The Independent Magazine for Freemasons
By: Aimee E. Newell
Soon after the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library was founded in 1975, the collection began to grow, with Masonic aprons 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 to the present and come from the United States, England, China and other countries. A new publication from the Museum & Library – The Badge of a Freemason: Masonic Aprons from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library – presents more than 100 aprons from the collection with full-colour photographs and new research to tell the stories of apron manufacturers, owners and to track the history of Masonic regalia.
Included in the book are five entries about Scottish Rite aprons. The collection at the Museum & Library includes more than twenty examples. Eight of these, almost half, are Rose Croix aprons, while four are Consistory aprons, three are Princes of Jerusalem and two are Lodge of Perfection. The remaining five aprons represent other degrees or groups, including one that was purportedly worn by a member of a Cerneau Scottish Rite group in western Massachusetts.
An unfinished apron from the 1820s or 1830s is embroidered with the symbols of the Scottish Rite’s Rose Croix, or 18th degree. The degree tells the story of the building of the Temple of Zerubbabel on the site of Solomon’s Temple, which had been destroyed. This apron shows the major symbols used in the ritual: the pelican piercing her breast to feed her children with her blood; the cross with ‘INRI’ at top; allegorical figures of Faith, Hope and Charity; and a knight.
During the late 1850s, the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, ordered new regalia from Paris. Unfortunately, the records do not provide details about its materials or designs, just that it was ‘difficult to conceive how it can be excelled in beauty of workmanship’. A few years later, in 1863, a committee was again appointed ‘to procure from Paris, France, regalia and jewels for this Supreme Council’.
Sadly, the Boston Masonic building, where the Supreme Council met and stored its regalia, caught fire in April 1864 and all of the regalia was lost. A year later, in 1865, the Supreme Council once again started the process of ordering new regalia ‘for the officers of the Supreme Council, and a sample of the proper Regalia for the Sov. Grand Inspectors-General, Thirty-Third Degree, and also a Standard of the Order’. By May 1866, the regalia arrived from Paris and was described as ‘rich and beautiful’. It is tempting to surmise that one of the Scottish Rite aprons now in the Museum & Library collection may date from this order, or perhaps is one of the samples that the Supreme Council considered.
Another apron in the collection shows more straightforward symbol and was used for the 32nd degree. The design of this apron is based on the symbols used to teach the degree’s lesson and comes directly from the eighteenth-century manuscript rituals used by Scottish Rite members. An annual report from 1853 for Scottish Rite groups in Pennsylvania and Ohio noted that ‘officers and Brethren are fully clothed, as laid down in the Ritual. This apron is white, lined and edged with black. The flap shows a double-headed eagle and flags on either side. The body shows what is known as the ‘camp’ or ‘encampment,’ which serves as the tracing board for the degree. As one 1864 manual explained: ‘the form of which is a nonagon, within which is inscribed a heptagon, within the heptagon a pentagon, within the pentagon an equilateral triangle, and within the triangle a circle…on the sides of the pentagon…are five standards.’ The standards each have a symbol – the Ark of Alliance, a lion, a flaming heart, a double-headed eagle and a bull. Along the outer border of the nonagon are nine tents with flags, ‘representing the divisions of the [symbolic] Masonic army.’
Among the five Scottish Rite aprons in the collection that do not relate to a specific degree is a recent acquisition owned by Carl Leonard Lidfeldt (1883-1962). The apron dates to about 1911, after Lidfeldt was initiated into all four bodies that compose the Scottish Rite. According to the inscription under the flap, Rochester, New York’s Valley Lodge No.109 presented the apron to Lidfeldt after he was raised a Master Mason on 31 May, 1910. The front of the flap shows a double-headed eagle emblem. The body of the apron lists the dates in 1910 and 1911, when Lidfeldt was initiated into each Scottish Rite body – the Lodge of Perfection, the Council of Princes of Jerusalem, the Chapter of Rose Croix and Rochester Consistory.
Lidfeldt’s apron can be described as a ‘biographical object,’ a term used by anthropologists to identify personally meaningful objects that take on a life of their own. In addition to the biographical story that the apron tells about its owner, it gained sentimental value as it was kept by the original owner’s family and passed through the subsequent generations. In many cultures, ‘people and the things they valued were so completely intertwined they could not be disentangled.’ This apron may have functioned this way for Lidfeldt’s family (along with many of the aprons in the Museum & Library collection) – it was deeply associated with him, calling to mind his Masonic activities and the Masonic lessons that he practiced in his family and in his community, as well as at the lodge.