The Apron and its Symbolism
By Bro. D.B. Wallace, W.M.
Without going back to the earliest history of the Apron, as that has already been dealt with in this Lodge by V.W. Bro. Dr. Girdler, I may say that before the formation of the Grand Lodge of England and for a long time after, the Aprons used by Speculative Freemasons were the same as those of the Operative Masons, the entire skin of a lamb, large enough to protect the whole of the body.
The skin of the neck was turned up in a flap to protect the upper chest, the skin of the forelegs formed thongs to tie behind the back, the balance of the skin hanging down to protect the rest of the body.
In the plate to the first Book of Constitutions (Anderson's 1723) there are six principal figures - two Grand Masters with their respective Wardens, and behind them is a man with a bundle of Aprons thrown over his arm, careful examination of which will show that these are long enough to reach to near the ankle. A plate in Picart's "Ceremonies," published in 1736, shows Masons with their long Aprons on. The celebrated picture," Night," by Hogarth, shows the same, and many other examples are to be found.
Up to quite late in the eighteenth century the Aprons continued to be of plain white leather but, shortly after the formation of the Grand Lodge there was a disposition on the part of some of the Brethren to adorn themselves with jewels, if not to adorn the Apron, as on the 17th March, 1730, it was ordered by the Grand Lodge of England that “ None but the Grand Master, his Deputy and Wardens (who are the only Grand Lodge Officers) shall wear their Jewels in Gold pendant to Blue Ribbons about their Necks, and White Leather Aprons with Blue Silk, which sort of Aprons may be also worn by former Grand Officers. And Masters of Particular Lodges may line their White Leather Aprons with White Silk, and may hang their Jewels at White Ribbons about their Necks " (Constitutions, 1738.) And the Stewards for the year were allowed to have Jewels of Silver (though not gilded) pendant to Red Ribbons about their Necks, to bear White Rods, and to line their White Leather Aprons with Red Silk. Former Stewards were also allowed to wear the same sort of Aprons (White and Red.)
No record, as far as I can ascertain, is to be had of when the ornamentation of Grand Lodge Officers began, but a receipt of Grand Lodge dated 7th April, 1787, is; "To an Apron lined with Blue Satten, Double Gold Fringe, &c. £1 1s.," and another for "A Blue Satten Apron, lined, double gold fringe, for his Highness the Duke of York." The price is" the same, one guinea, and the date 1st December, 1787, so we may know that the ornamentation was not very great or costly.
The ordinary M.M. Apron appears, however, for some time after the formation of the Grand Lodge, to have remained quite plain, even those of the gentility, for Bro. Gould, the Masonic Historian, observes that "the newspapers of 1724 gave an account of a Lodge meeting, the Grand Master and other noblemen being present, and several persons of gentility were accepted Freemasons, and went home in their Leather Aprons and Gloves."
In "Applebee"s Original Weekly Journal " of August 5th, 1721, it was announced that: "Last week his Grace the Duke of Wharton was admitted into the Society of Freemasons, the ceremonies being performed at the King's Arms Tavern in St. Paul's Churchyard, and his Grace came home to his house in the Pall Mall in a White Leather Apron."
The same announcement, in exactly the same words, appeared in "Read's Weekly Journal" on the same date. Five weeks later "Applebee's Journal" had the following paragraph: "We hear that Mr. Innys, the bookseller, and Mr. Cousins, the grocer, both topping tradesmen in St. Paul's Churchyard, have been lately admitted into the Society of Freemasons, and have accordingly been invested with the leather Apron, one of the Ensigns of the Society." There therefore appears at this time no secrecy as to who joined the Order.
At this date, and perhaps nearly up to the time of the Union, it was a common practice for the Lodges to buy Aprons to sell to the initiates and for the use of its members, as well, perhaps, as the visitors;. Constantly the entry of the purchase of one or more dozens occurs in the minutes of both English and Scotch Lodges, the price varying from 1s. to 1s 6d. Each.
Murray Lyon, in his History, quotes a minute of 1749. Leather Aprons were to be purchased by the Treasurer "for accommodating the visitors from other Lodges, and even for the members of this Lodge, as they shall have occasion."
W. Bro. Ryland states "that different colours were used in Scotland, as Murray Lyon states, prior to 1736 (i.e. for the Ribbons by which Jewels were suspended round the neck) ." This is very possible. I do not, however, consider it likely that the same amount of difference existed in Scotland with regard to the colours upon the Apron before the year 1736 as exists at the present time. Indeed, I should be inclined to place the adoption of such differences much later. In 1723 and 1724 " White Aprons and Gloves " are mentioned, and again in 1730 and 1733. In 1740 Aprons were ordered to be purchased by the Treasurer and again in 1744 reference is made to leather Aprons."
In the minutes of St. John's Old Kilwinning Lodge (No. 6 of Scotland), Inverness, an order for a procession to be held on St. John's Day, 1768, states, " The Brethren are to have their Aprons ornamented as they please. Again, in 1797, the brethren are to attend the procession "with white stockings and Aprons without ornaments." In the minutes of St. Andrew's Kilwinning (No.3 of Scotland) there is a similar order for the same procession on St. John's Day, 1797.
The cost of Aprons in 1776 is thus charged in the minutes:
To 2 doz. Aprons at 12s. per doz. ... ... ... ... ... ... ..1 4s 0d
March 25th-To cleaning 14 at 3 pence each … … … 0 3s 6d
(The same price is charged on January 18th, 1796, and on November 31st, 1797).
By Cash received for Old Leather Aprons
sold to Dr. Robertson ... .. ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 0 8s 0d
From this it is quite clear that the Aprons were of leather and the ornamentation was at the individual's expense, the Lodge only providing the plain Aprons. The Officers' Aprons were to be different from those of the ordinary members of the Lodge, for the minutes of St. John's Kilwinning record that nine new Aprons were ordered on the 28th March, 1788, to be chosen and prepared for the Officers of the Lodge. In 1816 the same minutes record the order for the funeral of a member, when the Brethren were to appear in "white gloves and white Aprons trimmed with blue." So at this time Scottish Aprons appear to have been edged with blue.
Many beautiful Aprons of this period, the end of the eighteenth century, are still in existence, some in the Museum of the Grand Lodge of England, and there seems at this time to have been no separate or distinct Apron for the Royal Arch, the ordinary Apron of a M.M. being used, which appears to shew that the Royal Arch and the M.M. degree were worked together, as stated in R.W. Bro. Bankart's paper on the English Rite. One beautiful Apron in the Museum mentioned has the Arch, the Keystone, the working tools of the R.A. degree, figures of men representing Prophet, Priest and King, and many emblems of the Blue Lodges.
No exact date is obtainable as to when the Aprons were first bordered with blue or other coloured ribbon, but in the portrait of the Duke of Sussex, Deputy Grand Master about 1766, now in the possession of the Lodge of Antiquity, the Apron is edged with a broad border of Blue. The flap, which is also entirely of dark blue, is semi-circular. There does not appear to be any gold fringe or other ornament.
W. Bro. Ryland, from whose article in the Ars Quat. Coron., I derive most of my information, thinks changes began about the year 1764, for he says "The old Apron was of the Operative shape and, possibly about the year 1764, or perhaps a little earlier, some change had been made in its form. This change may have been the squaring of the skin at the lowest edge or its sides. It is, however, interesting to notice the Apron figured in a very rare engraving entitled, "The Ceremony of Making a Freemason." They are long in form, running to a sharp point at the bottom, a shape which could only be obtained in an uncut skin, by turning it upside down and fastening the waist thongs in the hind legs of the animal instead of the forelegs. This change would also shorten the fall." He further says:
"At a fairly early period it seems probable that certain simple designs were drawn in Indian ink upon the Apron, such as the All-seeing Eye on the fall; the Columns, and, perhaps, the Square and Compasses. The writer has one about 1796."
"In 1777 some decorations had already commenced, unless it was specially ordered, as more suitable to the tastes of a Nabob, for at the Grand Lodge held on February 5th, 1777, it was announced that the eldest son of the Nabob of the Camatic had been initiated into Freemasonry at Trichinopoly, near Madras. It was Resolved, That a complimentary letter be sent to him on the occasion, accompanied with the present of a blue Apron, elegantly decorated."
From about the middle of the eighteenth century to the union of the two Grand Lodges of England there was considerable laxity, no definite law having been laid down as to uniformity in Aprons.
"Provided the Apron was white leather, silk or satin, but white, its face might be decorated with any number of Masonic or other designs without infringing the law, provided it does not interfere with the privileges of Grand Lodge Officers who used a purple edging to their Aprons."
"Diversity in Aprons had, no doubt, a very pretty effect, but it is rather confusing and of no real use. The size had also by this time grown smaller and smaller, more particularly under the rule of the Regular Grand Lodge and was reduced to convenient and portable dimensions. About the beginning of the nineteenth century there began to be a uniformity in their shape and ornamentation, and one of the first decisions of the United Grand Lodge was with regard to the Aprons, which shews that it was considered to be a very important matter. On the second of March, 1814, the pattern was submitted and agreed to on the second of May, when the Grand Lodge very wisely ordered a general uniformity," and this, I believe, remains the pattern of the English Apron at the present time.
"In Scotland, the Daughter or Subordinate Lodges are allowed to have their own special colours, while the Grand Lodge colour is green.
" The flap is a segment of a circle, with the origin of which I am unacquainted. It may be, symbolically, a lunette, representing the boat on which the Egyptian Sungod, Ra, voyaged from East to West and returned during the night; or it may have reference to the boat on which Charon ferried the souls of the deceased across the river Acheron.
The two most noticeable features about the Apron are its whiteness and its being made from the skin of a lamb. Although some have been made of silk and satin, these were, in England, only temporary variations.
The earliest written account we have of them is in Genesis iii., 21, wherein, referring to our first parents, it says: "The Lord made them coats of skin." I think there is little doubt these were in the form of Aprons.
"In the investiture of the Apron we find something of similar kind to all the investitures of the rites of antiquity."
The Essenes was clothed in a white garment reaching to the feet, girded with a linen girdle, and bordered with a fringe of blue, as an emblem of holiness.
Cicero tells us that the garment in the Mysteries of Hellas was white, that being a colour most acceptable to the gods.
In the Mysteries of Mithras, the robes of investiture were the girdle, on which were depicted the signs of the Zodiac, the Tiara, the White Apron, and the Purple Tunic.
An Apron composed of the three Masonic colours, blue, purple and scarlet, was worn by the Jewish priesthood, and the prophets, on all occasions of moment, invested themselves with a girdle or Apron.
Bro. Mckenzie, in his " Cyclopedia," says: "From the whiteness of the Apron and the innocence of the animal - the lamb from which we obtain it, we are admonished to preserve the blameless purity of life and conduct which will alone enable us to present ourselves before T.G.A.O.U. unstained with sin and unsullied with vice."
Let its pure white fold be an incentive to us to purity of life. Let its strong but pliant texture encourage in strength of manly character, and stimulate within us a ready willingness to conform our acts and desires to the good of our order and the harmonious concurrence of the craft.
Bro. Lawrence says: "It (the Apron) is often described as the badge of an E.A. This is wrong. It is the badge of a Freemason and whatever ornamentation or colour be superimposed, let it never be forgotten that underneath all is the plain white lambskin, and its lessons are as appropriate to the most exalted and bejewelled Grand Lodge Officers as they are to the initiate on his first entry into Freemasonry."
The Tassels have been evolved from the ties, which were in course of time lengthened with broad silk ribbon, crossed at the back and tied under the flap, leaving the ends hanging down at the front. To give a finish to these ends they were first ornamented with a silver fringe, but these proving inconvenient, quickly getting frayed, the strap and buckle were adopted and the Tassels sewn on to the Apron.
Bro. Ryland says :-" Abroad no tassels are used on Aprons, but only by the English Grand Lodge, and sometimes by a Colonial Grand Lodge or English speaking descendant, while most Continental Grand Lodges have their Aprons made of silk or satin, with much embroidery, tassels and spangles, and a temple worked on the front."
In regard to the symbolism of the Apron, I would ask you to read as an introduction the short paper written by our late esteemed brother, V.W. Bro. Josiah Martin.
In America the Apron is worn in a different manner to that in which we wear it. In the First Degree the flap is turned upwards, in the Second Degree it is turned down, and in the Third Degree the lower corners are turned back, forming & triangle with the apex downwards.
Food For Thought
I enquired of our esteemed American brother, W. Bro. Edson, the reason for turning the flap upwards in the First Degree, and he informed me that as the E.A. had to carry material from place to place the flap was turned upward to protect the body. I pondered over and searched for the symbolic reason - as I felt sure there was one - for turning up the flap, for some time without success, till one day I came across the following illustration in a Masonic work, in the library of our Masonic Institute, with the following explanation:
The Square represents the Earth, and the Triangle is the door of the Temple into which the candidate entered to be initiated into the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt. The Triangle represents the universe - heaven - Amenta, where the souls or the dead enter to be tried by the Judges of the spiritual world.
The Square stone representing the Earth was on its flat on the ground, and the triangular door was upright, but the Egyptians had no knowledge of perspective drawing, and the whole is shown on the flat. Figuratively; then, when the candidate stepped from the square stone and entered through the triangular door of the Temple, he left the Earth behind him and entered into the spiritual world. Most will remember that the stone which protected the entrance to the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Gizeh was of a triangular shape, and doubtless had the same signification.
The Apron of an E.A., with the flap up, is symbolic of the entrance to the Egyptian Temple, and signifies that when a candidate enters a Freemason's Lodge he leaves the earth with all its follies, passions and failings behind him to follow after truth and virtue, honour and justice, and all those other excellent principles taught in our Lodges.
It is somewhat curious, and supports, I think, W. Bro. Dr. Churchward's statement that our Speculative Freemasonry comes to us from the Druids, that in many parts of England, Wales and Ireland are a number of large up right stones, called Dolmen or Tolmen, having holes through them at the bottom, which were used by the Druids in the ceremony of initiation into their mysteries. The candidates had to pass through these holes, figuratively to cleanse and purify them from earthly sins. As the Druids were not builders, this appears to be a relic of the entrance into the Temple through the triangular stone door.
In many of the ancient mysteries and in the operative Masons Lodges, the candidate was washed in water to purify him before being clothed in white garments. It would perhaps add additional impressiveness to our ceremonies if we clothed the candidates in white and explained the symbolic meaning to them.
The flap turned down in the second degree signifies that the candidate has passed through the triangular door and has been admitted into the Temple.
The corners turned back to form a triangle with the apex downwards in the third degree appears to me mistaken. If used in this form, it should be reserved for the Grand Master, or, at least, the Master of a Lodge, as the Apron worn by the High Priest or Master of the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt was of a triangular shape with the apex upwards.
The Triangle was a very sacred symbol with the Ancient Egyptians, and represented the universe or the heavens. To explain its meaning I must take you back to the very remotest ages of antiquity, a period so remote that no records exist. Thousands and thousands of years ago the Egyptians had a very extensive knowledge of Astronomy. Among the earliest of their observations they found that the whole of the heavenly bodies, with one exception, revolved once a year. The exception is the constellation “Ursa Minor or '' Little Bear’ the centre star of which is the North Pole Star, which represented the All-seeing Eye. of T.G.A.O.T.U. the point within the circle. They then considered the seven stars composing this constellation, emblems of the seven attributes of the Deity, and named them the "seven glorious ones."
The universe they conceived to be a revolving cone with the North Pole Star as its apex, but, having no knowledge of perspective drawing, they pictured it as an equilateral triangle - the symbol of unity - as the whole of the universe was included in it.
From this triangle, with its three equal sides, originated the idea of a triune god.
All the great religions of antiquity recognised three godheads or a triune god.
Egyptians recognised Osiris, Isis and Horus; the Phoenicians, Chemosh, Milsom and Ashtoreth; the Brahmins, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva; the Goths, Woden, Frea and Thor; the Druids, Hu, Ceridwen and Creirwy; the Mexicans, Vitzliputti, Tlaloc and Tezatlipoca.
From the three sides of the Triangle we derive the three emblematical pillars which support our Masonic lodges - Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.
Three was considered among all the Pagan nations as the chief of the mystical numbers, and many examples could be given of the use made of it by them.
Dr. Oliver says :- " The number three was held by the Druids in great veneration. The processions were formed three times round the sacred enclosure of Gaer Sidi, their invocations were three times repeated, and even their poetry was composed in Triads.
" In our Masonic Lodges we have three degrees, three pillars, three perambulations, three principal officers, three greater and three lesser lights, three movable and three immovable jewels, three ornaments, three steps, and three principal rungs in the ladder.
With the Egyptians, the Mexicans and the Chinese, the, Square or Cube was a symbol of the Earth, and is represented in our Lodges by the "perfect ashlar." The globes on top of the pillars should really be cubes, and it is in quite modern times that they have been changed.
Bro. Giles says :- " The Ashlar is identical with the Ancient Chinese symbol for the earth - the square stone which they say figured the earth as the circle figured heaven."
Taking now the outside of our figure, we have five lines which give us the sacred " Pentalpha." This was a very sacred figure with the Egyptians, and was derived from the five planets known to them - Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury. The Pentalpha was considered an emblem of power, as it was made up of three triangles, the cube of three.
The number five was also a very sacred number with the Pythagoreans, being the union of the first even and the first odd number (excluding unity). It also represented "light," and a triple triangle forming the outline of a five-pointed star was an emblem of health.
Taking the three sides of the Triangle and the four sides of the Square, we have seven sides. This is the symbol of "perfection," and with the Egyptians it derived its sacred significance from the seven stars which form the constellation “Ursa Minor" or "Little Bear," representing the seven attributes of the Deity, the "seven glorious ones."
These are represented in our Lodges by the seven stars on the Tracing Board and the seven cords which compose the Tassels on a Master Mason's Apron.
The number Seven was also held in great esteem by the ancients. The Druids held it in great veneration and taught that the upper regions of the air contained seven heavens. The seventh heaven of delight is still a common expression with English-speaking people. It was also held in great veneration by the Hebrews.
The Scriptures tell us that the Israelites compassed on seven days preceded by seven priests blowing seven trumpets of ram's horns, and on the seventh day they compassed it seven times.
In the Book of Revelation we are told of the seven angels; the book sealed with seven seals; the seven spirits of God; the Lamb with seven heads and seven eyes; the seven thunders; the dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on his heads; seven angels having seven plagues and seven golden bowls. Bro. Dr. Girdler, in his paper on Symbolism, gave a number of examples of the use of this number and the list could be increased to a very great extent.
The whole of these three numbers are made use of in our Lodges in the steps of the Winding Stair, signifying the three who rule a Lodge, the five who hold it and the seven who make it perfect.
SOURCE: UML 1917m9