A brief history of the Apron and the variations of the “Brightware” that adorn them. By Mike Lawrence

The earliest representation of a Masonic apron we can definitely claim as in the speculative sense, can be found on a portrait of Anthony Sayer, the first Grand Master in 1717.

However, with regard to the white leather used, a very practical point soon made itself felt, which led to the refinement and adornment of the simple leather apron. Undyed white leather was very apt to leave white marks on the clothing of the brethren and this led to the provision of a lining.

In the Minutes of 17 March 1731, Grand Lodge we read the following:

“…that all those who have served in the Grand Offices shall wear their white leather aprons lined with blue silk. That those brethren who have served as Stewards shall wear their aprons lined with red silk, and the Master and Wardens of Lodges shall wear their aprons lined with white silk”

This is the earliest mention of the colour blue in connection with Masonic clothing, but we do not get any indication of the shade of blue until 1734, when on the authority of the Deputy Grand Master an order was given for Masonic clothing. This was described as:  

“Two Grand Master’s aprons lined with Garter blue silk and turned over two inches, with white strings; two deputy Grand Master aprons turned over one inch and a half, ditto,”

Here we arrive at a definite shade of blue, the Garter blue, and there is no possibility of doubt about the appearance on the fronts of the aprons, which from the modest turnover binding of the edges, has developed into the borders on the aprons which we now have.

It must be noted that the Garter blue used was not the colour which we recognise by that name today. In Stuart times, the Garter ribbons were light sky-blue, similar to that on Craft aprons today. This was the original Grand Officers colour. It was not until about 1745 that George II altered the shade of Garter blue to the darker colour, we are now accustomed. This was in order to distinguish his Garter Knights from those supporters of James II and his heirs who had been created Knights of the Garter by the exiled family and were not recognised by the Hanoverians.

When this alteration to the darker shade of blue of the Garter took place, the aprons of the Grand Officers followed suit and so still remain today as Garter blue. The light blue was left available for the Craft in general and in time was adopted at the Union in 1813.

Why was blue chosen? Possible because of three verses in Numbers 15:

38 “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue:”

39 “And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes…”

40 “That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.”

The first mention of gold fringes was in 1787 and is found on the bill received for the apron of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. Both aprons cost £1-1s-0d, £1.05p in today’s money.

Prior to any kind of uniformity, aprons came to be of all sorts of sizes, colours and materials. Those of the ‘Antients’ were larger and longer than those of the ‘Moderns’ and Brethren began to adorn them with beautiful Masonic designs, either embroidered, embossed or painted, the more elaborate the better. This practice finally reached a situation where aprons became too costly for ordinary men in ordinary Lodges.

The strings of the aprons which had received the embellishment of decorated ends, were passed around the waist and tied under the fall of the flap so the tasselled ends would hang down on the front of the apron.

Examples of different styles

The use of Brightware on our aprons, Brightware being the stainless steel used for decorative attachments that adorn out aprons also became popular and was standardised by the Union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813 and in general there were three designs for the tassels holders and the levels: Plain, Plain with bevelled edge, and foliated.

Note different chain lengths

9 & 10

c.1920 Cast tin tassels

As explained the seven metal tassels on our Craft aprons today were adopted as a permanent decoration in 1813 and we are told remind us that no Lodge is perfect unless seven Brethren are present: The Master, his two Wardens, two Fellowcrafts and two Entered apprentices. We also learn that in older times, the seven ages of man were thought to be influenced by the seven then known planets and no Master Mason was considered efficient unless he had some knowledge of the seven liberal arts and sciences. These tassels ultimately became attached to two vertical ribbons representing the two pillars at the porch way or entrance to King Solomon’s Temple.

In addition to this, rosettes and levels or taus, which indicate the rank of the wearer, were added as a regulation pattern again in 1813, along with the size which is generally 14-16 inches wide and 12-14 inches deep. The Rosettes and the levels or taus are set in the form of a triangle with the apex upwards, symbolic of the Divine Life attainable by complete knowledge after the resurrection. The levels have also been said to represent the first, second and third step in regular Freemasonry.

In older times, the apron was made from lamb skin and before it can be made, the life of an animal must be taken. That animal, the lamb, has ever been regarded as the symbol of innocence and therefore the apron is regarded as a symbol of peace and innocence.

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14 Comments

Filed under Freemasonry, Masonic Aprons, Masonic Collectables, Masonic History, Masonic Traditions

14 responses to “A brief history of the Apron and the variations of the “Brightware” that adorn them. By Mike Lawrence

  1. Simon J. Leggett MBE

    I found your article most interesting, thank you.

  2. Graham Montague

    One pound and fifteen shillings is in fact one pound and seventy-five pence

  3. George Brooks

    Many masons are unfamiliar with the religious diversity in the UK during the commonwealth period. During this time, amateur clergy (those who couldn’t read or write Hebrew, Latin or Greek) would pick a street corner or public place for preaching the gospel to passers by. To mark themselves as men of faith, they would wear aprons from their workplace; they were called Mechanick Preachers!

    One academic discussion on this topic is the paper: “Christopher Vitel: An Elizabethan Mechanick Preacher” by J.W. Martin (See link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2539404).

    They would wear their aprons proudly, or they would hang their apron from the lip of a barrel or tub on which (or even IN which) they stood while giving the good news!

    The first depiction of an operative apron for the speculative purpose of indicating “righteousness” was in the 1644 frontispiece of The Shepherds Oracles by Francis Quarles. A reproduction of the image can be found on page 178 of the online Googles Books copy of “Sources and Debates in English History” (editors: Newton Key, Robert Bucholz).

    • Dear George
      Thank you for the information you have supplied, however I cannot find any correlation between Freemasonry and Mechhanick Preachers. The Apron was based on the apron of an operative mason, this is evident by the different positions it was worn depending on the grade of the individual. However, we also know of the aprons as worn by Israelitish priests, and my first reaction, without any personal research, would seem the preachers garb would allay itself to a religious practice rather than any Masonic practice.
      Many regards
      Mike

  4. Mike,

    I am not suggesting that Mechanick Preachers were Freemasons. My point was to show that by the mid-1600’s, operative aprons were being used to signify religious ideas – – perhaps indicating sanctity.

    There was a prejudice against amateur preachers by Church of England clerics, because the preachers lacked academic training in reading the ancient languages. Instead, aprons were used to show credentials of “sincerity” or “holiness”. And the image I directed to the audience appears to be the first apron worn for something OTHER than operative protection.

    A thousand years prior to Cromwell, Augustine of Hippo wrote several paragraphs on what would be called “Apron Men” (i.e., English translation of the Latin word “Campestrati”), who wore aprons in the desert to emulate the sacred example of Adam and Eve wearing leaves as loin garments.

    And in the 800’s CE, the German abbot, Rabanus Maurus taught his priests and students that they should emulate the “Apron Men” and wear leather loin clothes underneath their monastic robes!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabanus_Maurus

    • Dear George
      Forgive my ignorance on the subject, but I can still see no correlation between aprons worn by these two independent groups, and I am a little surprised that I have never heard or read anything of the nature of which you are suggesting.

      Perhaps you could write and present a paper along with your reference points so it be discussed further.
      Kind regards
      Mike

  5. Mike,

    I do hope to put a paper together. I have written an initial paper. This is a PDF link to a paper I wrote more than a decade ago – – BEFORE I knew anything about Mechanick Preachers. The article is titled “Augustine’s Apron and The Apron’s Secret Flap”:

    Click to access 09Sept07%282%29.pdf

    I hope to pull together my notes on Mechanick Preachers soon.

    # # # # # #
    # # # # # #

    As regarding the Apron Men, below is a link to Augustine’s discussion of the monastic types wearing aprons. This particular translator uses the term “wrestling aprons” for the word “campestre” – – the name of a leather rectangle worn by Roman athletes for the sake of modesty. The word for plural men wearing these simple garments was thus “Campestrati” (i.e., Apron Men).

    https://biblehub.com/library/augustine/anti-pelagian_writings/chapter_32_xvi_the_aprons_which.htm

    Here is some further discussion of the Latin translation:

    “And therefore, being ashamed of the disobedience of their own flesh, which witnessed to their disobedience while it punished it, they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons, that is, cinctures for their privy parts; for some interpreters have rendered the word by succinctoria. Campestria is, indeed, a Latin word, but it is used of the drawers or aprons used for a similar purpose by the young men who stripped for exercise in the campus; hence those who were so girt were commonly called campestrati. Shame modestly covered that which lust disobediently moved in opposition to the will, which was thus punished for its own disobedience. Consequently all nations, being propagated from that one stock, have so strong an instinct to cover the shameful parts, that some barbarians do not uncover them even in the bath, but wash with their drawers on. In the dark solitudes of India also, though some philosophers go naked, and are therefore called gymnosophists, yet they make an exception in the case of these members and cover them.”

    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120114.htm

    • Dear George
      Thank you once again for sending me some intersting links. I have managed to research the subject a little and as explained I see no correlation with Freemasonry. This view is underpinned by the fact that there has been no traction on the subject in Masonic Research Circles and if there has been, it has made little impact.
      Therefore, thank you for bringing the subject to my attention and as interesting as it is, I do not feel it relevant to my original article.
      Kind regards
      Mike

  6. Mike:

    From the 1400’s to the 1700’s, Augustine’s reference to the sacred communities of monks
    who lived in the wilderness, wearing aprons in emulation of Adam and Eve, would have
    been quite well known, even by English-speaking intelligentsia.

    Are you familiar with the Culdees? The term references the Celtic Church, a topic which
    comes up surprisingly often in connection with the history of the Freemasons… because
    the Culdee had a prolonged presence in the area of York, and the Minster constructed
    there. This Pietre-Stones link below discusses the connection in the 13th paragraph:
    http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/jenkinsroots.html

    But the most interesting aspects are the ones not even mentioned on that page:
    1) John Cassian (360-435 CE),
    2) Alcuin of York, and
    3) Rabanus Maur.

    Let’s start with Cassian: “After his journey to Rome, St. John Cassian settled in the West
    after forming a friendship with the Archdeacon Leo (later St. Leo the Great, Pope of
    Rome). He was ordained a presbyter, and was charged with bringing the monastic life
    of the East to Western Europe. He did so by two means: First, by establishing the
    Monastery of St. Victor in Gaul (what is now Marseilles to be precise) and second
    through the composition of his work The Institutes of the Cenobitic Life. The latter
    is a treasure trove of historical information, as St. John systematically compares and
    contrasts the traditions of Egypt and Palestine in all aspects of monastic life….”

    Especially relevant is the concluding text at the “Catholic Ireland” website:
    https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-john-cassian-360-435/

    “Cassian died at Marseilles in 435. He influenced Western monasticism, especially
    through Benedict. His teaching on overcoming the eight evil tendencies (See Books 5
    to 12 of The Institutes) were the inspiration behind the way the Irish monks practised
    asceticism, as shown in the Irish Penitentials.”

    The Institutes is where St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) read about the Apron Men, and their
    use of a square leather loin cloth. And it was from Cassian’s writings about ascetic living
    that apparently taught the increasingly vigorous Celtic Church about the use of this loin
    cloth as well. In fact, we might dismiss this connection (as you have twice so far) if it
    weren’t for yet another oddity in the timeline of “the Leather Apron”.

    Not surprisingly, Alcuin of York (735 – 804 CE) was influenced by the Culdee influences
    manifested in the York area. We find this out from Alucin’s star pupil in Germany during
    the reign of Charlemagne, Rabanus Maur. Rabanus is the first to write about the leather
    campestre loin cloth in three centuries: he wrote about the indispensable nature of the
    “wrestling apron” as a priestly and monastic garment – – worn UNDER the monastic robe.

    While Cassian might have considered the leather loin cloth an operative necessity for
    living in the desert, it’s role in the Irish Church was certainly not a “necessity” – – since in
    the northern climates, monks congregating without robes was virtually unheard of. The
    leather loin cloth had assumed a spiritual (aka “speculative”) role within the Culdee
    community…. because of Adam & Eve, and because of the emulation of Adam and Eve’s
    example described by Cassian.

    There is one more aspect of Rabanus’ role that cannot be set aside: Alcuin awarded his
    favorite student a second name: Maur (or Maurus in Latin). Maur is the German word
    for “stone wall”. It is frequently mentioned that this name was given because of Alcuin’s
    appreciation for a much earlier St. Maurus; but this begs the question.

    For those familiar with German, while Maur means stone wall, the form Maurer means
    “stone mason” – – in the same way we can make the word “runner” from the word “run”.
    Raban was interested in sacred math, symbols, and even some poetic cyphers. I am not
    suggesting that Raban himself was a Freemason…. but his example seems to represent
    especially well the kind of interests that a PROTO-SPECULATIVE mason might have and
    teach!

    As speculative masonry splashed across the scene after 1717 – – in York, in England, and eventually all of Europe – – the historians of Masonry would not have missed these
    connections as they continued past them to research the lives of Hiram, Pythagoras and
    the Egyptians.

    • Dear George
      Once again, thank you very much for the information you have sent me. However, I remain unmoved by the material you have sent and maintain my belief that as there has been no other traction on the subject (to my knowledge) by any Masonic historians, researchers or writers, there is no connection.

      In the early days of Masonic Research, there were many writers that made every effort to connect Freemasonry with past societies, fraternities, belief systems and civilizations, presenting the most plausible arguments in the most eloquent terms, but as you know these were all slowly disproved.

      The main culprit for starting these unfounded theories was none other than Dr James Anderson who in his Constitutions, felt in necessary to give Freemasonry a history. This we now know to be a total work of fiction. However, long before this was established, his work had been exported to America and translated into French and German, giving the work an unprecedented circulation.

      This simple act has been the catalyst that has encouraged so many writers to use the same licence in attempting to give Freemasonry a history or connection with something without having the necessary evidence to prove the fact.

      Having a theory is all very well, but without the evidence necessary to prove the theoretical details, the work becomes null and void.

      Your theory, although fascinating, lacks any direct evidence other than the proposal that two groups were similar because they used aprons. Yet I can tell you that initiates of the Mithras and Essenes cultures wore white leather aprons, as did the ancient initiates of the early Chinese societies. Both Jewish and Druidical High Priests were adorned by the white apron as were the early Anglican clergy and early Christians at their baptism. Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Hopi, Vikings, and Zulu’s wore white aprons as emblems of high office, while white aprons decorated statues of Greek and Egyptian Gods. The Persians also used the apron as a national emblem.

      However interesting this may be, our apron remains the symbol of the humble operative workman and no more.

      I hope this now answers my position on the subject.

      Kind regards
      Mike

  7. Brother Mike:

    I was struck by your concluding thought:  “… our apron remains the symbol of the
    humble operative workman and no more.”  Perhaps your view is colored by the nature
    of the catechism you learned within the UGLE?  

    And so I am hoping you will patiently allow just one more response on the topic of the
    Apron.  I think it is useful to pay attention to the difference between the **source** of a
    masonic practice, and the **meaning** that has been associated with the same practice.
    I am frequently instructed that in Scotland, there is a strong tendency to reject any
    attempts to specify a symbolic meaning . . . since the Grand Lodge of Scotland feels
    strongly the search for meaning is, by nature, a very personal one.

     So in any given assembly, there might be an aggregate of a dozen meanings for any
    given furnishing or practice – – all of them held to be equally valid.Here in America (I
    belong to the Grand Lodges of Georgia and of Florida), the catechism actually asserts the
    symbolism of the apron that is considered “canon” for a Mason – – which is not the same
    as specifying the origination of the apron.  Certainly most any speculative Masons would
    agree with you that aprons entered the speculative craft from the humble example of
    operative masons.  But in American catechism, the symbolism has a specific meaning
    attached to it, which may or may not have been an innovation of speculative masonry! 

    For example,the 24 inch gauge comes from the operative requirement to carefully
    measure stones,but at some point, the founders of speculative masonry attached the
    speculative significance of the gauge for dividing a 24 hour day into 3 equal parts!

    Peruse these two links below when you get the chance.  The use of the term “emblem
    of innocence” is encountered, and there is no attempt to explain this as coming from
    the idea that Masons (or carpenters, or butchers, etc) are more innocent than others – –
    especially since even uninitiated masons (i.e., cowans) would also be found wearing
    some form of apron.

    https://www.diariomasonico.com/english/emblems-of-innocence-and-honor-the-masonic-apron/

    AND:

    http://www.themasonictrowel.com/Articles/degrees/degree_1st_files/the_masonic_apron_gl_tx.htm

    In any number of sources we read that the masonic apron, a symbol of innocence, is “…
    more ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, and more honorable than the Star
    and Garter.” Let’s set aside the Roman Eagle and the Star and Garter as items that are
    not dramatically antique. However, to be more ancient than the Golden Fleece …well
    that is saying something important!

    Homer, who lived around 800 BCE, put together a heroic poem of the exploits of the
    Greeks; academics believe these stories come from events of around 1200 BCE.  Jason
    and the Argonauts set out to find and seize this “Golden Fleece”.  So what could be older
    and more glorious than 1200 BCE?  The Biblical story of the fig leaf loin clothes
    come immediately to mind!  They were the first garments … and they don’t appear to
    have any protective purpose; they were worn to avert sinful thinking, and to
    restore (even if only to a limited degree) the state of innocence that Adam and Eve
    once briefly shared!

    Mike, you might be quick to point out that these are fables.  And that operative masons
    had no notions of the Golden Fleece or of fig leaf loin clothes when they donned
    their protective operative aprons.  And I would agree with you!  Did operative Masons
    ever boast about the speculative meaning of their humble garment?  It would seem you
    and I are equally skeptical that these operatives **ever** boasted so!But it would seem
    inescapable to conclude the Masonic catechism intentionally linked the speculative side
    of the apron with sacred garments mentioned in the Bible.

    You have mentioned the clothing of Jewish priests a few times.  It would be interesting
    to pursue the inquiry as to which contributed the greater symbolic coherence:  the fig
    leaf garments mentioned in Genesis (the leather version mentioned again by
    John Cassian, St. Augustine & Rabanus Maurus) – – or the priestly undergarments
    (linen breeches) mentioned in Exodus 28:42 (Hebrew bad-miknac).If you want to explore
    the fine points of this interpretation, that would be perfectly sensible.  But if you agree
    that there was a real point being made by the reference that the masonic apron was a
    symbol of innocence “… more ancient than the Golden Fleece…” then you will have to
    offer something other than Biblical inspiration for the origin of the speculative
    interpretation!

    • Dear George
      Thank you again for your message.

      As you know, all Freemasons are charged “to make a daily advancement in Masonic knowledge” and in respect of our brethren, that instruction seems to fall into two categories, “them that do” and “them that don’t”.

      In respect of “them that do” again there seems to be two categories: (1) those that follow the esoteric route believing that Freemasonry is full of hidden meaning and symbolism and derived from an early school, civilisation or belief system, and (2) those that take a more pragmatic or practical view and accept that Freemasonry evolved from the convivial societies of the late 17th Century combined with the revival of a dying trade fraternity society in 1717, (the first Grand Lodge was set up initially to cover the Westminster area of London only) and changed beyond all recognition over the next century.

      I think the main misconception is that Operative Freemasonry has a history and this history which Anderson seems to have adopted has given modern day researchers a slanted view of Non-Operative, Accepted or Speculative Masonry.

      The traditional history and ritual that we enjoy today, developed from the Old Charges, early catechisms and aide memoires, which in the case of the Old Charges, date from about 1390, while the early catechisms and aide memoires begin from 1696 through to about 1720.

      The earliest records available to us in England which show some form of ‘non-operative’ involvement is found in the York MS No. 1, which has been dated as 1600. Scotland have ‘Operative’ records that pre-date this time frame but as explained they are purely ‘Operative’ and interestingly enough, show the admittance of ‘non-operative’ members much later in 1634.
      So, you pay you money and take your choice!

      Personally, I believe there is no “secret” to be found in Freemasonry other then those “modes of recognition” which were introduced and adopted by men and commonly found in other trade fraternities in the high and late medieval period. There is also certain wisdom to be found in the wise counsel of the ritual, likewise the encouragement to seek enlightenment from your chosen Volume of Sacred Law.
      There are no hidden mysteries to be found in Freemasonry other than the misconception of the word ‘mystery’ itself, whose root can be found in the meaning, “the professional skill of the artisan” and not mysteries of long past civilisations.

      It has been Freemasons themselves, not Freemasonry in general, that perpetuate the myth that Freemasonry is some all-powerful organisation, originating with the Egyptians, with life changing mysteries and secrets, so I have no problem with any Grand Lodge that promotes clarity in what it stands for and distances itself from speculation.

      I understand we come from two schools of thought, but I rejoice in the knowledge that we can discuss our opinions in a Masonic fashion without diffidence or scruple and knowing that we remain brothers in the same fraternity.

      Stay safe and kind regards

      Mike

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