Vol. XVIII No. 2 — February 1940

The Gloves

“Clothed in white aprons and gloves, emblems of innocence. . . .”

This phrase, or one of similar import, is spoken in the ritual of the Master’s Degree in many grand jurisdictions. It is almost if not quite an universal practice for Masons to wear white gloves when in formal array before the public, as at cornerstone layings and funerals. In many lodges white gloves are commonly worn by the assembled brethren. Officers in grand lodge, when in formal evening dress, customarily wear white gloves. In Masonic funeral services in some jurisdictions, white gloves are deposited with the apron in the grave.

Less common than the universal apron, white gloves are yet a Masonic symbol of importance and some inquiry as to the how, the when and the why of their inclusion may be of interest.

Most symbols can be traced back to a practical beginning; the aprons, for instance, worn by priests in ancient times, were either to protect the body from injury when offering animal sacrifices, or to keep the underclothing from being soiled. Operative masons now, as in an older day, wear heavy aprons of skin or cloth to carry tools, protect the clothing and prevent injury.

Gloves must have been first used to keep the hands warm, or to protect them from injury. Later developed the idea that a glove kept the hand clean, and it is from this practical beginning, rather than from its ability to retain warmth or to protect, that the Masonic symbolism comes.

Many records of the past chronicle references to the symbolic character of gloves. Shakespeare says (Henry V):

Give me any gauge of thine, and I will wear it in my bonnet; then if thou ever darest acknowledge it, I will make it my quarrel.

Here’s my glove, give me another of thine.


This I will also wear in my cap; if ever thou come to me and say, after tomorrow, “This is my glove,” by this hand I take thee a box on the ear.

Here the gift of a glove is a token of friendship between friends; the demand for its return, the act of an enemy. The London Freemason says:

Definite evidence is given in Howell's History of the World that gloves were used in England in A.D. 978 by a law of Etheldred. Merchants from the Low Countries coming in their ships to Blynesgate (Billingsgate) were directed to pay toll at Easter and Christmas, 'two grey cloths and one brown one, ten pounds of pepper, two vessels of vinegar, and five pairs of gloves.’

Originally the use of gloves was confined to men. According to the authority of S. William Beck, women were specially interdicted by the law against wearing them. At the crowning of the British King gloves are presented to the King. The Queen does not receive a gift.

In the Middle Ages it was customary for Kings to be buried with gloves on their hands. In 1189 King Henry the Second was buried thus, as a symbol of his Services as King and Emperor, and that he was the happy possessor of clean hands.

In mediaeval Europe gloves were not a distinctive mark of royalty, but were indicative of rank. There is the old custom of presenting gloves to culprits who were condemned to die, but who received the King’s pardon. Gloves in such cases became a “type” of life renewed. Later this custom was followed by another, still practiced at the present day, when a pair of white gloves is presented to the judge before whom no prisoner has been capitally convicted at what is termed a “maiden assize.”

When men wore armor the glove became a gauntlet of jointed steel, to protect the hands holding shield and sword. To extend the mailed hand was not the act of a friend; helmet and gauntlet were removed when greeting those whom the knight trusted, as a symbol that, fearing no blow, he removed his protection. From this comes our custom of removing the glove before extending the hand in greeting.

From the earliest times, washing the hands has been considered an act of purification; the Psalmist sings:

“I will wash my hands in innocence: so will I compass your altar, O Lord,” (Psalms 26:6) and, again: “Who shall ascend into the hills of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart. . . .” (Psalms 24:3-6)

The Greek and Roman ceremony of lustration — purification — was often performed by washing the hands.

On a Temple in the Island of Crete was this inscription: “Cleanse your feet, wash your hands, and then enter.”

Thus gloves became associated with the idea of purity; the hands, once clean for a religious ceremony, were kept clean by the glove; hence the glove itself became a symbol of purity, and it is this that they mean in Masonic symbolism.

Their use in Masonry is very old, and in some instances, very curious. To this day the custom remains in certain Continental lodges of presenting the initiate with two pairs of white gloves; one for himself, and one for his wife, or, if unmarried, for a woman friend. It is reported in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (the transactions of the famous London lodge of research) that in lodges under the Netherlands Constitution, the ladies’ gloves are given with the words “It is currently reported that the objects of the Craft are inconsistent with the duties we owe the fair sex. This is a slander, for although we admit no females to our working, yet the woman has no greater champion and defender than a true and worthy Mason. Present this pair of gloves to her who is, or may become, nearest and dearest to you.”

Commenting on this, G. W. Speth, the great English Masonic authority, relates:

When Voltaire, who had railed against Masons all his life, finally consented, at the age of 82, four months before his death, to be initiated in the famous lodge “Neuf Soeurs,” presided over by the celebrated Lalande, the members of which were recruited from the most prominent literary and scientific men in France; he was proposed by Benjamin Franklin and Count de Gebelin, and received in due course the pair of lady’s gloves, with the usual instructions. At that age he naturally had no sweetheart to whom to present them, so, turning to the Marquis de Villette, whose wife was both beautiful and amiable, he said, “These gloves being destined for a lady for whom I cherish an honorable, tender and merited affection, I pray you hand them to ‘La Belle et Bonne!’” A subsequently founded lodge of Adoption over which the Marquis de Villette presided was named in memory of this occasion “La Belle et Bonne.”

Extant in the Library of the Grand Lodge of Scotland are the minutes of the now defunct Aitchison’s Haven Lodge, from 1598 to 1764. In these curious old chronicles the reader may discover that the initiate paid twenty shillings as his fee and, in addition, had to supply gloves to every master present. The records of Melrose Lodge specify that the value of gloves to be presented by ’Prentices was not to be less than four shillings, and those demanded of Fellowcrafts were of a value of five shillings.

In old French lodges every brother present at a Masonic funeral service cast into the grave a flower and one of his gloves. While far less common than formerly, gloves are still occasionally used in Masonic funeral ceremonies, and very beautifully. Here are three quotations from American Masonic funeral services:

In Georgia:

This Glove is a symbol of Fidelity and is emblematic of that Masonic friendship which bound us to him whose tenement of clay lies before us. It reminds us that while these mortal eyes shall see him not again; yet, by the practice of the tenets of our noble order, and a firm faith and steadfast trust in the Supreme Architect, we hope to clasp once more his vanished hand in love and friendship. What virtue unites, death never parts.

In Oregon:

This Glove is emblematic of the right hand which in all ages has been deemed the symbol of Fidelity. By it we are admonished that though our brother has advanced a pace before us, we shall before long overtake him, shall know him, shall he known by him and shall again feel the strong fraternal clasp of his hand as it meets ours in love and friendship.

In Virginia:

This Glove is an emblem of Innocence and a token of Friendship, and though Death has severed and destroyed our social connection with our brother, let us remember that it has not impaired or weakened our obligations to the living.

In the Museum of the Grand Lodge Zur Sonne in Bayreuth there was a minute book, (where it is now only Hitler may know!) written in French, recording the beginning of the Lodge Eleusis at Bayreuth in 1741. It sets forth:

The fourth of the month December our Very Worshipful lodge has installed the new lodge in the City at the Golden Eagle. The procession was arranged with beautiful ceremonies.

  1. Two Bearers carrying gloves.
  2. Two Stewards or Marshals with their insignia and white batons or staffs in hand.
  3. The Grand Sword Bearer of the Grand Lodge. Etc., etc.

It is to be noted that “Two Bearers carrying gloves” were first in the procession.

Mackey has this to offer as to the early history of gloves in Freemasonry:

The builders, who associated in companies, who traversed Europe and were engaged in the construction of palaces and cathedrals, have left to us their descendants, their name, their technical language, and the apron, that distinctive piece of clothing by which they protected their garments from the pollutions of their laborious employment. Did they also bequeath to us their gloves? This is a question which some modern discoveries will at last enable us to solve. M. Didron, in his Annales Archeologiques, presents us with an engraving copied from the painted glass of a window in the Cathedral of Chartres, in France. The painting was executed in the thirteenth century, and represents a number of operative masons there at work. Three of them are adorned with laurel crowns. May not these be intended to represent the three officers of a lodge? All of the Masons are wearing gloves. M. Didron remarks that in the old documents which he has examined mention is often made of gloves which are intended to be presented to Freemasons and stone-cutters. In a subsequent number of the Annales, he gives the following three examples of this fact: In the year, 1331, the Chatelan of Villains, in Duemois, bought a considerable quantity of gloves to be given to the workmen, in order, as it is said, ‘to shield their hands from the stone and lime.’ In October 1383, as he learns from a document of that period, three dozen pair of gloves were bought and distributed among the Masons when they commenced the buildings at the Chartreuse of Dijon. And, lastly, in 1486 or 1487, twenty-two pair of gloves were given to the Masons and stone-cutters who were engaged in work at the city of Amiens.

It is thus evident that the builders — the Operative Masons — of the Middle Ages wore gloves to protect their hands from the effects of their work. It is equally evident that the Speculative Freemasons have received from their operative predecessors the gloves as well as the apron, both of which, being used by the latter for practical uses, have been, in the spirit of symbolism, appropriated by the former to “a more noble and glorious purpose.”

The practical American mind, searching for the easiest way, the most economical process, the best method, has given the world its greatest discoveries in science, mechanics, and materials. But that same practical habit of thought does not always work to the advantage of ancient usage and custom nor tend to retain many a pretty old symbolism.

Our lambskin aprons have largely given way to those made of cloth; even paper is sometimes substituted. The old form of the apron, with rounded corner and rounded flap, has changed to the modern rectangle, doubtless in the interest of eliminating waste in cutting. Manufacturing jewelers have in all innocence made past master’s jewels in which the square lies beneath the compasses on the arc of a circle, which is somewhat destructive of the symbolism of the past master’s jewel. For every gavel in a lodge which is even sketchily representative of that of a stone-cutter — with cutting edge and heavy short handle — we have hundreds of round gavels with round handles, used also in every club, society and political house in the nation! Comparatively few lodges meet now at time of full moon. Our passion for politics has grafted onto the old Masonic system our modern idea of “representative government” so that only in three American grand lodges does the grand master now appoint his deputy, his personal representative. In the rest, he must take him whom the Craft elects, although it is in direct violation of the early Masonic idea.

The same passion for being practical has largely done away with the glove as a Masonic symbol; gloves are hot; they have to be constantly cleaned; members forget to bring them; it is too expensive for lodges continually to supply them; too many members carry them home.

It is idle to protest; we are as we are, and if we have “bettered” Freemasonry in many ways which the lover of the old finds anything but an improvement, we have built a strong and charitable and wholesome Craft.

But there are many who regret that the ancient symbolism of the glove, as representing purity and a symbolic cleansing prior to taking part in sacred ceremonies, has gone with the perfume of an older and more leisurely day.

The Masonic Service Association of North America