"The modern Craft is essentially speculative, and every Mason must necessarily be to some extent speculative in his attitude to its tenets ; but there is a widespread tendency to extend the limits of true speculative research and to exaggerate symbolical values."
The apron and its symbolism|
By Bro. F.R. Worts, M.A., P.A.G.D.C.
HISTORY OF THE APRON1
There can be no doubt that the Masonic apron has been developed from the apron worn by operative masons in the middle ages. The few examples surviving show that the operative apron was fashioned from the skin of an animal, most probably a sheep. It was large enough to cover the wearer from chest to ankles, and its fall was held by a leathern thong which passed round the neck. From each side a thong, firmly stitched, enabled the mason to tie the apron round his waist, and the tied bow tended to fall as end-strings. The use of this rough apron continued for many centuries ; the woven apron used by modern masons is comparatively late; it came into use in the eighteenth century.
The earliest representations of the Freemasons Apron are seen on the engraved portrait of Antony Sayer, the first G.M. of the modern Craft. (1717), and on the frontispiece illustration of Andersons first Book of Constitutions (1723). In the former, unfortunately, only the upper part of the apron is visible, and what appears to be the bib or flap is raised. In the second example a Tyler is bringing into the hall a number of aprons ; these have long tie-strings which seem to be of leather. They are also large, well capable of covering a man from chest to: ankles. The method of tying-on the apron was that of operative masons, with the bow and strings in front ; this method was continued later, even when silk or linen strings were used.
The leather apron died hard. Despite the use of softer materials from possibly 1740 onwards, it survived in use until at least 1811. The evidence of this is the first official reference to the apron found in the G.L. minutes of 17th March, 1731 : 2
Masters and Wardens of particular Lodges may line their white leather Aprons with white silk, and may hang their Jewels at white Ribbons about their Necks." (A.Q.C., x, p. 146.)
This regulation was repeated in the 1738 and in subsequent editions of the Constitutions up to and including Noorthoucks edition (1784), which was the last edition before 1815.
Crowe contended that by 1738 linen had supplanted leather, but Rylands disagreed ; both scholars, however, thought it possible that in the 1730s some masons were experimenting with fabrics other than leather for their aprons.3
We do not know when the very long aprons went out of use. Only four of Rylands' plates (Nos. 2, 8, 10, 23), depicting non-operative aprons, show the apron to be long. The most interesting of these is No. 23, dated 1754. It shows a group of six Masons and only one of them is certainly wearing a long apron. He is, presumably, the S.W. ; he wears a level as Collar-jewel, and his apron-flap is down. The sixth figure, probably the Tyler, with drawn sword and no Collar-Jewel, wears his flap up.
The early fashion of wearing the bib or flap up soon fell into disfavour. The flap was either cut off or worn down as a fall. Rylands' illustrations offer only two or three examples of the raised flap (Nos. 1, 1717; 23, 1754; 42, 1784). Of his pictures Nos. 1 to 38, no less than nine, it seems, have no flap; in the remainder the flaps are down.
It is evident from surviving aprons and illustrations of the early period that they were designed to be worn with the flap up and fastened, by means of a button-hole, to a button on the coat or waistcoat. Many of these old aprons have a button-hole in the flap, but there seems to have been a tendency amongst Master Masons to wear the flap down or to dispense with it altogether. 4 (See Illustrations c and g.)
From 1731 onwards the apron began to assume a more convenient shape, usually kneelength. Leather gave way to softer fabrics, silk, satin, velvet, linen, and chamois-leather. The flap, when retained, was either cut to a triangular form or in a semi-circular line. The latter was increasingly adopted-by M.M.s, presumably to mark their distinctive rank. The lower part of the apron was sometimes squared off, but generally the corners were trimmed to give a semi-circular line, and the leather thongs were displaced by ribbons or strings.
According to Dermott (Ahiman Rezon, 1764, pp. 24-3 1), some " Modern" Masons, objecting to the working apron of the operatives, introduced a new mode of wearing their aprons upside down; what was formerly the lowest part was now fastened round the abdomen and the bib and strings hung downwards, dangling in such a manner as might convince spectators that there was not a working mason amongst them. Blackham states that this "subterfuge" was introduced between 1730 and 1740, but it was short-lived. 5
Before 1760, elaborately-painted or embroidered aprons came into fashion and continued to be favoured until the Union (1813). Many of these aprons were home-made, often artistically finished and adorned with symbolic designs. From 1760 onwards the printed and engraved aprons appeared, many of them being subsequently coloured by hand. (See Illustration n.)
The tendency to decorate Masonic aprons with symbolic designs began in the 1730s, and between 1740 and 1790 this practice became widespread. These efforts were mostly crude, but many surviving examples reveal skill and taste. Indian ink, paint and embroidery were commonly used for this ornamentation. The most popular designs usually included the All-Seeing Eye, the Columns, and the Square and Compasses, all evidence of the advance of Speculative Masonry in the second half of the eighteenth century. (See Illustrations o, p, q.)
Rylands sums up the matter thus:
". . . by 1784 the apron was greatly reduced in size . . . for a long time there had been considerable laxity . . . and no definition laid down as to uniformity. So long as the material was white the face might be decorated with any number of Masonic symbols or other symbols without infringing the law, provided always that it did not interfere with the privileges of the Grand Officers, who used a purple edging to their aprons . . . The size had grown smaller and smaller. (See Illustrations a, b, l.)
. . . it was quite within the power of each mason to invent for himself almost any apron he pleased." 6
In the Library of the Province of Yorkshire (West Riding) is an apron dated about 1820. It is small, hand-made, of white linen edged with narrow light blue ribbon, and there is no other adornment. The strings are very long and of the same blue ribbon. The flap is down; it is cut to a semi-circular line; but it is also cut into two halves, each half forming a semi-circle, and the two parts being neatly edged with the blue ribbon.
Among the "Antients" it became a common practice to draw or paint on their aprons the coat of arms of their own Grand Lodge, but in the main the Atholl Masons adopted the fashions of the "Moderns" ; indeed., they indulged their fancy even more freely than their rivals in the choice and use of embellishments. On 2nd September, 1772, the Atholl G.L. passed the following resolution:
"It having been represented to the G.L. that several Brethren have lately appeared in public, with gold lace and fringe, together with many devices on their aprons, &c., which was thought inconsistent with the dignity, propriety and ancient custom of the Craft, Resolved and Ordered That for the future, no Brethren, Grand Officers excepted, shall appear with gold lace, gold fringe, gold embroidery, or anything resembling gold, on their Masonic clothing or ornaments." (Ahiman Rezon, 1807, pp. 90-91.)
This was simply a ban on gold decoration ; there was still no attempt to prescribe uniformity of design.
BLUE RIBBONS AND BLUE SILK
The resolution of the Grand Lodge on March 17th, 1721, ordained that:
"None but the Grand Master, his Deputy and Wardens shall wear their Jewels in Gold or gilt pendant to Blue Ribbons about their Necks, and White Leather aprons with Blue Silk ; which Sort of Aprons may also be worn by former Grand Officers."
This was the first official mention of Blue Silk as a trimming for aprons, and it is clear that the Blue was originally reserved for Grand Officers. The Rawlinson MS., c. 1740, mentions: " Two Grand Masters aprons Lined with Garter blue silk and turned over two inches with white silk strings."
By 1745-50 Grand Officers were beginning to edge their aprons with purple ribbon. The light blue, gradually given up by the Grand Officers, was soon adopted by Master Masons, and since there was no official ruling on the subject (until 1815), blue-edged aprons became fairly common with the rank and file of the Craft from about 1745 onwards.
Uniformity and regularity in the material, design, form and decorations of the apron were not officially insisted upon by the United Grand Lodge until 2nd March, 1814. The pattern was submitted and agreed to on the 2nd May; then the order for a general uniformity was issued. The Constitutions (1815), p. 123, prescribed:
Entered Apprentice, A plain white lamb skin 14 to 16 inches wide, 12 to 14 inches deep, square at bottom, and without ornament; white strings.
Fellow Craft, A plain white lamb skin, similar to the, entered apprentice, with the addition only of two sky-blue rosettes at the bottom.
Master Mason, The same, with sky-blue lining and edging, 1 1/2 inch deep, and an additional rosette on the fall or flap.-No other colour or ornament shall be allowed except to officers and past officers of the lodges, who, may have the emblems of their offices in silver or white in the centre of the apron.
It will be seen that little modification of the 1815 text has been necessary in the past century-and-a-half. Today it is ruled that the apron of the E.A. must have a "flap" ; that the two rosettes of the F.C. must be attached "to the lower corners" of the apron; and that the aprons of Master Masons are to be edged with ribbon of "not more than two inches in width", that "silver tassels" must hang over the face and that the strings must be "light blue" ; it is also provided that the "emblems" of "offices . . . in the centre of the apron" may be "surrounded by a double circle in which may be inserted the name and number of the Lodge".
The tassels, in rudimentary form, must have appeared at a very early date as a natural development of the waist-strings being tied at the front and hanging down over the apron. There are, indeed, several surviving examples of eighteenth century aprons with broad ribbon ties, the ends of the ties being edged, usually with gold fringe, so that when tied at the front the fringed ends have the appearance of a pair of tassels. (See Illustrations g, j, m.),
It is impossible to say when the silver tassels made their first appearance as standard decoration for the M.M.s apron. They were probably in use some time before 1841, and they were officially prescribed for the first time in the 1841 Book of Constitutions.
Neither Crowe nor Rylands was able to date the introduction of the metal tassels, and they are not used in all Masonic jurisdictions. Crowe wrote:
When they were introduced I cannot tell, but excepting the Australian and Canadian Grand Lodges, which naturally copy us, the Grand Lodges of Great Britain are, so far as my researches have gone, the only Bodies which wear them, and in the case of Ireland they are omitted from the aprons of Grand Officers." (Op. cit., p. 30.)
The origin of rosettes on the F.C. and M.M. aprons is also unknown. In England they were a comparatively late introduction, and were not prescribed officially until 1815, when they were specifically designed to differentiate the three grades. It is probable, however, that their original purpose was purely ornamental. There is a German Masonic medal or jewel, dated 1744 (or possibly 1755), which shows an apron with three rosettes. (See Illustrations h and k.)
Unfortunately, there is no trace of a Grand Lodge at that period, either English or European, which prescribed the use of rosettes, and in the circumstances we are compelled to assume that they were purely decorative. This does not exclude the possibility, however, that they may have had a more practical significance in the Lodges in which they were worn.
SQUARES OR LEVELS
There appears to be no official name for the squares or levels which decorate the apron of a Master or Past Master. The 1815 Constitutions described them as "perpendicular lines upon horizontal lines, thereby forming three several sets of (two) right angles", and originally they were to be of inch-wide ribbon. The same definition appears in the present Constitutions, though nowadays the emblems are usually of silver or white metal. They were designed only for purpose of distinction. (See Illustration m.)
SPECULATIVE CONCEPTIONS OF THE APRON
To all students, both young and old, a caveat must be given before this phase of our subject is considered. The modern Craft is essentially speculative, and every Mason must necessarily be to some extent speculative in his attitude to its tenets ; but there is a widespread tendency to extend the limits of true speculative research and to exaggerate symbolical values. This tendency had already developed strongly towards the end of the eighteenth century, and in modern times it has become both harmful to the Craft and to a proper understanding of its moral demands and teachings.
Unfortunately, this incredibly exaggerated symbolism has been taught for nearly two centuries by many sincere and famous Freemasons, such as Oliver, Paton, Fort Newton and Wilmshurst, who exercised much influence in their time.
Students should, therefore, be on their guard and bear in mind that, in the opinion of modern Masonic scholars, such extremes of speculative interpretation are unacceptable.
Teaching by symbols is age-old practice, and Freemasonry shares with all the important organisations of civilised life, e.g., the State, the Churches, the Armed Forces, etc., the possession of appropriate symbols, all of which have an acceptable interpretation.
The best known and most widely accepted definition of Masonry is that it is "A peculiar system of morality . . . illustrated by symbols", and the Craft deals in its own way, a plain and simple way, with the symbols in the W.Tls., the Tg. Bds. and the Lectures.
Although Grand Lodge has never authorised any system of interpreting Masonic symbols, it, published, in 1929, a statement of Basic Principles, in which it claimed to have
. . . sole and undisputed authority over the Craft or Symbolic Degrees (Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason) . . . (Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition, September 4th, 1929, cl. 5 ; pub. in the Masonic Year Book.)
Before looking at the apron in the light of the above, it is prudent to make a clear differentiation between the terms of Symbol, Emblem and Badge.
Symbol is an idea, sign, device or object which has within itself something else an idea, or fact, even a proposition which it guards from facile scrutiny, but which it may yield, if it be studied. Some symbols are simple, others very complex. In Freemasonry, certain symbols denote somewhat vaguely certain "virtues" or "facts', while others are capable of a wide interpretation.
Emblem is also a symbolic device, but its meaning does not have to be discovered ; its meaning is obvious, known and accepted by common agreement: e.g., a crown means royalty, white means purity.
Badge is a mark or sign by which a person or object is distinguished ; it is a device used to make known membership of any corporate body ; it really serves its owner to establish his identity, as indeed his own name does.
Masonry uses all three, symbol, emblem and badge, and in some cases symbol and emblem seem to be the same.
During the exhortation delivered by the investing officer and the address by the Master, after investment, in both the First and the Third Degrees, the candidate is informed:
That the apron is the badge; it marks his membership of the Fraternity; he must always wear it in Lodge.
That it is the "bond of friendship". This may reveal the apron as a symbol (if one be desired) of the fraternal virtues.
That it is the "badge of innocence". This is difficult ; the conception probably arises from the white colour of the lamb-skin ; but there are aprons which have a different colour.
That it testifies or witnesses the honourable age of the Craft. The historical claims made at an initiates investment must often astonish him ; but they are uncompromisingly made, and must be accepted. That the apron is a symbol of age cannot be argued, except in the general sense that Masons have always worn aprons. At the least it seems that the apron is an emblem of historical institutional age.
That, in the Third Degree, it is a badge of preceptorial authority, which justifies the M.M. in instructing masons who have not reached his rank in the Craft.
The apron appears to have on it symbols or emblems as decorative features, e.g., the blue edged ribbon, the rosettes, the seven-chained tassels. Are these symbols or emblems ? Have they any worth apart from artistic forms or embellishments?
The extremists teach that they are symbols: indeed, they go much further and state that the actual form of the apron, and the form of its flap, and the position of the flap, are important in their symbolic content. Little, if any, credence need be given to such opinions or judgments. At the best the decorations on the apron are possibly emblematic, but what the emblems mean it is impossible to state accurately; e.g., it is said that the blue ribbon edging symbolises charity. It may, but charity is a common virtue of the Craft, and many aprons have different coloured edging. The three rosettes are said to represent the Three Degrees, but no scholar knows yet what their origin was. The symbolic origins of the tassels and their seven chains are also shrouded in mystery. It is far better to accept the probability that regalia-makers from 1830 onwards contrived a symmetrical design for the apron by placing the tassels with their ornamental chains on either side of the apron. Finally, the extremists will even make the "hook" (the circle) and the "clasp" (the serpent) symbols of tremendous and mystical ideas ; no better example of "wishful thinking" could be given. That these humble devices, so commonly used throughout the world to serve needs of fastening attire, should be tortured to yield such meanings is unjustified ; indeed, it may be described as fatuous.
The Masters exhortation to the newly-initiated brother must be recalled. It warns him "never to put on . . ." The apron is, therefore, in its final value not only an official badge of membership of the antient and honourable Society ", but a monition that a brother must ever understand and conform to the ethic of the Craft, so that in the Lodge, at least, a righteous, enjoyable and fruitful peace shall prevail.
The symbolical explanations which are virtually standardized in the modern rituals are clear, simple and wholly satisfying. It is the unchallenged right of every Mason to seek further afield for the interpretations that will fulfil his spiritual needs. But he should remember Tennysons line on " The falsehood of extremes ", and be slow to accept the "wider explanations" until he can do so with full conviction.
1.In 1892 Bro. W. H. Rylands wrote his paper on the Masonic Apron (A.Q.C., vol. v). An important essay with no less than 83 plates or drawings, illustrating the history of the Masonic apron, it has been largely used as the basis of the historical portion of this paper, and all Masonic students are advised to read it.
2.Presumably, the first official reference to Masonic clothing is in the seventh clause of the General Regulations sanctioned by G.L. in 1721, but aprons are not mentioned specifically
VII. Every new Brother at his making is decently to cloath the Lodge, that is, all the
Brethren present . . .
3.Rylands, op. cit., p. 175 ; Crowe, Masonic Clothing (A.Q.C., v, pp. 29 et seq.).
4.In France, F.C.s apparently wore the flap up and buttoned to the coat (vide L'Ordre des Francs Maçons Trahi, 1745, p. 116, and Les Francs-Maçons Ecrasés, 1747, p. 221). In the exposure, Solomon in All His Glory, 1766 the description of the M M. ceremony contains the following: ". . . the master undid the flap of my apron, which was fastened to one of my waistcoat-buttons ; and told me that in quality of master, I was at liberty to let it fall down . . ."
5.Blackham, Apron Men, p. 213. Rylands, op. cit., pp. 177-8, v. his plate No. 26, dated c. 1766, which illustrates this mode.
6.Rylands, op. cit., pp. 180, 172, 179. For description of some, of these embellished aprons, see Rylands, p. 179; Crowe, op. cit., p. 30; Blackham, op. cit. p. 30.
Reprinted with permission of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, UGLE, vol. lxxiv (1961) pp. 133-37. Minor typographical errors corrected and footnotes renumbered as endnotes. Two pages of photographs omitted.