Union Lodge, Dorchester

A Fashionable and “Ancient” Masonic Chair

Arm Chair, ca. 1790. Probably Massachusetts. Special Acquisitions Fund and in part through the generosity of Harold French, 86.40. Photo by David Bohl.

At a quick glance, this mahogany chair in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library resembles other fashionable armchairs produced in New England during the late 1700s and early 1800s. A second look shows that a craftsman designed this chair with a Masonic customer in mind. He decorated the center of the back of the chair, or splat, with cleverly carved overlapping compasses, a square and a level. Two rosettes help anchor the symbols to the circle enclosing them.

While the symbols on the chair’s splat are Masonic, its overall design follows the popular style of the day. In creating fashionable home furnishings in the late 1700s and early 1800s, American furniture makers often looked to English examples for models of stylish work. This chair, with its shield shaped back, short, curved arms and elaborately pierced splat shows some of the stylish elements codified in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide; or Repository of Designs for every Article of Household Furniture in the Newest and Most Approved Taste. Alice Hepplewhite (dates unknown), the widow of furniture maker George (d. 1786), first published this illustrated work in London in 1788. Some American furniture makers knew about Hepplewhite’s and similar British pattern books, such as Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Brook, first published in 1791. These books were also one way Americans learned about the latest fashion. Americans formed their impression of the current modes by  viewing furniture in shops and homes and from up-to-date engravings and illustrations imported from Britain and Europe. Clients ordering furniture relied on craftsmen to be conversant with fashions of the day, but made specific requests about style, materials and cost, to see their wishes in fashionable furnishings fulfilled.

Unfortunately, we do not know who first ordered this chair, or what purpose it was intended to serve. Did the person who commissioned this chair want to use it at home, or was it made to beautify a lodge room? Judging from this chair’s style, manner of construction and materials, it was crafted in New England, perhaps in Boston, Massachusetts. An inscription on the frame of the upholstered seat notes it was “Originally the property of Genl. Amasa Davis.” Though intriguing, this note does not clarify this chair’s origin. Amasa Davis (1742-1825) of Boston, a merchant, was quartermaster general for Massachusetts from 1787 to 1825 and used the title of General. However, no record points to him having been a member of a Masonic lodge. As well, several men named Amasa Davis made their home in Massachusetts during the time this chair was first made. One even belonged to Morning Star Lodge in Worcester, Massachusetts, though little more is known about him. Fortunately records from Union Lodge in Dorchester, Massachusetts, speak to the chair’s later history. Member John Mears, Jr., (1821-1912), gave an “ancient masonic chair” to Union Lodge in 1864. His gift was one of several presentations of furniture made to the lodge to mark the organization’s move to a new building in 1864. Mear’s gift was set aside for use of the lodge’s Tyler until at least the early 1900s. So, although the early history of this intriguing and fashionable chair still needs to be uncovered, it eventually added a touch of history and tradition to a Masonic lodge room. If you have any ideas about this chair, let us know in the comments section below.


Tracing Board from Union Lodge, Dorchester: Now on View

Union Lodge Tracing Board
Tracing Board, ca. 1796. Boston, Massachusetts. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Gift of Union Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 75.46.17. Photo by David Bohl.

In the 1700s and 1800s, members of Masonic lodges used cloths painted with symbols to instruct new brothers in the meaning of Masonic emblems. These paintings were, in the 1700s, most likely, rolled out on the floor.  Later, lodges had tracing boards mounted so that they could be displayed on a wall.  Union Lodge of Dorchester, Massachusetts, owned this tracing board of symbols painted on linen.  It may have started life as a floor cloth but was subsequently mounted on a panel so it could be hung on the lodge room wall.  This tracing board is currently on view in “’Every Variety of Paintings for Lodges’:  Decorated Furniture, Paintings and Ritual Objects from the Collection” at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.

Over the years, the diligent secretaries and stewards of Union Lodge noted the lodge’s tracing boards in their periodic records of lodge property.  The first, “An Inventory of Utencils, & furniture belonging to the Union Lodge,” was recorded in December 1796, just months after members had submitted their petition to form a lodge to the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts.  Among the many intriguing items on the list, the lodge stewards noted a “Flooring Compleat,” a term that likely indicated a tracing board.  During the 1700s and 1800s, American Masons employed many descriptions for what are now called tracing boards or master’s carpets—including tracing boards, floor cloths and charts.  From 1796 through 1826, Union Lodge officers referred to their tracing boards as “flooring compleat,” “apprentice flooring” or Master’s flooring” in their inventories. 

Interestingly, in spite of the rich surviving records from Union Lodge, it is difficult to pin down which of the lodge’s tracing boards this one may have been, or when it was made.  Is this object the original “flooring compleat” first inventoried in 1796?  Or was it, perhaps, a tracing board purchased in late 1799 or 1800 after the lodge voted to choose a committee to “dispose of the flooring of the Lodge & to procure another its room--”? It could have also been the “Entered apprentice flouring” loaned to Rising Star Lodge of Stoughton, Massachusetts, in 1812.  By 1814 Union Lodge officers added a “Master’s flooring” to their holdings.  Four years later the lodge asked a committee, “to procure a Masters Flooring…,” suggesting their older one had been damaged or failed to suit. By 1818, the lodge inventory includeded an “Apprentice flooring, Masters D[itt]o,” and a “Drafting Board,” showing that the group’s stock of teaching aids had grown.  Even with these clues, we will need to undertake further research to help us better understand if this tracing board was one of the several tracing boards recorded in Union Lodge inventories and when it was painted.  In the meantime, be sure to visit the Museum to see the tracing board on exhibit along with other tracing boards, painted furniture and Masonic aprons.     


John D. Hamilton, Material Culture of the American Freemasons (Lexington, Massachusetts:  Museum of Our National Heritage) 1994, 35, 36, 39-42.

William D. Moore, “American Masonic Ritual Paintings,” Folk Art 24 (Winter 1999/2000), 59-65.

Union Lodge Records, Minutes 1796-1826.  Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Gift of Union Lodge, A2008/16.


Stricken with Palsy in the early 1800s!


What would a man do if he was stricken with "palsy" in Dorchester in 1808?  How would he support his family?  There was no medical insurance at this time and no life insurance.  What would you do if you were "unfortunate in business" so you had to claim bankruptcy in 1803?  What would you do if you were a grieving widow in 1809? You might write a letter to your local Masonic lodge.

The Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives recently acquired a very large collection of materials that document the history of Union Lodge, Dorchester (meeting in Norwood, MA) from its founding in 1796 until 1950. The collection was a generous gift from Union Lodge itself. This collection is now cataloged (MA 054) with a 20 page finding aid that contains detailed information about the collection. The Union Lodge collection is open to the general public for research. Using these primary sources, we can learn a lot about the history of this lodge. Below are just a few examples of Masonic charity that are recorded in the documents of the Union Lodge collection.

In 1808, William Lepear wrote a desperate letter to Union Lodge saying that he had been "smitten with a stroke of the palsy which rendered his right arm and leg entirely useless, an in a great measure deprived him of speach [sic]" (see image below). He had been living off his family land since 1804.  By 1808 he had depleted his funds and turned to his Union Lodge brethren for charity.  According to a Union Lodge minute book, on November 1, 1808, William Lepear's request was voted on by the members.  It is clear that the members voted in favor of helping out Lepear, because they collected $10.50 for this Brother and his family.A2008_16_Lepear_Letter_to_Union_Lodge_scan

Masonic charity comes in many forms. In a July 1803 letter to Union Lodge, Victor Blair of Charlestown petitioned for charity relief funds because his business had gone bankrupt. Blair described the early part of his life as devoted to the "services of his country in the American army." On August 2, 1803, the Union Lodge met and reviewed Blair's letter and decided to take up a collection to help out this Masonic Brother, according to a minute book of Union Lodge.  The lodge collected $3.73 for Victor Blair.  Though this may seem like a small amount, in the  1800s it would be considered a good sum.

Joseph Howe wrote a letter to Union Lodge in 1812, asking for charity relief.  He had been captured by the British on November 11, 1812 , during the War of 1812, and had surrendered all of his "tools and fruits of his labor for many months."  He asked Union Lodge for fraternal relief and to save him "from the last fatal act of desperation!"  That is, he was asking for relief funds to get his trade going again so that he could support his family.  On January 12, 1813 Union Lodge collected $8.10 for Howe as recorded in the minutes of the Union Lodge.  The secretary of Union Lodge was asked to give the money to Brother Joseph Howe.

As well as charitable relief to many, the Union Lodge also consoled many grieving widows of fellow Masons.  The minutes of July 1, 1809 record that the lodge had a special meeting to discuss the death of Joseph Gardner, Senior Warden. They held a procession to the cemetery and gave him a Masonic burial.  As noted in the minutes, "a procession was formed under the care and direction of the R. W. Brother Henry M. Lisle and W. Brother Sam B. Lyon Marshall of the lodge marcht witih solem musick from Union Hall to the House of Mourning and from thence to the Place of enternment, where the masonick solemenities were performed [sic]".   A committee was formed to write Mrs. Ann Gardner a proper letter of condolence.  A copy of the sent letter was kept by the lodge and it was recorded in the July 25, 1809 minutes that this letter was sent and that Mrs. Gardner responded. The letter of July 1, 1809 from Union Lodge, is a beautiful one that is three pages long!

Union Lodge was chartered in 1796 and still exists today.  Their charter was signed by Paul Revere (Grand Master), William Scollay (Deputy Grand Master), and Isaiah Thomas (Senior Grand Warden) on June 16, 1796.  Only 13 lodges predate Union Lodge in Massachusetts.

Image Captions

Detail from Program of Union Lodge, 1906, Union Lodge, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, A2008/16.

Letter from William Lepear to Union Lodge, 1808, Union Lodge, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, A2008/16.