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Some thoughts on the history of
The Tracing Boards
Presented at the Vancouver Grand Masonic Day, October 16, 1999
by Bro. Mark S. Dwor, Centennial-King George Lodge No. 171, Richmond
I first gave a variation of this particular talk in May, 1996. I have given it a number of times since. Every time I've given the talk the analysis, although not the facts or the substance, changes slightly. As I have now had time to once again reconsider this and am now obligated to present the talk in written form, I also feel somewhat obligated to explain not so much my research, as meandering as it might have been, but rather the various pieces of Masonic history that are linked to Tracing Boards. The history of Tracing Boards actually is fairly easy to describe, but how it fits into the larger context of Masonry and why it is that we are now required, in the Canadian work, to actually use Tracing Boards is quite a complex story. I must assume that the majority of readers of this paper will be in the same state of darkness that I was when I approached this topic however, for those of you who already know much or most of what I am about to describe, I hope you do not mind a refresher course, and to those to whom some or all of this is new, I trust you will find it as intriguing as I have.
When I refer to the Canadian Ritual that is used in this province the reference is to the British Columbia Canadian Work as authorized by Grand Lodge on June 23, 1955 and amended to 1983. When I refer to the Antient Ritual it will be to British Columbia Antient Work, approved by Grand Lodge June 2, 1962. When I refer to the transactions of the Quatuor Coronati, I will use the abbreviation AQC. I'm going to present some conclusions right now, so you can better understand where the topic is going:
1. Much of what needs to be known about Tracing Boards is known. The people who made them and the Lodges that use them are all fairly well documented. This part of Masonic history does not fall into "from time immemorial."
2. The time frame when the Tracing Boards came into being is roughly at the very end of the Eighteenth Century and the first decades or so of the Nineteenth Century. The contents of them reflects the reality of Masonry at the time, just prior to and through the process of and after the Lodge of Reconciliation.
3. While we think of the rise of the two rival Grand Lodges in the Eighteenth Century as a time of conflict, in actual fact it was a time of the greatest Masonic growth where the Brethren in the Lodges were experimenting with different methods of communicating the Masonic message to each other and perfecting new rituals.
4. The Tracing Boards are teaching aids. They have taken on a life of their own, which has had some startling repercussions in Ritual work.
5. To understand where Tracing Boards came from, you have to understand where Floor Cloths came from, but that does not necessarily mean that Tracing Boards are an evolution from Floor Cloths. Many Lodges that use Tracing Boards still use Floor Cloths, and some Lodges that use Floor Cloths do not use Tracing Boards, &c. While I am discussing primarily the Tracing Boards that are used in our jurisdiction in the Canadian, Emulation, and Australian Lodges, I do not mean to overlook the Degree charts and Floor Cloths used in the Antient Lodges.
6. The Tracing Boards that we use ought not to be called Tracing Boards, and this has been recognized by commentators for the last 80 years, but the chance of renaming them even 80 years ago was zero and is certainly less than that now.
7. The Tracing Boards were originally designed to lie flat on the floor of the Lodge, and the Tracing Boards that we use now have used the same artistic perspective as did the original Tracing Boards.
8. While the Tracing Boards as a teaching aid can also be an adornment of the Lodge, it is generally agreed by the writers on this topic that the ones that are most commonly in use, particularly in British Columbia, are the least artistically interesting.
9. There appears to be no rule in terms of Ritual that requires the Tracing Boards for the Degrees that are not being worked to be hidden–i.e., if you are in Third Degree, First Degree and Second Degree Boards must not be shown, or conversely, that the Third Degree Board must not be shown while you are in the First Degree.
To understand specifically why these issues were of importance to me, you have to understand why I did the research in the first place. Two years prior to giving the talk on Tracing Boards, I had given a talk at my Lodge on art and imagery in Masonry. While I was doing research on that, specifically reviewing the wonderful colour reproductions in Freemasonry A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol by W. Kirk McNulty,1 two groups of questions arose in my mind..
The first question group was, why the Third Degree Board is almost always on display, and why the First Degree Board, which to me is the most interesting, is only seen briefly during a typical meeting when we are going into the First Degree. Because we are in British Columbia we are obliged to do our business in the Third Degree, but that is really not much of an answer.
The real question is why that Board needs to be tucked away when we were not in the First Degree. The obvious answer, of course, is that in a functional basis there is no place to display all three Boards at the same time. There does not appear to be any particular ritual requirement for the lack of display of one Tracing Board or another. The only requirement is for a Tracing Board of the particular degree to be displayed specifically when the degree is being worked.
In the Canadian Ritual the Senior Deacon displays a Tracing Board and the working tools of each degree separately. First Degree, (pages 6 & 17); Second Degree (pages 15 & 16) and Third Degree (page 13). There is no requirement for the placing of the Tracing Board for the First Degree Tracing Board Lecture, rather the Candidate is taken to the Junior Warden Station and the Junior Warden delivers the lecture on the Tracing Board (page 38). Similarly, in the Second Degree, the Candidate is taken to the West, where the Senior Warden delivers the Tracing Board Lecture (page 70). In the Third Degree the Deacons conduct the Candidate to the Master Mason's Tracing Board and the Worshipful Master points out its features, which are limited to the ornaments of a Master Mason's Lodge i.e. the porch, the dormer and the square pavement (page 100).
I will be touching on certain issues regarding ritual, but this talk is not about Tracing Boards and the ritual; that is a somewhat separate topic which has been dealt with by VW Bro. Jim Bennie in a talk he delivered to the Vancouver Lodge of Education and Research about two years ago. I did not include a copy of his paper because it did not necessarily deal with some of the issues that I have raised, nor should I expect anyone else to deal with my singular concerns.
The second question group deals with something on the typical First Degree Tracing Board, that is on the "Jacob's Ladder," the images for the three cardinal virtues–that is, Faith, Hope and Charity–typically had a cross for faith. As I looked into the pictures of the early Tracing Boards, I realized that none of them had a cross for Faith; in fact, the cross did not appear in the Tracing Boards until the 1860s.
The question then raised was, if Freemasonry is inclusive not exclusive–that is, if it is designed to include all religions and not exclude any religion–why was the symbol of Faith a cross?
I must admit I pondered this for a long time because I knew that if I had gone to my Brethren and raised this issue the matter would have been resolved very quickly, as it was in fact when I did raise the issue, by simply pasting a large F over the cross. In some of the earliest Tracing Boards, Faith, Hope and Charity were represented with the capital letters "F", "H" and "C". But there was an intellectual, not just a religious, problem here, and that was figuring out why it was that Freemasonry was nondenominational, save and except the belief in a Supreme Being.
The Jacob's Ladder with the symbols being a cross for Faith, an anchor for Hope and a heart for Charity, has taken on a life of its own apart from its Tracing Board significance. It is one of the few pieces of Masonic symbolism, aside from the square and compasses (with or without the G) that is known worldwide. I've seen it in publications as far afield as an Argentinian Masonic magazine.
With that in mind when I first gave this talk, a great portion of it dealt with why religious topics were precluded from the Lodge hall, including any sign of one religion being better than another. I must touch on this briefly now, because the issue of the Lodge of Reconciliation and the Rituals that came from it is an important part of this talk. When the Lodge of Reconciliation was concluded, a number of compromises had been reached between the two Grand Lodges. For example, Deacons were to be admitted; there were to be yearly installations; there were to be no more painted aprons; the Craft Ritual was limited to three degrees; and in those three degrees there was to be no reference to any Christian religion.
The Royal Arch,.which was a separate degree, could have reference to Christian religion, but the first three degrees were to have no external references to Christianity, and the reference to the Volume of Sacred Law would be limited to the Old Testament.2 This issue of "de-Christianizing" Masonry has not gone away. It crops up from time to time in articles in the AQC and it is really not my business to go into the arguments, save and except to say that by talking about "de-Christianizing" the authors are mis-describing the issue.
The issue is that what the Duke of Sussex did was quite extraordinary not just in terms of Masonic history but more importantly in terms of English history at that time. By insisting that Masonry be completely inclusive, he was out of step with the body politic in England. It is understandable why there were revolts against the Duke of Sussex over this issue of "de-Christianizing" because those who were opposing the Duke were reflecting their society at large, in the specific context of Masonry. We take for granted that the ideals of Freemasonry were accepted by everyone; this is not correct. We assume because so much of the American Declaration of Independence and so many other parts of early American history (the New Secular Order) are related to Masonic ideals, that these ideas were current in England. This is not correct. I don't wish to give a full-blown course on 19th Century English politics but for those who are interested I'll give one recent reference, Poisoning The Minds Of The Lower Orders by Don Herzog, Princeton University Press, 1998. Also, it took three separate Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 to allow every man in England to have the vote.
Up until 1854, unless you were an Anglican, it was almost impossible to attend either Cambridge or Oxford and it wasn't until 1871 that legislation was passed making all offices, and professorships at Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham (except for certain clerical and theological positions) open to anyone who was not an Anglican. We forget that religious tensions in England and the social tensions and the class tensions were not as we would perceive it now being as between Christians and Jews and Muslims, but rather between Anglicans, Non-Conformists, Methodists, and everyone else including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, &c. I am spending some time on this point because secularizing the message of Masonry and focusing on universal and fundamental beliefs of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth didn't make the Craftsman any less Christian. To do so would have been to have them change their skins. No one wanted to do that, in fact, our opening Ode is taken right from the Anglican Hymnal. There is no concern as to where the Hymn came from, after all it was well known to the Craftsmen and the message is perfectly Masonic. It is no wonder that when the Chaplain is installed he is charged with the obligation of promoting tolerance.
Something else that came out of the Lodge of Reconciliation, and I am getting ahead of myself but this is as good a time as any to bring it up, is the clear fact that there was never an authorized ritual. In fact, the first query that came up to the Grand Lodge after the Lodge of Reconciliation had finished its work was whether or not the Emulation ritual was the correct work as compared to the Stability work, and the Duke of Sussex as the Grand Master was not even interested in entertaining the question. In England, as long as the Ritual includes all the landmarks agreed upon and worked at the Lodge of Reconciliation, whatever Ritual that is used is acceptable. Emulation became one of the best known rituals because it was the first one which had an unauthorized version of its Ritual published.
As for the history of Tracing Boards, there are a number of strands of Masonic history and Ritual all tied together, and I'll deal with them in turn. This analysis I am giving follows the example of the two articles in AQC, the first being "The Evolution and Development of the Lodge or Tracing Board" by E.H. Dring in AQC 29 (1916), and the second being "Tracing Boards–Their Development and Their Designers" by T.O. Haunch in AQC 75 (1962). The Dring article is absolutely marvelous and covers a tremendous amount of territory as he set out to recapture what was, even in 1916, being lost. He tried to photograph every Tracing Board he could find still in existence, and to explain where they came from and how they fit into the history of Masonic Ritual. I certainly could never hope to duplicate the quality of his research or of his insights. The second article by Haunch was meant to be a short talk to be given in Lodges, and it is a first rate overview of the topic. Where my analysis may differ is that there are certain points I believe both English authors took for granted that we cannot take for granted and must analyze. Of course, whatever I write is completely my responsibility.
The issues that are tied into the history of Tracing Boards involve many of the major Masonic research problems, such as confusion over language, change over language over a length of time, the history of Lodge halls, the history of Masonic Rituals, and the history of Masonic symbolism. All of this has to be touched on, otherwise the history of Tracing Boards is taken so far out of context that it doesn't lead to any worthwhile discussion.
The best example I can give of this is the following quote from the First Degree lecture given while the candidate is looking at, or being directed to look at, the First Degree Tracing Board in the Canadian work: "The immovable jewels are the Tracing Board, the Rough Ashlar, and the Perfect Ashlar. The Tracing Board is for the Worshipful Master to lay lines and draw designs on." Interestingly enough, the Tracing Board being referred to in that quote is not the Tracing Board that the Entered Apprentice is looking at–it is in fact a blank slate, or a blank piece of paper, that the Worshipful Master will draw on to show some architectural or geometrical model which is the basis of the moral lesson.
A clear example of this confusion is found on page 28, of the last Dominion Regalia catalogue which outlines two items for sale: first, something called degree charts (which we would typically call Tracing Boards), and second, something called the Master's Tracing Board. (see fig. 1.) The Dominion Regalia has the correct description of a Master's Tracing Board, specifically when it says that no regulation design is required. In fact, there is no regulation design for any of these items, specifically the degree charts or what we would call the Tracing Boards. For that reason I point out the absolute incorrectness of the statement below the pictures of the Degree Charts: "The only correct charts for Canadian or English work." There is no authority for that statement; there is no Body in either England or Canada, to the best of my knowledge, that has ever authorized the designs of any Tracing Boards to be used. Whether the Grand Lodge should require the use of Tracing Boards (as they do in this jurisdiction) is a different question.
The easiest way into the topic is to discuss the premises in which Masonic meetings took place. You will notice I didn't use the word "lodge," because that word has a variety of different meanings–even now, we interchangeably use the word to mean the place where we hold Masonic meetings and the unit of Freemasonry that we belong to. These are recent developments for the word, because the word has gone through a number of changes.
When talking about the Lodge,the best starting place is a very thorough history such as The Lodge, An Essay in Method by R.J. Meekren. AQC ,Vol. 61 (1948). This gives a lot of history about the original "lodges" but to make it brief, and to be specific, our concerns deal with the 18th century and onward. We know that Freemasons met in rooms that were not designated solely for the purposes of Freemasonry–that is, they met in back rooms of pubs, or hotels or private residences. The room, therefore, had to not only be made to look different during the meeting but also everything about the room had to go back to normal, or at least non-Masonic. It was not a problem to move chairs and candlesticks around, but those pieces of furniture did not make a room into a lodge–that is, something that related to the original "form of the Lodge."
Typically what was done was to draw on the floor (and this was the Tyler's job) either an oblong or a slight variation of an oblong that represented the form of the Lodge or the original enclosure of theoriginal outdoor Lodge meetings. This original shape was typically called an oblong square. It got renamed in the18th century to a word that has bedeviled us ever since: "parallelepipedon." There's a remnant of earlier language used in the Senior Warden's lecture in the First Degree; I quote from Page 45 of the Ancient Ritual: "Our ancient Brn. usually met on a high hill or in a low dale, the better to detect the approach of cowans or eavesdroppers either ascending or descending. The form of a L. is an oblong, its length from E. to W., its breadth from N. to S., its height from the earth to the heavens, its depth from the earth's surface to its center. It is of such vast dimensions to show the universality of Fmy and that M. charity should be equally extensive."
Just to complete the cycle, the first reference to Hiram's grave is from the 1727 Wilkinson manuscript, where it is described, in a catechism, as an oblong square. Sometimes the form of the Lodge would simply be this oblong square, and sometimes the form of the Lodge would also include a variety of Masonic symbols. We know this from prints in the early Masonic Exposures such as The Three Distinct Knocks of 1760. (see fig. 2.)
This process of drawing the Lodge, and mopping up afterwards, is described in The Three Distinct Knocks and in Jachin and Boaz and Mahhabone. The process of cleaning up survives in our present ritual when at the end of the meeting, as per the Antient Ritual (Page 167), the following is said: "Nothing further remains to be done, according to ancient custom, except to disarrange our emblems." I believe that this reference to disarranging emblems refers to the cleaning up of the floor to leave no trace of the form of the Lodge or the contents drawn thereon.
Gradually, and there really is no set time frame here, Lodges came up with the idea of having Floor Cloths–that is, something that would be painted on and could be used over and over. The first references to these Lodge floorings that are painted occurs in French Exposures in the early 1740s. There are diagrams and examples of these Floor Coverings and also a reference to the fact that while some Lodges were using Lodge floorings, other Lodges refused to and would only use the form of the Lodge that was drawn on the floor rather than this newfangled invention. In fact there is a record of a Lodge Cloth being made in 1812, after many Tracing Boards were already in use..3
There is a famous quote from 1759 in the Scottish Grand Lodge to the effect that the Lodge St. Andrews had been ordered from ever using again a painted flooring because "a painted cloth containing the flooring of a Master's Lodge was hanging publicly exposed in a painter's shop," and the Grand Lodge considered that some "pernicious consequences to Masonry" would occur if this event occurred again. This is not a particularly accurate expression of Freemasonry in Scotland at the time; there are a great number of records of Scottish Lodges that were using these floorings for each of the degrees, and in fact there are even records of some of these Floor Cloths, because of their expense, being framed to be hung on the wall when the Lodge was in session.
While the Scots may have been quite thrifty or at least very careful regarding the Lodge's assets, by taking the form of the Lodge from the flooring and putting onto the wall, they inadvertently changed the nature of Masonic symbolism. You would no longer be standing around the Lodge itself or be part of the Lodge itself but rather looking at the Lodge and all of the emblems emblazoned thereon. This I think is one of the significant leaps away from operative Masonry.
I have to get back to the language issue at this point, because the words are starting to change meanings. While the Lodge, that is those groups of men who were Masons, decided to paint a Lodge cloth or Lodge floorings, what they were doing is representing the Lodge and when they were standing around it or in a room where the Lodge flooring was, then they were in the Lodge or at the Lodge as compared to being members of the Lodge. In any event, the earliest floor cloth that I can find a picture of is from 1764; that of the Lurgan Lodge No. 394 of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. (see fig. 3.)
There really was no centralized authority or convergence of information regarding any of this, and all of these matters seemed to have sprung up either spontaneously or contemporaneously in different parts of Europe. I won't go into European or Irish Floor Cloths because that would make this just too complicated. But the next step is the gradual change from Floor Cloths on the floor to cloths that were designed specifically to be on raised boards.
In other words, rather than standing around or standing on a Floor Cloth the Lodge would be formed when the cloth was on a board, which was usually suspended by two trestles, therefore the phrase the trestleboard, or alternately the phrase Lodge Board which also causes some ambiguity. What was put on the trestle board were often at least the working tools in the degree that was to be worked. The frontispiece of the 1784 Book of Constitutions shows a trestle board. (see fig. 4) You will notice the two globes, the working tools, the Lewis, the Volume of Sacred Law, &c.
I understand that there’s a Lodge in Bristol that still uses a table with a Lodge cloth on it.
Before I get to Tracing Boards there are a number of issues about drawing the Lodge and the Lodge Floor Cloths and the Lodge Boards that need to be addressed.

1.Freemasonry, A Journey through Ritual and Symbol. W. Kirk MacNulty. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London: 1991. ISBN 0-500-81037-0^
2.It is not in the power of any man. T. O. Haunch. Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 85 (1972).Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076: London.^
3.Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Vol. 64 (1953) p. 79. Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076: London.^

[Anti-masonry] Copyright © Mark S. Dwor October 16, 1999

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