Masonic symbolism

Drawing a Fraternal Identity

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While “Masonic” is in our name and we often focus on American Masonic history, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library also actively collects, studies and presents fraternal history – stories, objects and people associated with the history of non-Masonic fraternal organizations, like the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. 

At its center, this drawing shows an arrangement of symbols used in Odd Fellows rituals.  Unfortunately, we do not know who the artist or original owner of the drawing was.  “Boquet Valley Lodge No. 681” is written along the top, so presumably the drawing was produced by or for a member of the lodge, or for the lodge itself.  Boquet Valley Lodge No. 681 met in Wadhams, New York, a hamlet, or unincorporated settlement, located along the Boquet River in the Adirondack Mountains, near Westport.  By the end of 1920, Boquet Valley Lodge counted 73 members, although other details about its history and activities are proving elusive.

Originally founded in England in 1745, the American branch of the Odd Fellows was organized in Baltimore in 1819 by Thomas Wildey (1782-1861).  The group took several cues from Freemasonry – they share a three-degree structure for initiation, although the specific rituals are different.  They also share some symbols, like the all-seeing eye, winged hourglass and the scales of justice on the drawing.  However, the three-link chain with the initials “FLT” (for Friendship, Love and Truth), also seen on the drawing, is a symbol unique to the Odd Fellows.

This drawing could have been framed and hung on the wall at the lodge or in a member’s home.  In a home, it would serve to identify the owner as a member, and in a home or a lodge, it would help members to learn and remember the lessons taught during ritual work.  To see examples of similar Masonic drawings, visit our current [December 2014] exhibition, “Every Variety of Painting for Lodges”: Decorated Furniture, Paintings and Ritual Objects from the Collection, which features over fifty paintings, aprons, furniture and other decorative and illustrated items, exploring the ways that Freemasons have expressed their involvement with the fraternity.  Visit our website for more information and leave us a comment below if you have seen similar drawings or know more about Boquet Lodge No. 681!

Independent Order of Odd Fellows Drawing, 1875-1900, Wadhams, New York, Special Acquisitions Fund, 82.3.1


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.

 

 


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.

 


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.


Counting Down to 2013

Lectern Front2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the parent organization for the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.  In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA, was formed.  Over the coming months, you will read more about this anniversary and the history of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction on our blog.  We will also open an exhibition about the NMJ next spring (check our website for details as Spring 2013 approaches!).

The Museum & Library actively collects objects and documents from the Scottish Rite.  Many of the objects already in our collection are gifts from a Scottish Rite member or local group to the governing body, the Supreme Council, which is located in Lexington, Massachusetts, on the same campus as the Museum.

One of the most eyecatching gifts now in the collection is a lectern that was presented to the Supreme Council in 1931 by the DeWitt Clinton Consistory of the Valley of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Constructed from several different woods, and inlaid with miniature Masonic symbols, the lectern shows an Egyptian Revival style and sports a book holder at top supported by the Scottish Rite's double-headed eagle symbol.  A silver plaque on the lectern credits the design of the piece to Edgar A. Somes, the inlay to T.A. Conti, and the fabrication to Century Furniture Company and Associates.  Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a center of American furnituremaking during the late 1800s and early 1900s; the pride that makers took in their craft is evident from this lectern.Lectern plaque

The lectern was presented to Commander Leon M. Abbott at the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's 1931 annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan.  At the meeting, a representative from Michigan explained that the Egyptian style was chosen because of its connection to Masonic rituals and symbols.

Scottish Rite Lectern, 1931, Century Furniture Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Gift of the Supreme Council, 33o, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA, 2010.042.31.  Photographs by David Bohl.


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.


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.

 


Lounging in Masonic Style

2005_042a-bDP1DB.tif This bathrobe, or dressing gown, from the late 20th century, is one of my favorite objects in the National Heritage Museum collection. So, when I was working on the checklist for our new exhibition, Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia, I knew I had to include it!

With nearly one million members by 1900, American Freemasonry offered – and has continued to offer – a tempting market for many vendors. Masons not only purchase regalia and costumes for their meetings, rituals and events, they also buy clothing and other accessories that identify them as members. This bathrobe’s fabric is decorated with perhaps the best-known Masonic symbol – the square and compasses, which signifies reason and faith.

Have you ever seen another bathrobe like this one? If you are a Mason, do you have favorite non-lodge clothing with Masonic symbols? Let us know in a comment below.

Masonic bathrobe, 1960-1980, probably American, Collection of the National Heritage Museum, Museum Purchase, 2005.042a-b. Photograph by David Bohl.


Skeleton Leaves and Phantom Arrangements

2010_076_1DS1 The National Heritage Museum recently received a gift of four stereocards titled Skeleton Leaves and showing the same leafy arrangement shaped like a Masonic square and compasses symbol. One of the cards is shown here (for more on stereocards, see our previous post). I was struck by how quintessentially Victorian this image seems and became curious about the story behind the image.

According to the card itself, the publisher was John P. Soule of Boston. Soule was born in Maine in 1828. City directories for Boston from the late 1850s tell us that Soule was a partner in the firm of Rogers and Soule, Printsellers. Soule’s partner was none other than John Rogers (1829-1904), the sculptor whose “Rogers Groups” would become popular decorations in many Victorian homes. By 1859, Soule was identified as a “photographist” in the Boston directory. He went on to publish a number of stereocards in the 1870s, including this one. In 1888, Soule moved to Seattle; he died in 1904.

The Masonic symbol shown on the card is perhaps the most recognizable sign of the fraternity. The square and compasses represent reason and faith. The letter G in the center stands for God, geometry, or both. While this symbol was used on all sorts of objects during the late 1800s – from furniture to ceramics – this representation is done in a specific medium – that of skeletonized leaves (also called “phantom leaves” or “phantom bouquets”).

Instructions on how to pursue this type of project were provided in numerous late-1800s household guides and ladies’ magazines. For example, the March 1870 issue of The Lady’s Friend reprinted directions from an 1867 issue for skeletonizing leaves “at the special request of new subscribers.” The writer acknowledged the popularity of this activity, “These Phantom Bouquets are more beautiful than could be believed by those who have not seen them…We had not thought that anything so dainty and airily graceful could be preserved in this way.” To make one of these arrangements, the leaves were gathered while green and then soaked. The “green matter” had to be rubbed off the surface of the leaf, leaving the “fibrous network” or skeleton of the leaf. Once the leaves were thoroughly dry, they could be bleached and then formed into an arrangement.

This stereocard notes that an I.L. Rogers registered the image at the Library of Congress in 1873. Reportedly, a Mrs. I.L. Rogers of Springfield, Massachusetts, patented an improved method for skeletonizing leaves in 1877. While we were particularly interested in this image because of its Masonic content, a number of stereocards were available during the late 1800s showing other arrangements of “skeleton leaves,” primarily non-Masonic and decorative.

Have you ever tried skeletonizing leaves? Do you know more about Mrs. I.L. Rogers? Do you have a stereocard showing a “phantom arrangement”? If so, let us know in a comment below!

References:

“John P. Soule Family,” http://familystacks.com/custom/views/fam/S02.htm.

The Lady’s Friend 7 (March 1870): 202-206.

Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1866.

Skeleton Leaves, 1873, John P. Soule (1828-1904), Boston, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Ronald T. Labbe, 2010.076.1.


A Tale of Two Trivets

75_24S1 While living in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, my future husband and I were browsing through an antiques store and saw a cast-iron trivet that we liked. Neither of us had ever owned an iron trivet, or had a particular use for one, but this one had at least three qualities to recommend it. First, since we were both studying history and historic preservation, we liked old things. Second, since we were new to the state of Pennsylvania, its Pennsylvania German folk art style charmed us. And third, as starving graduate students, it was pretty much the only thing in the store that was cheap enough for us to buy. Manufactured in the mid-1900s, it was a commonly reproduced design and it didn’t have a high value.

Over the years, I continued to buy iron trivets at the occasional yard sale or antiques store, and also purchased a reference book that described their history and the companies that made them. I even bought a few on eBay. I ended up with a couple of dozen trivets that wouldn’t impress a serious collector, but they still charm me quite a bit. I love the folk art patterns, the stars and whirls and geometric designs, the flowers and birds, the solid heft of the cast iron. Some of the trivets are painted with bright colors, and evoke the vibrancy of Pennsylvania German art forms such as hex signs and fraktur.Cathy's trivets  (The photo below shows my collection.)

When I began volunteering at the National Heritage Museum, I was happy to discover that the museum’s collection includes some wonderful trivets. Many trivets made in the 1800s and 1900s were not only decorative, but also featured commemorative designs that honored famous people (such as George Washington and Jenny Lind) or organizations such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Several of the Museum’s trivets feature a combination of Masonic symbols with traditional shapes and forms. The example above, manufactured by the John Wright Company of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, includes the Masonic square, compasses, and “G,” perhaps the most common Masonic symbol, representing reason and faith. On this trivet, the symbols appear within a horseshoe shape, a common trivet motif that signifies good luck. Manufacturers of cast-iron trivets would often reuse popular shapes and patterns – such as the horseshoe – while changing a small part of the design to meet a new need, such as to create a commemorative piece for a particular group or audience. These mid-1900s trivets were often more popular as decoration rather than as functional pieces and were made with short legs to facilitate being hung on a wall. My grandparents had several trivets that I remember hanging in their summer cottage.

Another cast-iron trivet in the Museum’s collection (seen at right) also features a square, compasses, and “G,” along with an archway and a five-pointed star. This one most likely dates to the late 1800s, based on the length and shape of its legs, its cast mark, and its weight. Older88_5DI1 trivets often had longer legs (more than one inch), depending on their intended use, and although often ornamental, were made primarily to hold hot objects such as pots and clothes irons. Some, like this example, were shaped specifically for a clothes iron: wide at one end and tapering to a point at the other.

The fact that foundries regularly produced and marketed Masonic trivets suggests the popularity and influence of Freemasonry in American culture over many decades. Trivets can also be found bearing the symbols of other fraternal and social organizations including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

I still have my own two dozen iron trivets in a box in the garage. I stopped collecting years ago because I didn’t have a place to display them.  I also began to realize the folly of collecting something that weighs as much as … um … a box full of cast iron. But I still find them to be a fascinating bit of Americana.

Reference:

Rob Roy Kelly and James Elwood, A Collector’s Guide to Trivets & Stands. Lima, OH: Golden Era Publications, 1990.

 

Top: Masonic Trivet, ca. 1950, John Wright Company, Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum collection, Special Acquisitions Fund, 75.24. 

Middle: Cathy Breitkreutz's collection of trivets.  Photograph by Cathy Breitkreutz.

Bottom: Masonic Trivet, 1880-1900, American, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Harriet G. Ward, 88.5.