Trench Art

There are Masons in Foxholes

Lamp smallerFighting boredom as well as the enemy, soldiers have long passed the time between battles making gifts and souvenirs using available materials and improvised tools. With these objects, these men often sought to remember or mark their extraordinary experiences during their service. A previous post on this blog highlighted a Masonic pendant made by a French prisoner in England between 1793 and 1814, during the Napoleonic Wars. During World War I, however, in part because spent shells and other war-related debris littered the trenches and battlefields, this so-called trench art like this three-armed lamp, which is featured in our new exhibition, "Curators' Choice: Favorites from the Collection," became more common. Despite its name, however, not all of this trench art was made by soldiers on the front lines or in prison camps. Soldiers and civilians who lived through the conflict also purchased commercially produced souvenirs, often after the fighting ended.

According to a brass plate attached to the base of the lamp, Brother Robert T. Woolsey presented it to Union Lodge #31 in New London, Connecticut, on December 25, 1922. The lodge used it to let late-arriving members know which of the three Masonic degrees the lodge was working in, depending on whether one, two, or three of the bulbs were lit. The Museum purchased the lamp from the lodge in 2000.

Born in Appleton, Missouri, in 1893, Robert Woolsey enlisted in the Navy on June 5, 1917, just two months after the United States entered World War I. Following the war, he landed in Connecticut, where he was initiated in Union Lodge on March 22, 1922, and was raised a Master Mason on April 19, 1923, several months after giving the lamp to his lodge. It appears that he made a career of his military service. The 1930 census lists him as a mariner in the navy, living in Vallejo, California, with his wife, Jean, and two small children. By World War II, still in the navy, Woolsey had moved back to New London, Connecticut. He died in November 1944.

Although we made some inquiries, we don’t know if the shell is from naval or land-locked artillery. This information would help us figure out whether Brother Woolsey collected the shell himself or purchased it during or after the war. Neither do we know if he made the lamp himself. He may have bought it ready-made from one of the many vendors in America or Europe who created trench art. Unfortunately, Union Lodge #31 had a fire in 1923, and all previous records were lost. If you have any insights or questions about this object, please leave a comment or e-mail Aimee Newell, Director of Collections at [email protected].

Reference: Jane A. Kimball, Trench Art: An Illustrated History (Davis, CA: Silverpenny Press, 2004).

Photo: Lamp, 1922. France or America. National Heritage Museum purchase, 2000.059.8. Photograph by David Bohl.


Masonic Trench Art

GL2004_3033T 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of an agreement between the National Heritage Museum and the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, which brought the Grand Lodge collection to the Museum on extended loan.  Both organizations have seen many benefits over the past five years.  The Grand Lodge collection is professionally cared for, with each object inventoried and tracked.  In turn, the Museum is able to research, exhibit and publish the objects in the collection, along with new information about them.

I have been fortunate to work with the Grand Lodge collection for almost three and a half years.  Among the more than 12,000 objects, I have many favorites; the pendant pictured here is near the top of my list.  Made in one century and sold at auction in another, this small item attests to the universality of Freemasonry’s tenets and reminds us of the importance of tradition.

The pendant is similar in form and materials to many that were made as an early form of “trench art” by French prisoners in England during the Napoleonic Wars.  Between 1793 and 1814, there were over 120,000 French soldiers and sailors in British prisons.  Using what was handy, including bone, straw from their mattresses, paper, their own hair, and other materials, the prisoners fashioned these small pictures.  Many sold or traded their work for food, clothing or bedding to improve their living conditions at the prison.  French Freemasons in the prisons were allowed to form lodges.  Pendants like this one may have helped those Masons to remember their teachings and might have been used in the prison lodges to teach new members or to identify lodge officers.  These items were undoubtedly appealing souvenirs for English Masons, who purchased or traded for them with the prisoners.  

A century after it was initially made, this pendant was purchased at the 1901 auction of industrialist John Haigh’s (1832-1896) library by former Grand Master of Massachusetts Samuel Crocker Lawrence (1832-1911).  John Haigh was a native of England, but came to America in 1855.  Apprenticed as a calico printer, Haigh worked at the Pacific Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and later became part owner of the Middlesex Bleachery and Dye Works.  Initiated into a local lodge in Lawrence in 1859, Haigh was an active Freemason who frequently served as an officer.

Samuel Crocker Lawrence was initiated into Hiram Lodge in West Cambridge (now Arlington), Massachusetts, in 1854.  A Civil War general, Lawrence became president of the Eastern Railroad Company in 1875 and served as the first mayor of the city of Medford, Massachusetts, from 1892 to 1894.  An active Freemason, Lawrence bequeathed his extensive Masonic library to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts when he died in 1911.  Today, the Grand Lodge Library is named in his honor.

References:

Jane A. Kimball.  Trench Art: An Illustrated History.  Davis, CA: Silverpenny Press, 2004.

Mark J.R. Dennis and Nicholas J. Saunders.  Craft and Conflict: Masonic Trench Art and Military Memoribilia.  London: Savannah Publications, 2003.

William Hammond.  Masonic Emblems and Jewels: Treasures at Freemasons’ Hall.  London: A. Lewis, 1920.

Masonic Pendant, 1793-1815, England, Collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts at the National Heritage Museum, GL2004.3033.  Photograph by David Bohl.