The Masonic Apron
Christopher A. Harris, MPS FGCR
One of the first actions of a newly made brother is the investiture of the Lambskin. It is probably the most single recognized symbol of Freemasonry besides that of the Square and Compasses. In the first degree of Freemasonry in Missouri the Senior Warden instructs the brother on how to wear the apron correctly, in the second and third degree, the Senior Deacon does the instructing. In some jurisdictions the Apron is not worn a certain way but rather a different decorated apron for each degree. Why do we as Masons wear the Apron? What is some of the symbolism behind the decoration and colors of the Apron?
The use of the Apron in ritual goes far back into ancient history. One of the accepted garments of the High Priests in Biblical times was the Ephod. An Ephod is defined as "a linen apron worn in ancient Hebrew Rites; especially a vestment for the High Priest." According to the Bible, the Ephod, which is often called "robe" in its ancient meaning of "skirt", covers the body from the waist down. It is made of white linen and some other threads of other colors. It definitely has shoulder straps, and possibly a bib. It also has a "girdle", which the Bible calls a number of times "curious" but never describes. This is not saying it was an Apron, but merely similar to an Apron. Elijah and John the Baptist wore one of leather, Isaiah wore one of hair-cloth, and Jeremiah wore one of Linen. Other religions also use Aprons as a part of the accepted dress for their religious leaders and white was the common color to the Aprons. The Arch Druid clothed himself in a white Apron when he cut the sacred mistletoe. The priests of the Roman god's wore white during the hour of sacrifice and the Ephod of the High Priest was white. These varying faiths met on the one common ground of making the white garment a symbol of the need that men should be pure of heart if they would enter into the presence of God.
Above all other symbols, the Lambskin Apron is the distinguished badge of a Mason. In modern times it has been celebrated in poetry and prose and has been the subject of much fanciful speculation. There are five important and distinct ideas on why the Lambskin Apron is a badge.
First, in its use, it is a badge of service. In the book "Symbolical Masonry" brother H. L. Haywood has an interesting chapter on "The Apron Wherein the Builder Builds," and says that the Apron "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."
By the Apron, Speculative Freemasonry seeks to distinguish the brother so that when he wears it, it is like the laurel wreath of honor.
Second, the Apron, which is made of lambskin, is in its fabric a badge of sacrifice. The lamb in all ages has not only been a symbol of innocence but also an emblem of sacrifice. He who wears this lambskin with an understanding must be prepared for the time when hard things are to be done, when trials are to be endured, and fortitude glorified. A good example of which is of the 60,000 or so Freemasons interred in the Concentration Camps during World War II. The crime for which they were interred? Being a Freemason.
Third, in its color, it is a badge of purity. White is the clean color that reflects the most light and speaks of a pure heart. The Psalmist said, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" Answering his own question, he said, "He that hath clean hands and a pure heart." When properly understood, the white Apron is the pledge of a clean life, the testimony that a candidate means to live a pure life, speak true, right wrong, and reverence conscience as king.
When we turn to ritual for this interpretation, we find the Apron to be an inheritance from the past, and so in the fourth place, it is a badge of antiquity, "more ancient than the Golden Fleece and Roman Eagle." A minister who was also a brother once said that the Masonic Ritual was couched in stilted phrases and extravagant language, and as an illustration referred to the ritualistic speech used in the presentation of the Apron. Was he right? The following is a brief examination of his statement.
The Order of the Golden Fleece here referred to was founded in 1429 by Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The Roman Eagle became Rome's ensign of imperial power about one century before the Christian era, while the Apron has come down to us from the very sunrise of time. As before, many ancient religions used the Apron as part of their religious worship. As a badge of antiquity, the Apron exalts the greatness and glory of the past in its present contribution to human good and happiness.
In the fifth place, the Apron is a badge of honor. It is declared to be "more honorable than the Star and Garter." Here we have another comparison. The Order of the Star was created by King John II of France on November 16, 1351 at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. It was in imitation of the English Order of the Garter and was to gather around the King the 500 best members of French chivalry. Actually they never were more than 100, and the Order lasted very briefly. The Knights of the Star, faithful to their oath never to retreat nor surrender before the enemy, died practically all in the following years of widespread war. Actually they were all dead by the time King John II was made a prisoner at Poitiers in 1356, five years later... The order was never revived although, just like for the Templar Order, many fake Orders of the Star were contrived in the following centuries. Some historians say that it was a royal plaything and at the time of its formation its founder was engaged in acts of despotism and destruction.
The Order of the Garter was formed by King Edward III of England in 1349. It was composed of the King and twenty-five Knights and originated in the false pride and fantastic pomp of medieval manners. Edward A. Freeman, an English historian, says,
"The spirit of knighthood is above all things a class spirit, the good knight is bound to endless courtesies toward men and women of a certain rank; he may treat all below that rank with any degree of scorn and cruelty. Chivalry is in morals what feudalism is in law. Each substitutes personal obligations devised in the interest of an exclusive class, for the more homely duties of an honest man and a good citizen."
Freemasonry in striking contrast to such conceptions. It stands for the dissipation of discord and dissention, for the promotion of peace, pursuit of knowledge and the practice of brotherhood, for untrammeled conscience, equality, and the divine right of liberty in man, for devotion to duty, the building of character and rectitude of life and conduct. Its symbolical supports are wisdom, strength and beauty. The principle rounds of the theological ladder are faith, hope and charity. Its primary tenets are brotherly love, relief and truth. Its cardinal virtues are fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice. Its temple is erected to the Master Builder, its Great Light is the Word of Revelation and at its center is an Altar of high and holy purpose.
When we consider the messages delivered by these ancient Orders, a person speaks of class distinction, special privilege and the divine right of Kings and all things not confined in temperance and prudence. The Apron however, tells the story of exact justice, equality of opportunity, and the brotherhood of man. It is not a stilted phrase and an exaggeration of speech as that brother said. The badge of a Freemason, the Lambskin, is much more honorable than the Star and Garter. It spells out integrity, honesty of purpose, probity of character, and soundness of moral principle.
If the apron is white to symbolize purity and innocence. What then does the blue trim stand for. The light blue border is made up of Azure blue, Cerulean, or Sky blue. Universally, blue denotes immortality, eternity, chastity, fidelity. Watered blue, in particular, represents prudence and goodness. In freemasonry blue is the emblem of universal brotherhood and friendship and "instructs us that in the mind of a mason those virtues should be as extensive as the blue arch of Heaven itself." To the ancient Jews blue was a chief religious color. Blue, or in Hebrew tekelet, is to have been one of the colors of the Tabernacle of Moses. This word was often used in ancient Hebrew for the color purple as well as for the purple-bearing seashell, and for the purple dye extracted from it. In modern Hebrew it indicates a light blue or sky-blue color. It is said that in ancient days the most solemn oaths were sworn on blue Altars as the color represented the canopy of heaven where God Almighty resides.
The earliest Aprons had no decoration of any kind, not even ribbons, and certainly no tassels, rosettes or levels as in the modern day English Aprons. It was the replacement of the strings by ribbons which is supposed to have suggested, more or less accidentally, the addition of the tassels in the relatively late period 1827-41. The ribbons passed, went round the body then under the bib or flap and were tied in front where their decorated ends hung down, as clearly shown in old portraits, and in course of time led to the idea of permanent tassels. Today this is shown in the form of seven metallic tassels. Today each tassel comprises a tiny silver ball pendant from a silver chain, upon a watered blue silk background which represents the ribbon.
The symbolism of the Master Mason's apron is many. In English Lodges the Master Mason's Apron like the two of the previous degrees, is made of lambskin, which is the emblem of purity and the bond of friendship. It is adorned with blue in allusion to the Royal splendor which King Solomon bestowed upon the Craft, for we are told that our Ancient Brethren, like those of the present day, never clothed themselves except in the Royal colors of blue, red and scarlet, or purple.
It is enriched with silver to remind you of the Master Mason's password. Our ancient brother Tubal Cain as you are already aware, was the first artificer in gold, silver and other metals. The lengths of ribbon are to remind you, and all Master Masons, that you have passed between the two great pillars of King Solomon's Temple, are in possession of the password of a Master Mason.
The three rosettes are to remind you of the three officers that rule a Lodge, the Three principle tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth, the three degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry and the Three Great Lights in Freemasonry. The Five points, one at each corner and one at the peak or cap, of the Five that hold a Lodge, the Five Points of Fellowship upon that which you were raised and the Five orders of Architecture. Finally the Seven strands of the tassels, of the Seven liberal arts and sciences and the Seven officers who make the Lodge perfect.
It is not known how rosettes came to be added, but a likely suggestion is that they were adopted as a means of distinguishing the grades of Brethren. The love of ornamentation was possibly another factor. Contrary to what has been freely written upon the subject, it is difficult to see how any symbolical meaning could originally have attached to them. The triangular position of the three rosettes is a reminder of the equal positions of the three Ancient Grand Masters .. Solomon, King of Israel; Hiram, King of Tyre; and Hiram Abif the widow's son, who are represented by the Worshipful Master and his two Wardens, having positions separate and distinct from one another, and like the points of the triangle, each pointing in a different direction, yet forming a perfect figure. So are our Worshipful Master and his Wardens equally zealous and united in forming a perfect figure in their ruling and governing of the Lodge.
Past Masters of English Constitution lodges have a different apron. Instead of rosettes, there are three Levels placed in the same position. Perhaps the earliest reference to apron levels is in an order of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1814, describing how the levels are to be placed on the Aprons. The levels were to be of half-inch ribbon, disposed in "perpendicular lines upon horizontal lines, thereby forming three several sets of two right angles" (or Squares). They are each two and a half inches wide by one inch high. This could allude to the symbolism of Virtue which is what the Square represents. The earliest aprons with rosettes can be found in the Museum at Freemasons' Hall [in London] and are of about the period 1815, and with levels about 1800.
"The United Grand Lodge early made a duty of simplifying the apron, which emblem had become of a bewildering number of patterns, sizes, and decorative styles. It decided in 1814 to insist on a uniform pattern, much the same as that in use today; but a generation went by before there was complete uniformity."
The following describes the different Aprons in an English Constitution Lodge. "The Entered Apprentice's Apron is of a plain white lambskin, fourteen to sixteen inches wide, twelve to fourteen inches deep, rectangular, no ornamentation; white strings and a flap. The Fellow Craft. The same, with two sky-blue rosettes added nearer the lower corners. The Master Mason's Apron is the same, with sky-blue lining, and edging not more than two inches wide; an additional rosette on the flap, silver tassels, sky-blue strings. The waist ribbon is usually sky-blue, sometimes black, with fastening by means of a serpent emblem that hooks into an eyelet."
Lets consider the Aprons relevant to the United States and in particular Missouri. The Grand Lodge AF & AM of Missouri really has not set strict standards of what a Masonic Apron should look like except for this brief statement in the constitution section 15.030 "The Masonic Apron is square, white, with triangular flap on which the emblem of symbolic Masonry may be placed. The Apron may be bound in blue." That leaves room for the variations one may see in a Lodge when looking at the members Aprons.
In the jurisdiction of Missouri there is no set rules for the Apron of a Past Master either. There are two popular designs though. The most popular is to have the Compasses, opened at an angle of 60� resting on the angle of a protractor. A sun in the center of open arms of the Compasses. The protractor is an advanced instrument of which only a Master of a Lodge is capable of using. I have yet to find any ritual reference or origin to why we use the angle of a protractor sometimes called a quadrant. The other design is similar to the first except with the addition of the Square in the proper place. In some jurisdictions outside of Missouri, the Square and Compasses on the angle of a Protractor is the emblem of a District Deputy Grand Master and a Past Master is not eligible to wear that particular design. In jurisdictions such as Massachusetts, the Aprons combine those of English tradition and the style we are familiar with having both the rosettes or levels in addition to the Square and Compasses or Square on the angle of a protractor. The Past Master's emblem in that jurisdiction is the 47th Problem of Euclid suspended from a Square.
Brethren, the history of your Apron is ancient and exemplary. There is no similar badge of honor and worth in any other Order or Society, no matter how exalted. It might accompany you to your grave. Be proud of it, but discreet. Do not make a show of it, particularly not to non-Masons. Simple and plain aprons tell a lot about their wearers. So do glittering and over-ornate ones. If your Apron now tells you a lot, remember that it also tells your Brethren a lot about you. Also reflect on the symbolism of the Apron. It is alot more than just a square piece of cloth or lambskin.
- Richard Num — South Australia
- The Mason's Apron by William Harvey, J.P. (1921)
- Mike Segall, PM LoR John Scot Erigena #1000, Grand Lodge of France, located in Paris
- MSA — Short Talk Bulletin Vol. 5 # 11 November 5, 1927
- Liberty Lodge #31 AF & AM (Grand Lodge AF & AM of Missouri)
- Philalethes Research Society — Member
- Grand College of Rites of the USA — Fellow
- Independence Chapter #12 Royal Arch Masons
- Independence Council #49 Cryptic Masons
- Palestine Commandery #17 Knights Templar
- Tipperary Council #62 Knight Masons of the USA
- Harry S. Truman York Rite College #167
- Missouri Western York Rite Association
- York Rite Webmaster's Guild — Charter Member
- 32° Valley of Kansas City, Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite — Southern Jurisdiction
- Keystone Conclave #25 Order of True Kindred