Textiles

New to the Collection: A Masonic Apron by William Laughton

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Master Mason Apron, 1819-1824, William Laughton (poss. 1794-1870), Hartford, Connecticut, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Purchase, 2014.070.7. Photograph by David Bohl.

As regular readers of our blog will know, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library has one of the best collections of Masonic aprons in the world.  We are always looking to add new examples with designs or makers that we are not familiar with.  This apron, a recent purchase at auction, has both a design AND a maker that were new to us. 

This Master Mason apron shows a typical all-seeing eye symbol on the flap, signifying watchfulness.  The body features an arrangement of Masonic symbols with celestial and terrestrial columns on a mosaic pavement at the top of three stairs.  Between the columns are a sun, moon, shooting star, seven stars, clasped hands, three candlestands and an altar with an open Bible.  Rough and smooth ashlars appear to the sides and at bottom center is a coffin.

Applied on the back is a printed label for the apron’s maker – “Hartford / W. Laughton / Painter.”  Unfortunately, little is known about William Laughton (possibly 1794-1870), despite the inclusion of his label on this apron.  The best source of information about his activities is a series of newspaper advertisements in the Hartford papers between 1819 and 1824.  In August 1819, he begged “leave to inform his friends and the public, that he has taken a room a few doors east of the Court House…where he will do all kinds of ornamental painting, in the neatest manner, and at the shortest notice.”  By September 1819, he was advertising as a “delineator, ornamental, and sign painter,” and that he would “execute Masonic paintings and Signs of every description.”

In June 1820, he used his ad to “[tender] his sincere thanks to his friends and the public, for the encouragement they have given him in his profession for a year past.”  In this same advertisement he specifically noted that he would do “Masonic paintings, such as carpets, aprons, etc., etc.”  And, at the end, he noted “W.L. has on hand a few Masonic Aprons, which he offers very low.”  In addition to his newspaper advertisements, Laughton marketed himself by entering a painting in the local cattle show in October 1822.  According to a published account of the fair, “Mr. Laughton…offered for inspection, a fruit piece painted by himself.  This was considered by judges, to indicate a talent in the art which deserves particular encouragement.”  In 1823, his advertisements focused specifically on Masonic aprons, such as the one in the Connecticut Mirror on June 30, 1823, which was headed “Masonic Aprons,” and included an illustration of an apron.  “William Laughton,” the advertisement read, “has now on hand, a handsome assortment of Masonic Aprons, plain and gilt, very cheap by the dozen or single.”

After 1824, Laughton disappears from the newspapers.  He may have headed out of town to work as an itinerant painter.  In an 1898 biography of Esek Hopkins (1718-1802) (Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy, 1775-1778), a portrait of Hopkins is mentioned.  It was “taken from North Providence to Brookline, and in 1825, as it had become somewhat defaced, was turned over to a man by the name of Laughton, a carriage and sign painter, of Brookline, to be repaired.”  We do not know for sure if this “Laughton” and the William Laughton who made this apron are one and the same, but it is possible.  The 1838 Hartford City Directory lists Laughton back in the city as a “fancy painter.”  Few other details remain to tell us about the latter part of his life.  A “William W. Laughton” is listed in the records of the Grand Lodge of Connecticut.  He joined Bridgeport’s St. John’s Lodge No. 3 in 1862, but there is no birth date given, so this is an inconclusive match, especially since it seems strange that Laughton would have joined so late in life after making and selling aprons in the 1810s and 1820s.

Perhaps further information about William Laughton will come to light over time.  If you know of other aprons by Laughton, please let us know in a comment below!

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.

References:

Connecticut Mirror, The Times, Connecticut Courant, 1819-1824.

Edward Field, Esek Hopkins, Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Navy during the American Revolution 1775 to 1778 (Providence: The Preston & Rounds Co., 1898).

Susan P. Schoelwer, ed., Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs (Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Society, 2000).

I am indebted to Robert Fitzgerald, Grand Secretary, Grand Lodge of Connecticut, for sharing the Laughton Masonic membership information with me.


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.

 

 


New to the Collection: A Royal Arch Apron

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Masonic Royal Arch Apron, ca. 1820, Henry Parmele, probably Connecticut, Museum purchase, 2014.115.4. Photograph by David Bohl.

With over 400 Masonic and fraternal aprons in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection, we can be choosy when we add to our holdings.  But we are always intrigued when an apron with a different style or decoration shows up.  This was the case with this one, which we purchased at auction last fall.  The engraved design was new to us and we were very excited to add it to the collection.  The central archway with the ark of the covenant, columns, drapes and the figures in the center and to the sides all relate to the ritual for the Royal Arch degree.  The (originally) red trim also helps identify this apron as one that would have been worn to Royal Arch chapter meetings.  Unfortunately, the history of this apron has been lost and we do not know who originally owned it.  It also does not have any markings identifying the engraver or the printer.

Many engraved designs used on aprons were also used on certificates.  As far as we know, we do not have a copy of this certificate – yet.  But, our friends at the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry in San Francisco do have a copy of a certificate decorated with this engraving.  That certificate does have some information about the publisher and sellers.  Printed along the bottom of the certificate is “Pub[lishe]d by H. Parmele.  To be had of [Comp[anion]s?] S. Maverick N. York A. Doolittle New Haven and J.W. Clark Albany.”  Presumably the apron was printed from the same plate, or at least a plate engraved by the same person who cut the plate for the certificate.

Printer and publisher Henry Parmele (ca. 1781-1821) was active in Connecticut.  He reportedly came up with the idea of an illustrative Masonic chart of symbols before Jeremy L. Cross’s (1783-1860) The True Masonic Chart, or Hieroglyphic Monitor (1819), but Cross beat Parmele to the press and his book, with its groundbreaking illustrations, was available first.  Cross’s book became a best-seller and Parmele’s chart languished.

The other men named on the certificate were all active engravers in their respective locations.  Doolittle worked with Cross on the illustrations for his The True Masonic Chart.  Maverick (b. 1789), Doolittle (1754-1832) and Clark (dates unknown) inevitably both engraved and sold Masonic certificates, along with many other types of documents.

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.  Members of the Museum & Library or of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction can pre-order the book now (April 2015) through May 31 at a discounted price, by mailing this form with a check.


New Book on Masonic Aprons!

The Badge of a Freemason cover

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is pleased to announce that its new book, The Badge of a Freemason: Masonic Aprons from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, will be available in June 2015.  We are now (March 2015) offering pre-order discount pricing for Museum & Library members and for Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction members.  The discount will be available until May 31, 2015.  See below for order instructions.

Soon after the Museum & Library was founded in 1975, the collection began to grow.  Masonic aprons were among the first donations.  Today, with more than 400 aprons, the Museum & Library has one of the largest collections in the world.  Examples date from the late eighteenth century to the present and come from the United States, England, China and other countries.

Called “the badge of a Freemason” in Masonic ritual, the fraternity’s apron was adapted from the protective aprons worn by working stonemasons during the 1600s and 1700s.  Still worn by members today, the apron remains one of the iconic symbols of Freemasonry.  Written by the Museum & Library’s Director of Collections Aimee E. Newell, Ph.D., this catalogue presents more than 100 aprons from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection with full-color photographs and new research.  The aprons are organized chronologically to help demonstrate their evolution in shape, style and materials from the eighteenth century through the twentieth century.

This lavishly illustrated volume offers stories to be enjoyed by Freemasons around the world, as well as new ways to understand these aprons for scholars, researchers and museum curators.  The Badge of a Freemason is the first in-depth study of American Masonic aprons published in recent decades and is a fascinating resource for collectors, enthusiasts and museums. Scottish Rite Apron Pages 194-95 2-12-15 Resized

Special Discount for Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction members and Museum & Library members - $33 (plus $9.95 shipping and handling and 6.25% sales tax of $2.06 for Massachusetts addresses).  Membership must be current – to become a Museum & Library member, click here.

Mail this form by May 31, 2015, along with your check payable to:

Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Attn. Aimee E. Newell, 33 Marrett Road, Lexington, MA  02421

The book will be available June 2015 for $39.95 (plus shipping and tax, if applicable).  Order online at www.ScottishRiteNMJ.org/shop.

 


World War I - Home Service Banners

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This year (2014) marks the one hundredth anniversary of the conflict that would become known as the "Great War," and, later, World War I.  Although the United States did not get drawn into the conflict until 1917, the start of the war was not ignored on these shores.  While the war had been brewing for some time, the immediate cause is widely acknowledged to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) of Austria in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, on June 28, 1914.  A month later, on July 28, Austria-Hungary fired the first shots in preparation for an invasion of Serbia.  Lines were quickly drawn along what would become the Western front between Germany and France, and the Eastern Front between Russia and Austria-Hungary.  Shortly after the first shots were fired in 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.  Italy and Bulgaria joined the war in 1915 and Romania in 1916.  In April 1917, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies (Britain, France, Italy, Japan and Russia, prior to its surrender).  With the entrance of the United States, the Allies were able to surge forward and eventually win the war.  Germany agreed to an armistice on November 11, 1918.  More than nine million combatants lost their lives; Germany and Russia lost territory; the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismantled; the map of Europe was redrawn; and the League of Nations formed to prevent a future conflict.  Sadly, the League would fail just twenty years later when World War II began. 

Almost five million Americans served in the war, more than four million of these in the Army.  Although the front was far away from the United States, the war effort was foremost in the minds of many at home.  Families with a man serving overseas often hung a “Home Service Banner” in a window.  These banners, with a red border around a white center and a star to represent the serviceman, became a display of patriotism during World War I.  The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection includes one of these banners, but unfortunately we do not know who originally owned it (at right).  It has one star, which signified one family member fighting in the conflict.  A blue star signified hope and pride; a silver star indicated that the soldier had been wounded; and a gold star represented sacrifice, indicating that the soldier died in battle.  If the family had more than one soldier overseas, the banner would show multiple stars.  The first home service flag was designed and patented in 1917 by Robert Queissner of Ohio, who had two sons on the front lines. 78_36DI1

Recently, the Museum & Library was given a similar flag, but with twenty-three stars (twenty-two blue and one cream-colored star) around a blue square and compasses symbol (see above).  This flag shows the same red border and white center as a home service flag.  The flag was found at Old Colony Lodge in Hingham, Massachusetts.  The lodge did not have any information on the flag, but it may have indicated that twenty-three members of the lodge were serving in World War I or World War II (these flags were also used during that conflict), and that one man was wounded or killed.  We hope that pursuing additional research into the lodge’s records may answer the question of when the flag was used and confirm this theory about its significance.  Does your family own a home service banner?  Let us know in a comment below!

Masonic Flag, 1910-1920, United States, gift of Old Colony Lodge, Hingham, Massachusetts, 2011.025.

Home Service Banner, 1917-1919, United States, gift of Henry S. Kuhn, 78.36.
 


A Salute to the American Military

Jacket in caseThis summer (2013), the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is pleased to be one of 1,800 museums across America to welcome military personnel and their families in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families and the Department of Defense, as part of the Blue Star Museums program.

The program runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and identifies museums that offer free admission to active-duty military personnel and their family members. The Museum & Library is included on the Blue Star Museums website. “Blue Star Museums is something that service members and their families look forward to every year and we are thrilled with the continued growth of the program,” said Blue Star Families CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet. “Through this distinctive collaboration…service members and their families can connect with our national treasures.” The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is proud to participate in this program and to support our military families. BlueStarLogo1800

The Museum’s collection includes numerous objects and documents associated with the American military and its soldiers, dating from the Revolution to the Iraq War. The leather jacket shown here is currently on view in our exhibition, “Journeys and Discoveries: The Stories Maps Tell.” It was originally worn by Technical Sergeant Ronald W. Hirtle (1924-1986) during World War II. A radio operator and gunner, Hirtle belonged to the 491st “Ringer” Bomb Squadron of the 14th Air Force – also known as the “Flying Tigers” – and logged over 200 combat hours on almost 50 bombing missions in the China-Burma-India Theater.

Jacket2The exhibition also features an Escape and Evasion Map of Burma and Siam and the Far East and a selection of Asian currencies that the Air Force provided to Hirtle. An airman like Hirtle could be shot down in unfamiliar territory. To prepare for this possibility, the Air Force equipped its flyers with lightweight escape kits. Hirtle’s map is printed on silk making it quiet to use, more impervious to water than paper and easy to hide. The currency would allow him to buy food and water, or pay a local resident to help him return to American forces.

Air Force Type A-2 Flight Jacket, 1942-1945, Aero Leather Clothing Co., Beacon, NY; Escape and Evasion Map of Burma and Siam and the Far East, 1942-1945; Currency, 1942-1945; all gifts of the Family of Ronald W. Hirtle, 96.041.1, .2 and .3a-f.


New to the Collection: Modern Woodmen of America Banner

2012_016_1DP2DBThe Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library recently added a collection of Modern Woodmen of America objects and documents to its holdings, including this banner. As we explained in a previous post, banners were an important component of American fraternal activities. These colorful textiles were used inside lodges and also in public parades, at cornerstone layings and at other ceremonies. This banner was originally used by Modern Woodmen’s Belknap Camp in Tilton, New Hampshire. Unfortunately, we know little about the history of this camp today. A photograph from our collection, showing a Modern Woodmen of America drill team from an unknown location, shows that fraternal groups often included their banners when they posed for a formal picture. 2003_022_1DS1

As mentioned in previous posts, Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America in 1883 in Lyons, Iowa, as a fraternal benefit society. The organization’s rituals and symbols mixed “Roman dignity and forest freedom.” By 1910, the Modern Woodmen numbered one million members. Today, the Modern Woodmen of America are the third largest fraternal benefit society in the United States and count more than 773,000 members.

References:

Barbara Franco, Fraternally Yours: A Decade of Collecting, Lexington, MA: Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, 1986.

Albert C. Stevens, The Cyclopedia of Fraternities, New York: E.B. Treat and Company, 1907.

Modern Woodmen of America Banner, 1890-1930, unidentified maker, United States. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase through the generosity of Louis L. Williams, 2012.016.1. Photograph by David Bohl.

Members of Modern Woodmen of America Camp 7742, 1895-1920, unidentified photographer, United States. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library purchase, 2003.022.1. Photograph by David Bohl.


New to the Collection: A Cerneau Consistory Apron

2011_032DP1DBEven in the context of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s collection there is something so tempting about the forbidden. At least, that’s the feeling I had when a prospective donor offered this Masonic apron to us recently. I do have a soft spot for Masonic aprons in general, and then I learned that this one was supposedly worn by a member of the Cerneau Scottish Rite Consistory in Lenox, Massachusetts, during the 1890s. That did it – I was intrigued and immediately agreed that it should be added to our collection.

But, some of you may be wondering who – or what – is Cerneau, while others are grimacing in disgust. For those that don’t know, Joseph Cerneau (1765-1848) was a French Freemason who lived in San Domingo and then Cuba before moving to New York City in 1806. While in Cuba, Cerneau joined a Scottish Rite group and was given the authority of a Deputy Inspector General. This allowed him to confer several degrees on other prospective Scottish Rite members in Cuba, but the jurisdictional restriction does not seem to stopped Cerneau from conferring the degrees once he reached New York. Debate has raged ever since over whether he acted out of confusion or greed (since he would receive a fee from each man who received the degrees).

In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a member to investigate Cerneau, as well as two additional groups claiming to have jurisdiction in New York. After Cerneau refused the member's request to inspect his records, he was denounced “as an imposter of the first magnitude, and whom we have expelled from Masonic Asylum within our Jurisdiction.” Cerneau was not daunted by the pronouncement and continued to confer degrees.  He oversaw his own Supreme Council until 1827, when he left New York to return to France. Despite Cerneau’s departure from the United States, his name continued to serve as an umbrella term for spurious and irregular Masonic groups, like the one associated with this apron.

Information provided with the apron when it was donated suggests that it was worn by George Washington Ferguson (1865-1936), an ice dealer in Lenox who joined nearby Evening Star Lodge in 1891. At the time, many men who belonged to their local lodge found that they wanted to learn more about Masonic symbolism and philosophy.  Joining additional Masonic groups allowed them to do this, as well as to increase their social circle. The Scottish Rite, with twenty-nine additional degrees, is often called “the University of Freemasonry,” because of the allegorical lessons that its degrees teach. However, in 1891, the nearest recognized Scottish Rite Consistory to Lenox was in Worcester, almost ninety miles away. But, in April 1891, the Cerneau Supreme Council formed Berkshire Consistory No. 56 in Lenox and, according to the information with the apron, Ferguson joined this group. Records of Berkshire Consistory’s founding state that there were thirty-six charter members.

Berkshire Consistory No. 56 continued to meet throughout the 1890s, even hosting the Grand Sovereign Consistory’s “annual rendezvous,” or meeting, in 1895. In response, the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, which had denounced Cerneau and his group back in 1813, established the Onota Lodge of Perfection in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Relations between the two groups proved to be difficult over the next several years.

Questions remain unanswered about George Ferguson and Berkshire Consistory No. 56. Did he ever switch to the recognized Onota Lodge of Perfection? How long did Berkshire Consistory No. 56 remain functional? Please write a comment below if you know more about the story, or have additional questions.  This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, saluting its longevity.  This apron is a scarce reminder of the competing Berkshire Consistory No. 56 and its story.

Cerneau Scottish Rite Apron, ca. 1891, American. Gift of Pittsfield Masonic Association, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 2011.032. 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.