Review by William D. Moore
Material Culture of the American Freemasons

John D. Hamilton. Material Culture of the American Freemasons. Lexington, Massachusetts: Museum of Our National Heritage, 1994. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. xii + 308 pp.; 36 color and numerous bw illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, index. $75.00.

After decades of largely being ignored by the scholarly community, American fraternalism has been the focus of expanded scrutiny during the last twenty years. Following the publication of Dorothy Ann Lipson’s Freemasonry in Federalist Connecticut, 1789–1835 (1977), studies exploring the sociological, religious, and cultural implications of America’s omnipresent, ritual-based, fraternal organizations have appeared with increasing frequency. Volumes such as Christopher J. Kauffman’s Faith & Fraternalism: The History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882–1982 (1982) and Lynn Dumenil’s Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880–1930 (1984) have examined individual groups, whereas Mark Carnes’s Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (1989) and Mary Ann Clawson’s Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (1989) have explicated the larger ramifications of the American fraternal movement, which spawned bodies as diverse as the Knights of Labor, the Loyal Order of Moose, and the B’nai Brith. Our understanding of the historical importance of America’s oath-bound voluntary organizations, which at their height in the 1890s were estimated to include one of every five American men, also has been enriched in recent years by the work of scholars including John L. Brooke, C. Lance Brockman, Steven C. Bullock, Anthony Fels, Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, and William A. Muraskin. These investigations have been informed by the new perspectives of the last thirty years, which have placed race, class, and gender at the center of historical discourse.

The new literature, however, largely has ignored the importance of material culture as a conduit of meaning within American fraternalism. Artifacts and works of art have been central to American fraternal life from the moment that the first Freemasonry lodge was convened in the colonies in the early eighteenth century. Over the last three centuries fraternalism has manifested itself physically in a vast range of forms and in almost every conceivable medium. The material heritage includes objects as diverse as eighteenth-century silver Masonic jewelry created by Paul Revere, celluloid temperance souvenirs distributed in the 1890s, and buildings such as the twenty-three-story office tower erected by the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1969. Although most institutional collections of American decorative arts and historical artifacts contain objects with fraternal associations, this massive body of material has yet to be adequately documented or explicated.

John D. Hamilton’s Material Culture of the American Freemasons is the fourth publication from the Museum of Our National Heritage in this institution’s continuing effort to fill this void in the scholarly literature. Like the first three titles edited by Barbara Franco, Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts (1976), Bespangled Painted & Embroidered: Decorated Masonic Aprons in America 1790–1850 (1980), and Fraternally Yours: A Decade of Collecting (1986), the present work was produced to accompany an exhibition mounted by the museum in Lexington, Massachusetts—in this instance, a show entitled “The Oblong Square: Lodge Furnishings and Paraphernalia in America Since 1733,” held from June 13, 1993, to February 20, 1994. As a series, these four catalogues comprise an invaluable means of entry into the arcane world of fraternal objects and serve as useful tools for investigating American symbolic thought.

Material Culture of the American Freemasons is organized into seven topical chapters, accompanied by six appendixes, a foreword, and a preface. Hamilton, the author, has grouped objects achronologically, according to their function within the fraternity’s activities. Lodge room furnishings, for example, are found in chapter three, funereal accoutrements comprise chapter seven, and objects used in dining are gathered in chapter six. Each chapter includes at least one thematic essay, but the bulk of the text is arranged into entries related to individual items from the collections of the Museum of Our National Heritage. These entries are meticulous in documenting the artifacts’ provenances and historical associations. The author is to be commended for the extensive research that this undertaking obviously entailed.

The book’s greatest strength is the breadth of material illustrated and discussed, ranging from inlaid desks to blindfolds (known within the Masonic fraternity as “hoodwinks”) and from casket handles to door knockers. This text will be a useful reference for curators and collectors in their efforts to identify Masonic items and locate related examples. The appendixes listing names, dates, and locations for Masonic artists, regalia manufacturers and dealers, and engravers of Masonic certificates and aprons will also prove invaluable for future scholarship on the subject.

Furniture comprises only a small portion of the volume, but most of the primary Masonic genres of furnishings are represented. Eighteenth-century Chippendale-style side chairs are illustrated and discussed, as are idiosyncratic, nineteenth-century officers’ chairs, grain-painted altars, ceremonial candlesticks, stenciled chests, Windsor-style settees, and inlaid desks. The museum’s collecting, however, has tended toward early and unique items, and this publication reflects that emphasis. Between 1870 and 1930, vast quantities of Masonic furniture were mass produced in factories by firms such as the American Seating Company, S. Karpen & Bros., and M. C. Lilley & Company. Unfortunately, this major category of Masonic furniture is underrepresented here. An additional appendix documenting these nineteenth- and twentieth-century manufacturers could have filled a significant research void, since many of their products exist today and frequently appear in the marketplace.

Although individuals unfamiliar with Masonic history and culture will find this book helpful as an introductory guide to Masonic artifacts, they also may experience frustration in assimilating the mass of seemingly loosely related information contained here. In spite of its detailed examination of hundreds of individual objects, the structure of this catalogue, which lacks a central historical narrative or explicit thesis, provides insufficient framework for easy digestion of the data presented. Freemasonry is an extraordinarily complex organization that has developed organically over more than three hundred years on six continents and has been shaped by esoteric traditions including hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, numerology, and Martinism. Since each chapter mingles examples from the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, and the Blue Lodge (with a few from the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine added to the mix), newcomers to the field may have trouble sorting out the separate Masonic rites, let alone untangling the various traditions influencing them.

Part of the problem may be that Hamilton, a member of the fraternity, has found his scholarship fettered by his own Masonic vows of secrecy. “In describing the significance of items in the collection,” he informs us in the preface, “a fine distinction has been made between providing meaningful information for those outside Freemasonry, and in not breaking faith with the confidentiality of ritual” (p. xi). In ensuring that secrets were not revealed, though, the author has unnecessarily denied the reader significant information that would have aided the exegesis of these pieces. Nowhere, for example, does Hamilton inform us that the central ritual of Freemasonry revolves around the reenactment of the murder, burial, and disinterment of Hiram Abif, the architect responsible for constructing Solomon’s Temple. This narrative framework, available to the general public in any number of exposés published in the nineteenth century, informs the interpretation of most Masonic objects. All of the brotherhoods’ teachings, and thus the significance of the objects used in their inculcation, are based upon the moral lessons inherent in this central narrative, which is enacted in the lodge room during every initiation.

The volume’s disregard for recent scholarship on fraternal organizations is also troubling and inexplicable. Hamilton fails to address the insights on Freemasonry and fraternalism presented in the important new studies mentioned previously, and these works are omitted from his bibliography. Rather than entering into the dynamic discourse concerning Freemasonry currently occurring within the academy, the author relies heavily upon the antiquarian publications of Masonic research bodies, Grand Lodges, and other such organizations. By following this conservative course, he documents Masonic individuals, activities, and objects without substantially relating Freemasonry to the social transformations taking place in American society over time. The late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rise of the Masonic Knights Templar, for example, who were supposedly successors to the holy warriors of the crusades, is discussed without reference to romanticism and the contemporaneous growth of American interest in things medieval. Similarly, with twentieth-century materials, the reader is shown elaborate theatrical costuming for the presentation of rituals but receives no analysis of the societal forces that motivated men in the 1920s to dress as Biblical patriarchs and Roman centurions.

By presenting materials topically rather than chronologically, and by isolating the fraternity from its cultural context, Hamilton has given us a volume that is rich in factual information but lacking in historical perspective. This work portrays Masonry as unchanging. The Brethren apparently feasted, practiced ritual, and buried each other with little variation from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. This perspective, though, denies the vitality and historical complexity that makes Masonic history worthy of study. Although certain continuities do exist, Masonry is not a monolithic cultural entity existing in isolation from society. Throughout the last three centuries Masonry has both shaped, and been shaped by, transformations in American culture. The fraternity, rather than remaining static, is continually in flux. Over time, Masonic membership repeatedly has boomed and collapsed and experienced changing socioeconomic and ethnic profiles. New technologies have influenced ritual practices. Innovative Masonic organizations, including the Order of the Eastern Star for women and DeMolay for teenage boys, have been invented to meet changing social mores and demands. By focusing tightly upon individual artifacts rather than on larger patterns of object usage, this study provides data for examining the complexity of American Masonic history but does not explore the subject comprehensively.

Although one might wish it were analytically more complex, The Material Culture of the American Freemasons is a noteworthy contribution to the study of an overlooked, but significant, facet of American material life. More American Masonic artifacts are illustrated and described between the covers of this volume than have appeared before in a single publication. For the foreseeable future, this text will be the standard reference guide for American Masonic objects.

William D. Moore
Livingston Masonic Library

American Furniture 1996