New to the Collection: St. John's Lodge Officers Photo

2008_001DS1 The National Heritage Museum photograph collection is a treasure trove with images of people, places and events from the 1840s to the present.  We often include photographs from the collection in our exhibitions and they can be invaluable when we are researching a particular person or fraternal group.

This photo, which was donated to the Museum recently by Harriet Dinsmoor Parish, depicts the officers of Boston’s St. John’s Lodge.  Mrs. Parish had kept this photo because her father, Clyde M. Dinsmoor (b. 1888), appears at far left in the back row.  The Masonic regalia that he wears indicates that he was the lodge’s Tyler.  In Freemasonry, the Tyler guards the entrance to the lodge room during meetings, allowing members and non-members to enter at the appropriate times.  By checking the records of St. John’s Lodge, we were able to narrow down the date of the photo to the late 1930s.  The picture was probably taken between 1936 and 1940, shortly after the lodge officers were elected for the coming year.

In addition to documenting the lodge officers, the photograph also helps us understand how the lodge room was decorated in the late 1930s.  In addition to three Masonic chairs, there are two flags visible and a stand with two bunches of carved grapes.  These grapes are a prized possession owned by St. John’s Lodge.  Formed in 1733, just after Henry Price established the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, St. John’s Lodge is the oldest duly constituted lodge in the United States.  The grapes have a history of hanging outside Boston’s Bunch of Grapes tavern where St. John’s Lodge first met.  The tavern opened in 1712 and played host to Henry Price when he constituted the first Masonic bodies in America.  Hanging outside the tavern’s entrance, the grapes identified it at a glance to passersby.

Officers of St. John’s Lodge, 1936-1940, Boston, Massachusetts.  National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Harriet Dinsmoor Parish, 2008.001. 

Which Way to the Masonic Lodge?

92_003T1 Ever since I started working at the Museum, Masonic signs along the roadways have jumped out at me.  Once you understand the significance of the square and compasses, you start to see them everywhere – along your town’s roads and on lodge buildings themselves.  At a glance, they signify the existence of a lodge in a town, provide its name and indicate its location.

Today’s signs tend to be painted on metal, or sometimes feature neon or electric lights, but they are just the modern version of a Masonic tradition.  Looking back to the 1700s and 1800s, Masonic signs were painted on wood and could often be found outside the local tavern.  Virtually every town had a tavern in the 1700s and 1800s.  They began by providing accommodations for travelers, but evolved into important community institutions providing food and drink, beds, stables and meeting space.

During the 1700s, few buildings were devoted exclusively to lodge meetings and activities.  Many American Masons met in coffee houses or taverns, which were conveniently located in town centers near major roadways.  This makes it tempting to assume that a Masonic symbol on an antique tavern sign means that a lodge met in that building; however, research has shown that this was not always the case.

A tavern sign in the National Heritage Museum collection shows the common style of the 1800s.  The dark-colored oval sign has gold decoration with a prominent square and compasses symbol in the center.  Around the symbol, lettering reads “Entertainment by J. Healy 1819.”  Jesse Healy’s (1769-1853) tavern was located in the Trapshire, New Hampshire, area.  Healy was raised a Master Mason on May 7, 1800, in Hiram Lodge #9 of Claremont, New Hampshire.  When Faithful Lodge #12 was chartered in Charlestown, New Hampshire, the next month, Healy was appointed Senior Warden.  He continued his service in that lodge as Master from 1802 to 1803, Chaplain from 1812 to 1814 and Senior Warden in 1815.

Although Healy’s tavern sign includes a Masonic symbol, it does not mean that the tavern hosted Masonic meetings.  Sometimes a Masonic symbol on a tavern sign merely indicated the owner’s membership.  During the early 1800s, a man's Masonic involvement was often understood as a sign of prestige.  Travelers saw the symbol and knew that the owner was a Mason who could be relied upon to provide good service at an honest price.  Additionally, the use of Masonic symbols in such a visible way allowed lodges and members to generate interest in the lodge within their community.  In a sense, these signs offered publicity, allowing the fraternity to continue to grow and prosper.

Healy Tavern Sign, 1819, New Hampshire, collection of the National Heritage Museum, Special Acquisitions Fund, 92.003.  Photograph by David Bohl.