Has a gift ever made you tear up? Perhaps you’ve experienced nostalgia while deciding the fates of an old childhood toy–it’s impossible to get rid of that thread-bare teddy bear. Or felt a surge of hurt and anger simply by looking at something acquired during a failed relationship. Objects are powerful.
This is the fundamental premise behind museums. Historical artifacts can tell compelling stories when interpreted. In this blog post, we will look at two objects from the Masonic collection here at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall. Both artifacts most likely belong to the Royal Arch Chapter No. 2, one of the two original Masonic bodies at the Hall. The Royal Arch Chapter No. 2 occupies the third floor of the building.
c. 1810s Masonic apron
Our first object is a Masonic apron. Freemasons wear aprons at ceremonies and public events. This apron is missing its ties, but it would have been fastened around its owner’s waist. Masonic aprons hearken back to the fraternity’s stonemason origins. A stonemason at work wore an apron, which protected his body from pieces of stone, wet mortar, and his tools. In 19th century Freemasonry, these aprons were purely symbolic and often extremely decorative.
We have about two dozen Masonic aprons in the Masonic collection here. This apron is the oldest and hands-down the most embellished. From its size, materials, the extent of decoration, and the style of embroidery, we surmise it was created probably in the first or second decade of the 1800s.
Dating this Masonic apron:
The size and shape of a Masonic apron is a useful tool for dating it. From the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century, Masonic aprons grew progressively smaller and more angular. The Masonic apron pictured below belonged to George Washington and is a great example of how huge 18th century aprons were. Our apron is still large–but not George Washington large–and its more angular-but still rounded-corners give it away as belonging to the early, rather than late, 19th century.
Our Masonic apron is made of silk with either cotton or linen backing. Silk came into use on Masonic aprons near the end of the 18th century. The thread used in the embroidery is mostly silk chenille, with some metallic. In especially important areas, i.e. on the G and globes, metallic sequins make the design pop.
This apron is highly decorated, a dead giveaway that it is older rather than newer. The late 18th into the first decades of the 19th century is the golden age of over-the-top decoration on Masonic aprons. Most of the embellishment is in the form of Masonic symbols and designs.
Here are the meanings behind a few Masonic symbols that appear on this apron:
G: God and sacred geometry
Checkered floor: The dual existence of good and evil in human nature
Coffin with acacia branch: The coffin represents the grave, a metaphor used in some degrees and initiations; countered by immortality, represented in the acacia spring
Hive: Helpful industry
Trowel: One of the primary tools used by master stonemasons
Eye: The omniscient and watchful providence of God
Square and Compass: Architect’s tools; fairness, judgment, and boundaries in life
Now, the burning question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: who wore this apron? That man’s identity remains a mystery. He most likely belonged to the Royal Arch Chapter No. 2 during the 1810s, which does help narrow the possibilities down to a finite number of people. Perhaps someday more information concerning him will be uncovered. But for now, we can look to the art of making Masonic aprons to learn a little more about the object and who might have created it.
Makers of Masonic Aprons
Although the specific details of the apron’s origin are unknown, we can make some educated guesses about the person who made it. In England and urban centers in the Eastern United States, professional engravers and embroiderers often made the designs on Masonic aprons. This became popular after about 1760. The apron below belongs to the Smithsonian and is an excellent example of a printed apron. It dates to 1822 and belonged to Sidney Mason. The design, however, is older. Engraver Edward Horsman published it in 1814.
In more rural and frontier areas, however, a much different group lent their talents to making Masonic aprons: women. Embroidery and watercolor were important parts of a well-rounded young lady’s education in the early 19th century. This brings us to our second artifact: a letter dating to 1846. The letter is written to an unknown member of the Royal Arch Chapter No. 2 by James B. Porter. In it, Porter requests an order of Masonic aprons, which a woman named Mary Jane will make. This is valuable information! 1. A woman is making some of the aprons for the Masons in Franklin. 2. James Porter is acting as a middle-man in the business.
Mary Jane is probably Mary Jane Porter Sharber, youngest daughter of James B. Porter. By 1846, Mary Jane was a grown woman, engaged or recently married to a Spring Hill physician. But because of societal norms, Mary Jane could not have publicly operated her own business in 1846 Tennessee. It would have been frowned upon as extremely improper. But it was fine for her to make Masonic aprons intended for sale. Thus, her father conducted the public part of her business for her.
Since Mary Jane Porter was born in 1822, we know that she did not make the Masonic apron that is the subject of this post. But, could she have made other aprons in our collection? Absolutely. As for this apron, it was most likely also made by a woman. It could have been made here in Williamson County by an early settler or been brought here by an immigrating Mason. But for now, in the spirit of Freemasonry, it remains a mystery!