Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, , at sacred-texts.com
Having been privileged to read up and down a great deal of Masonic literature I may say that on no other one symbol has so much nonsense, in my opinion, been written. The apron has been made to mean a thousand and one things, from the fig-leaf worn by Adam and Eve, to the last mathematical theory of the fourth dimension; and there is little to cause wonder that the intelligent have been scandalised and common men bewildered. If an interpretation can be made that steers a safe course between the folly of the learned and the fanaticism of the ignorant it will have some value, whatever may be said of its own intrinsic worth. Warned by the many who have fallen into the pit of unreason we shall be wise to walk warily and to theorise carefully.
The wildest theories concerning the apron have been based on its shape, a thing of comparatively recent origin and due to a mere historical accident. The body of it, as now worn, is approximately square in shape and thus has suggested the symbolism of the square, the right-angle and the cube, and all arising therefrom; its flap is triangular and this has suggested the symbolism of the triangle, the forty-seventh proposition, and the pyramid; the descent of the flap over the body of the apron has also given rise to reasonings equally ingenious. By this method of interpretation men have read into it all manner of things;—the mythology of the Mysteries, the metaphysics
of India, the mysteries of the Kabbala, and the phantasies of Magic. Meanwhile it has been forgotten that the apron is a Masonic symbol and that we are to find out what it is intended to mean rather than what it may, under the stress of our lust for fancifulness, be made to mean. When the Ritual is consulted, as it always deserves to be, we find that it treats the apron (1) as an inheritance from the past, (2) as the badge of a Mason, and (3) as the emblem of innocence and sacrifice.
For one purpose or another, and in some form, the apron has been used for three or four thousand years. In at least one of the Ancient Mysteries, that of Mithras, the candidate was invested with a white apron. So also was the initiate of the Essenes, who received it during the first year of his membership in that order; and it is significant that many of the statues of Greek and Egyptian gods were so ornamented, as may still be seen. Chinese secret societies, in many cases, also used it, and the Persians, at one time, employed it as their national banner. Jewish prophets often wore aprons, as did the early Christian candidates for baptism, and as ecclesiastical dignitaries of the present day still do. The same custom is found even among savages, for, as Brother J. G. Gibson has remarked, "wherever the religious sentiment remains—even among the savage nations of the earth—there has been noticed the desire of the natives to wear a girdle or apron of some kind."
From all this, however, we must not infer that our Masonic apron has come to us from such sources, though, for all we know, the early builders may have been influenced by those ancient and universal customs. The fact seems to be that the Operative Masons used the
apron only for the practical purpose of protecting the clothing, as there was need in labour so rough. It was nothing more than one item of the workman's necessary equipment as is shown by Brother W. H. Rylands, who found an Indenture of 1685 in which a Master contracted to supply his Apprentice with "sufficient wholesome and competent meate, drink, lodging and aprons."
Because the apron was so conspicuous a portion of the Operative Mason's costume, and so necessary a portion of his equipment, it was inevitable that Speculatives should have continued its use for symbolical purposes. The earliest known representatives of these aprons, so we are informed by Brother J. F. Crowe, who was one of the first of our scholars to make a thorough and scientific investigation of the subject ("A.O.C.," vol. v, p. 29), "is an engraved portrait of Anthony Sayer. . . . Only the upper portion is visible in the picture, but the flap is raised, and the apron looks like a very long leathern skin. The next drawing is in the frontispiece to the 'Book of Constitutions,' published in 1723, where a brother is represented as bringing a number of aprons and gloves into the Lodge, the former appearing of considerable size and with long strings." In Hogarth's cartoon, "Night," drawn in 1737, the two Masonic figures, Brother Crowe points out in another connection (see his "Things a Freemason Should Know") "have aprons reaching to their ankles." But other plates, of the same period, show aprons reaching only to the knee, thus marking the beginning of that process of shortening, and of general decrease in size and change in shape, which finally gave us the apron of the present day; for since the garment no longer serves as a means of protection it has been found wise to fashion it in a manner more convenient to wear, nor is this inconsistent with its original Masonic significance. It is this fact, as I have
already suggested, that has made the present form of the apron a result of circumstances, and proves how groundless are interpretations founded on its shape.
According to Blue Lodge usages in the United States the apron must be of unspotted lambskin, fourteen to sixteen inches in width, twelve to fourteen inches in depth, with a flap descending from the top some three or four inches. The Grand Lodge of England now specifies such an apron as this for the First Degree, but requires the apron of the Second Degree to have two sky-blue rosettes at the bottom, and that of the Third Degree to have in addition to that a sky-blue lining and edging not more than two inches deep, "and an additional rosette on the fall or flap, and silver tassels." Grand officers are permitted to use other ornaments, gold embroidery, and, in some cases, crimson edgings. All the evidence goes to show that these ornate aprons are of recent origin. The apron should always be worn outside the coat.
"The thick-tanned hide, girt around him with thongs, wherein the Builder builds, and at evening sticks his trowel" was so conspicuous a portion of the costume of the Operative Mason that it became associated with him in the public mind, and thus gradually evolved into his badge; for a badge is some mark voluntarily assumed as the result of established custom whereby one's work, or station, or school of opinion, may be signified.
Of what is the Mason's badge a mark? Surely its history permits but one answer to this—it is the mark of honourable and conscientious labour, the labour that is devoted to creating, to constructing, rather than to destroying. or demolishing. As such, the Mason's apron is itself a symbol of a profound change in the attitude of
society toward work, for the labour of hand and brain, once despised by the great of the earth, is rapidly becoming the one badge of an honourable life. If men were once proud to wear a sword, while leaving the tasks of life to slaves and menials, if they once sought titles and coats of arms as emblems of distinction, they are now, figuratively speaking, eager to wear the apron, for the Knight of the present day would rather save life than take it, and prefers, a thousand times over, the glory of achievement to the glory of title or name. Truly, the rank has become the guinea's stamp, "and a man's a man for a’ that," especially if he be a man that can do; and the real modern king, as Carlyle was always contending, is "the man who can."
If this is the message of the apron, none has a better right to wear it than a Mason, if he be a real member of the Craft, for he is a knight of labour if ever there was one. Not all labour deals with things. There is a labour of the mind, and of the spirit, more arduous, often, and more difficult, than any labour of the hands. He who dedicates himself to the cleaning of the Augean stables of the world, to the clearing away of the rubbish that litters the paths of life, to the fashioning of building stones in the confused quarries of mankind, is entitled, more than most men, to wear the badge of toil!
When the candidate is invested with the garment he is told that it is an emblem of innocence. It is doubtful if Operative Lodges ever used it for such a symbolic purpose, though they may have done so in the seventeenth century, after Speculatives began to be received in greater numbers. The evidence indicates that it was after the Grand Lodge era, and in consequence of the rule
that the apron should be of white lambskin, that Masons began to see in its colour an emblem of innocence and in its texture a suggestion of sacrifice.
In so doing they fell into line with ancient practices, for of old white "has been esteemed an emblem of innocence and purity." Among the Romans an accused person would sometimes put on a garment of white to attest his innocence, white being, as Cicero phrased it, "most acceptable to the gods." The candidate in the Mysteries and among the Essenes were similarly invested, and it has the same meaning of purity and innocence in the Bible which promises that though our sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. In the early Christian church the young catechumen (or convert) robed himself in white in token of his abandonment of the world and his determination to lead a blameless life. But there is no need to multiply instances because each of us feels by instinct that white is the natural symbol of innocence.
Now it happens that "innocence" comes from a word meaning "to do no hurt" and this may well be taken as its Masonic definition, for it is evident that no grown man can be innocent in the sense that a child is, which really means an ignorance of evil. The innocence of a Mason is his gentleness, his chivalrous determination to do no moral evil to any person, man, or woman, or babe: his patient forbearance of the crudeness and ignorance of men, his charitable forgiveness of his brethren when they wilfully or unconsciously do him evil; his dedication to a spiritual knighthood in behalf of the values and virtues of humanity by which alone man rises above the brute, and the world is carried forward on the upward way.
It is in token of its texture—lambskin—that we find in the apron the further significance of sacrifice, and this also, it seems, is a symbolism developed since 1700. It has been generally believed until recently that the Operatives
used only leather aprons, and this was doubtless the case in early days, but Brother Crowe has shown that many of the oldest lodge records evidence a use of linen as well. "In the old Lodge of Melrose," he writes, "dating back to the seventeenth century, the aprons have always been of linen, and the same rule obtained in 'Mary's Chapel' No. i, Edinburgh, the oldest Lodge in the world"; whilst Brother James Smith, in his history of the old Dumfries Lodge, writes, "on inspecting the box of Lodge 53, there was only one apron of kid or leather, the rest being of linen! As these Lodges are of greater antiquity than any in England, I think a fair case is made out for linen, versus leather, originally."
Brother Crowe has not entirely made out his case to the satisfaction of all, for other authorities contend that the builders who necessarily handled rough stone and heavy timbers must have needed a more substantial fabric than linen or cotton. But in any event, the Fraternity has been using leather aprons for these two centuries, though cotton cloth is generally substituted for ordinary lodge purposes, and it is in no sense far-fetched to see in the lambskin a hint of that sacrifice of which the lamb has so long been an emblem.
But what do we mean by sacrifice? To answer this fully would lead one far afield into ethics and theology, but for the present purpose, we may say that the Mason's sacrifice is the cheerful surrender of all that is in him which is un-Masonic. If he has been too proud to meet others on the level he must lay aside his pride; if he has been too mean to act upon the square he must yield up his meanness; if he has been guilty of corrupting habits they must be abandoned, else his wearing of the apron be a fraud and a sham.
Carrying with it so rich a freightage of symbolism the apron may justly be considered "more ancient than the
[paragraph continues] Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, more honourable than the Star and Garter," for these badges were too often nothing more than devices of flattery and the insignia of an empty name. The Golden Fleece was an Order of Knighthood founded by Philip, Duke of Burgundy, on the occasion of his marriage to the Infanta Isabella of Portugal in 1429 or 1430. It used a Golden Ram for its badge and the motto inscribed on its jewel was "wealth, not servile labour"! The Roman of old bore an eagle on his banner to symbolise magnanimity, fortitude, swiftness, and courage. The Order of the Star originated in France in 1350, being founded by John II. in imitation of the Order of the Garter. Of the last-named Order it is difficult to speak, as its origin is clothed in so much obscurity that historians differ, but it was as essentially aristocratic as any of the others. In every case, the emblem was a token of aristocratic idleness and aloofness, the opposite of that which is symbolised by the apron; and the superiority of the latter over the former is too obvious for comment.