture at right was stitched in Massachusetts in 1808.  Using skills learned at a local academy, the female maker copied the design of a Past Master's certificate to commemorate Benjamin Russell's (1761-1845) term as Master of Boston's Rising States Lodge.

Textiles teach us about the individuals who made and enjoyed them, but also about the place of Freemasonry in American society.  Please enjoy these "threads of brotherhood" as they tell a story of connected lives and shared values.  Visit our website for more information.  And, after you visit, come back and leave us a comment below about your favorite object!

Masonic Quilt, 1880-1920, unidentified maker, probably Ohio, Museum Purchase, 2002.008.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Needlework Picture, 1808, unidentified maker, Massachusetts, Special Acquisitions Fund, 76.33.1.  Photograph by John M. Miller.


New to the Collection: A Masonic Quilt

2008_002_1T1 Quilt Overall So often quilts saved from the 1800s are ones that were only used on special occasions – quilts that were made not as warm bedcoverings, but as family keepsakes or gifts, or that held special meaning for the maker.  This quilt, a recent acquisition by the National Heritage Museum, presents a more utilitarian example.

While in good condition, the style chosen and fabrics employed in the quilt suggest that it would have kept a family warm, while hiding the dirt that was sure to accumulate over time.  The shape of the quilt, known as the “T-shape” due to its cut-out corners, is a distinctive New England trait.  Although some quilts from the 1800s with cut-out corners were made in other regions of the United States, studies have documented far more examples of this shape in New England.

The brown floral print in the center section was probably sold as dress goods.  The side and bottom borders are made from an indigo fabric with an overall white dot and periodic leaf motif.  The quilt is serviceably backed with coarsely woven cream linen.  The quilting is done with brown and blue thread, depending on the area, so that the stitches would blend into the fabrics.  The blue borders show a chevron quilting pattern, while the brown section is quilted in squares with parallel lines.

2008_002_1T3 Handkerchief Detail An unusual feature of this quilt, the Masonic handkerchief applied to the center, dates to about 1817.  The blue and brown fabrics also appear to date from the late 1810s, suggesting that the quilt was made between 1815 and 1820.  Printed in red, the handkerchief depicts an arrangement of many Masonic symbols with verses at the top and bottom.  Unfortunately, the maker’s motivation for including the handkerchief on the quilt has been lost, as has her name.  While it seems fairly safe to imagine that the original owner was a Freemason, or related to a Freemason, the handkerchief is also an interesting choice based on prevailing quilt style of the period.  Medallion quilts – those with a central design, often pieced or appliquéd – were popular during the 1810s and 1820s.  The addition of the handkerchief in the center of the quilt may reflect the maker’s desire to replicate that fashion in a time-saving and cost-effective manner.  Although women could not become Freemasons themselves, those who were married or related to Freemasons often expressed familiarity with Masonic symbols in their quilts or other creative endeavors (see our previous post on the quilt by Jane Haight Webster).

T-Shaped Quilt with Masonic Handkerchief Medallion, ca. 1817, probably New England.  National Heritage Museum, Special Projects Fund, Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, 2008.002.1.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Detail of Handkerchief.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Spiritualist Jane Haight Webster's Masonic Quilt

86_69t1_webster_quilt An unusual quilt made by Jane D. Haight Webster (1808-1877) during the mid-1800s shows how quilts functioned as educational tools for their makers, well beyond just teaching sewing skills.  Webster’s quilt, and others that incorporated fraternal symbols, provided a means for women to share their interpretation and knowledge of exclusive male groups like Freemasonry.  This quilt shows us that women did have familiarity with the symbols of a closed organization like Freemasonry.  It also offers a telling example of how women used quilts to push against the gender boundaries of their era.

Jane D. Haight was born on April 28, 1808 in Westchester County, New York, the daughter of John Haight (b. 1773) and Phebe Williamson (b. 1776).  Her parents were Quakers and she also joined the Society of Friends.  Her family moved to the Rochester, New York area in 1824.  On September 7, 1825 she married Harry Croswell Webster (1804-1885) in Pittsford, New York.  The pioneering couple moved to Indiana in 1835, near South Bend, in the northern part of the state.  Together, they had thirteen children, five sons and eight daughters. 

Around 1850, undoubtedly in response to the Spiritualism movement that started in the Rochester, New York area, Jane became a convert to spiritualism, eventually becoming a “writing medium.”  Spiritualism was a religious movement aimed at proving the immortality of the soul by establishing communication with the spirits of the dead.  Scholars have suggested that Spiritualism’s popularity was a response to the widespread economic, social and cultural changes taking place in America in the mid-1800s.  It offered a sense of order for believers, at a time when their daily lives were increasingly fragmented.

At some point in the 1850s or 1860s, Jane Webster made this quilt.  The quilt is pieced and appliquéd by hand, using plain weave cotton fabrics.  The quilting is extremely well done; quilters out there will admire Webster’s thirteen stitches to the inch!  Quilting designs vary across the top with motifs including cables, feathers, florals, parallel lines and outline stitching.  The single border is an appliquéd floral vine.  The quilt is finished with a thin cotton batting and straight-applied binding.  It is in very good condition and shows few signs of regular use.   

The design of Webster's quilt is linked with her ability as a medium.  Spiritualists considered the trance to be an elevated state that provided access to spirits and to knowledge of the world beyond that was inaccessible to conscious human beings.  According to family history, Jane designed her quilt by going into a trance; she would see an arrangement of symbols, and then stitch that arrangement into her quilt.  Indeed, the quilt is put together with appliqué and embroidery added to the blocks after they were joined, supporting the family story of the quilt’s construction. Picture1

While family history holds that the quilt was a creation aided by Webster’s Spiritualist leanings, visual examination suggests that she may also have been influenced by the various depictions of Masonic symbols that she saw around her.  Jane’s husband, Harry Croswell Webster, was a Mason and belonged to St. Joseph Lodge No. 45 in South Bend.   

The central image on her quilt shows an archway supported by two columns or pillars with a checkered floor and a series of steps at the bottom.  The pillars are known as “Jachin and Boaz” after the Biblical reference to Solomon’s Temple.  Symbolically, they represent strength and stability.  The checkered floor (or mosaic pavement) is usually seen rendered in black and white; it represents good and evil in life.  Under the archway (which represents the “arch of heaven”), the symbols include: the all-seeing eye, a symbol of watchfulness; the letter “G,” signifying geometry or God; a square and compasses, symbolizing reason and faith; and an altar, signaling a place of refuge.  Along the bottom are a coffin and a scythe, symbolizing death.  And, on the sides, there are more easily identified symbols: the 47th problem of Euclid that teaches Masons to be lovers of the arts and sciences; Jacob’s ladder with three rungs, signifying either the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, or the three stages of life (youth, manhood and age); and an anchor signifying hope.  Numerous other symbols are also appliquéd, although some remain a mystery as to what they are and what they symbolize. 

After a brief illness, with “congestion of the lungs,” Jane D. Haight Webster died on March 26, 1877.  Her husband, Harry Webster, died on January 23, 1885.  Both are buried in Bowman Cemetery in South Bend.  When Jane Webster died, Spiritualism had started to wane; it lost strength during the 1870s and 1880s as smaller groups splintered off and as many mediums were exposed as frauds.  In the end, Jane Webster’s arrangement of symbols on her quilt seems to have been influenced by more earthly sources, in addition to her spirit communications.  Her quilt brings together an illuminating combination of personal knowledge and cultural experiences, helping us to learn from it, just as it taught her.  The quilt was treasured in Jane’s family and was passed down until it was presented to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1986.

To see a selection of quilts in the Museum’s collection visit the Treasures section of our website.

Quilt by Jane Haight Webster, 1850-1870, Indiana, National Heritage Museum, gift of Donald E. Mohn, 86.69, photograph by John M. Miller.

Photograph of Jane Haight Webster, ca. 1870, National Heritage Museum curatorial files.

A Collaborative Masonic Quilt

Bunker Mulliken quilt cropped 2001_06 web large Six years ago, the Museum purchased a white quilt, hand-embroidered in red with 72 different Masonic symbols. Bearing the unusual inscription, “Drawn and designed by F. R. Bunker, worked by C. A. Milliken 1908,” this quilt kindled my curiosity about who made it and why. The sellers told us that family members gave the quilt to Carlton H. Smallidge of Winter Harbor, Maine. An active member of his local Masonic lodge, Carlton served as master in 1926. Family lore credited two of his aunts, one named Geneva Bunker, with making the piece.

Examination of the quilt and the family history attached to it led to more questions than answers. Specifically, why hadn’t Carlton’s aunt, Geneva Bunker, not signed the quilt?  And the 1908 date did not make sense, Carlton would have been only ten years old at the time. Over weeks, perusal of census and marriage records, as well as calls to the friendly and helpful folks at the Maine Historical Society, the Grand Lodge of Maine and the Winter Harbor Historical Society helped us piece the story together.

First, we identified the people who signed the quilt.  Freeland R. Bunker was a Smallidge relation and founding member of the Winter Harbor Masonic Lodge.  Celestia Alberta Milliken was Carlton’s aunt and a professional seamstress.  An entry in Bunker’s diary (part of the collection of the Winter Harbor Historical Society) confirms his role in the project.  In December 1907, he “worked some on designs for a Masonic Quilt….” In 1903, Carlton’s father, Hilliard, served as Master of his lodge.  Five years later, members elected him Senior Steward.  Freeland and Celestia’s collaboration might have been undertaken in celebration of one of these events.

Never used, the quilt passed from Hilliard to his son, Carlton, and, subsequently, to Carlton’s son. Over the years, the family preserved it as a memorial to Carlton, who died at the young age of 34, when his own son was only a child.

Not only does this object offer a documented story of family members collaborating on a quilt, it also illustrates how gifts become heirlooms.  

Bunker Mulliken quilt names cropped web largeDetails, Qui

lt, 1908. Celestia A. Milliken (b. ca. 1853) and Freeland R. Bunker (1845-1909), Winter Harbor, Maine.  National Heritage Museum, 2001.060.  Photo by David Bohl. 


Musquito Harbor:  A Narrative History of Winter Harbor, Maine, 1790-2005, Allan Smallidge, (Ironbound Press: Winter Harbor, Maine), 2006.