Fraternal Arts

July 2017

The Ubiquitous Signs and Symbols of American Freemasonry

The order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons can trace its beginnings back to the fourteenth century and the golden age of cathedral building, when the art of masonry flourished as the most demanded of the skilled trades. After the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, however, cathedral building fell from grace, the demand for stonemasons declined, and the order became less a guild than a social fraternity to which almost anyone could belong—and thousands did: over the centuries, lodges blossomed throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Boston got its first lodge in 1730; Philadelphia in 1733; and by the end of the eighteenth century, Freemasonry had swept into its fold such men as Dr. Joseph Warren, James Otis, George Washington, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere. The order’s popularity slipped badly for more than ten years, however, when in 1826 one William Morgan—a member who had threatened to publish a book about it all—was kidnaped in Batavia, New York, and vanished. The public outcry over what was assumed to be murder was intense enough to give birth in 1832 to the short-lived Anti-Masonic party, which declared the order to be not only anticlerical but treasonous. Neither charge was true, of course, and by the middle of the century Freemasonry was once again respectable and growing healthily—as it is today.

Masonic rituals, philosophic underpinnings, and structure (“often confusing to members and nonmembers alike,” an historian of freemasonry, Clement M. Silvestro, has written) is an amalgam whose sources lie in ancient Greece, the Old Testament, medieval and modern Christianity, and the Age of Reason. And it is rife with symbolism, using everything from the tools of the stonemason’s trade to the pillars of Solomon’s Temple to represent the order’s tenets of moral and fraternal behavior. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, this symbology became a common part of the decorative arts, incised into furniture, woven into rugs, shaped into watch parts, blown into bottles, enriching the texture and aesthetics of everyday life. In the following portfolio, we present a selection of particularly colorful examples—fraternal arts from the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.