Vol. XXIX No. 3 — March 1951

Chalk, Charcoal, and Clay

In practically all American grand lodges, Entered Apprentices learn of the symbols of chalk, charcoal, and clay, and that they represent freedom, fervency, and zeal.

Our rituals are not very explicit on the subject; certainly nothing therein is said to indicate the romantic story of how these curiously combined substances came into our work and symbolism.

If he gives any thought to the symbol, the Entered Apprentice may easily imagine that some ancient brother said to himself “Let’s have a moral symbol here — let’s see — an Apprentice ought to be all hot and bothered to be interested and yet free — chalk is free, charcoal is hot, and earth gives us all so much it must be interested — we’ll make a symbol of chalk and charcoal and clay!”

But the reality is far different! Freemasonry did not develop her symbols from imagination; every one has some connection with the craft of the cathedral builders of whom today’s speculative Freemasons are the legitimate heirs.

Let us adventure together and see just how chalk and charcoal and clay came into our system of teaching.

Chalk is a loosely coherent limestone rock composed primarily of the calcified remains of minute marine organisms. In nearly pure form chalk consists almost wholly of calcium carbonate. Chalk is used not only for writing and drawing but in the manufacture of quick lime, mortar, Portland cement, plaster, as a fertilizer. It is only Masonry which refers to it as a substance which leaves a trace at the least touch.

The principal sources of chalk are in England, especially Kent; the discovery of chalk beds in this country came long after Masonry’s adoption of its freedom of composition as a symbol.

Charcoal is carbonized vegetable or animal matter. Both anciently and today, charcoal from wood is most used.

It was early learned that partially charred wood burned with a hotter flame than unburned wood. The earliest smelters of ore soon discovered that if wood was heated and carbonized to a black and porous mass, it produced much greater heat than the original wood. Gases driven off from heated but not ignited wood are not all inflammable; water is driven out by heat; the more nearly the charcoal becomes pure carbon, the more quickly will it combine with oxygen.

That “to its heat the most obdurate metals yield” was once a true statement; no longer so, since there are metals (platinum and the familiar tungsten in ordinary electric lights) with melting points too high for even the greatest heat from the purest charcoal. However the statement was true of all the metals smelted by fuel and bellows prior to the invention of the electric furnace and the forced draft of steam and/or turbine.

The geologist makes a distinction between clay and earth. Masonically, clay is “our Mother Earth” the term being used for all the substance of our globe which grows crops, grasses, trees, flowers and in which graves are dug. As in the rest of the symbolism “clay” is here a figurative word, but it is also a poetic one; charcoal and chalk in the symbolism mean chalk and charcoal; clay does not refer to that portion of earth used in moulding statues and bricks, but to the whole of what the poet means when he describes anything as being “of the earth, earthy.”

Freedom, the word, is from the Old English freon, meaning to love; freond, beloved, from which we have the word friend. In a household were those who were loved, and those who were slaves — hence to be enslaved was the opposite of being beloved — free. The word slave came from the central European race of Slavs. When conquered, the Romans and the Franks use the general word Slav to mean the individual who served — hence slave.

Fervent, the word, is from the Latin ferve-facio - to make hot, to heat, to warm thoroughly; also Latin fervens, burning hot, glowing; ferveo, to burn, to glow, to rage, eagerly to desire.

Our modern fervency, then, is great earnestness, warmth of feeling.

Zeal comes from the Greek zeo, meaning "to boil.” Moderns generally think of zeal as the virtue of one who works tirelessly, quickly, with enthusiasm. The word is really related to the thing and not to the man. When the Greeks cooked, it was the water which was set to boil and not the man who boiled it. Originally zealous seems to have meant the quality of a thing which it made it easy, proper, good to use — clay in the making of brick, chalk with which to draw, stone with which to build.

In the modern sense, zeal is a disinterested eagerness to promote some end or aim, and it is thus that it is used Masonically.

The Entered Apprentice serves his time with freedom — meaning willingly, not as a slave but of his own free will and accord; with fervency, meaning to glow with ardor, eagerly to desire to do good work, and with zeal, in the disinterestedness of promoting the end that will make him really and literally a cornerstone of the Fraternity.

From meanest hut to mightiest cathedral, never a building but first an idea in some man’s mind. Never a pile of masonry of any pretensions but was first a series of drawings, designs, plans. From Mount St. Albans, newest of glorious Cathedrals erected to the Most High, to Strassburg, Rheims, Canterbury, Cologne, and Notre Dame, all were first drawn upon the trestleboard. Every bridge, every battleship, every engineering work, every dam, tunnel, monument, canal, tower erected by man, must first be drawn upon paper with pencil and rule; with square and compasses.

The ancient builders erected Cathedrals by following the designs upon the master’s trestle-board. Where he indicated stone, stone was laid. Where he drew a flying buttress, stone took wings. Where he showed a tower, a spire pointed to the vault. Where he indicated carvings, stone lace appeared.

In the change from operative to speculative, this drawing of designs was much too precious and interesting to be neglected as the material out of which to create instruction. Hence our early speculative lodges drew plans — it was called “drawing the lodge” — either on an earthen floor with a stick, or on a wooden or stone floor with chalk and/or charcoal. Here were drawn, crudely perhaps, but still intelligibly, the symbols of Masonry, to be pointed out to the initiate as he went through the degrees. When a lodge meeting was over, the tiler or the initiate erased these “secret symbols” either with a hoe, rake, or other tool to eliminate the designs from earth, or with mop and pail to wash off the chalk and charcoal from the floor.

It is not difficult to see how chalk, charcoal and clay came into our symbolism, but curious why some ancient brother did not also include the mop and pail!

The old custom of designs upon the trestleboard or master’s carpet continues to this day — we now have either a chart with emblems held upright on an easel, a floor cloth, or, in many lodges, lantern slides to be projected on a wall or screen.

Our “chalk, charcoal, and clay” was originally “chalk, charcoal, and earthen pan” the latter term not a container of pottery or metal, but signifying a hard earth. “Earthen pan” are words no longer used; “hard earth” is seldom heard. But the original English cooking pot was made of “earthen pan”; from it we take the word pan to mean any open container for the purposes of cooking. Etymologists also trace the word back to Greece, Old High German, Anglo Saxon, and late Latin. By transfer of contents to container, our pan may once have been pan bread.

“Earthen pan” goes back at least to Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (the earliest exposé) in 1730 in which appears:

  1. Q. How do you serve your Master?
  2. A. From Monday Morning to Saturday Night.
  3. Q, How do you serve him?
  4. A. With Chalk, Charcoal and Earthen Pan.
  5. Q. What do they denote?
  6. A. Freedom, Fervency and Zeal.

How much earlier began the custom of "drawing the lodge,” which made necessary the use of chalk, charcoal, and earth is a matter of guesswork. The earliest mention known is in a manuscript of the Old Charges, 1727. The Tho: Carmick Manuscript is well-preserved in the Library of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania; it treats of the Seven Sciences, and these, as summed up in Geometry; the stories of Jabel, Tubal Cain, Namah; the Pillar discovered by Hermes; Nimrod and Masons at Babylon; Euclid teaching Geometry to the Egyptians, and his Charges; King David, King Solomon and Hiram at the Temple; Naymus Graecus and Charles Martel in France; St. Albans and Masonry in England; Masonry under Prince Edwin; the Ancient Charges, the Apprentices’ Charge, an Admonition and, two pages before the end of the manuscript, a curious figure drawn and labeled “This figure Represents the lodge.”

The figure is an upright triangle of which the apex is marked “wardin” the lower left corner “fellow craft” and the right lower corner “master.” At the bottom are alternate black and white squares apparently representing the Mosaic Pavement; there is a plumb hanging from the apex, a circle with degree lines and marked N, S,E, W, a square and compasses, trowel and gavel, and some figures which probably represent two Lesser Lights.

The whole is extremely crude, such as a brother would draw hastily, knowing it was to be for the use of brethren for only one evening before the mop and pail came into use. There is nothing on this drawing to indicate chalk, charcoal and clay, although, as noted, Masonry Dissected mentions both three years after the Carmick Manuscript is dated.

In Jachin and Boaz, another early exposé, we learn:

He (the candidate) is also learnt the Step, or how to advance to the Master upon the Drawing on the Floor, which in some lodges resembles the grand Building, termed a Mosaic Palace, and is described with the utmost exactness. They also draw other Figures, one of which is called the Laced Tuft, and the other the Throne beset with Stars. There is also represented a perpendicular Line in the Form of a Mason’s Instrument, commonly called the Plumb-Line; and another Figure which represents the Tomb of Hiram, the First Grand-Master, who has been dead almost Three Thousand Years. These are all explained to him in the most accurate Manner, and the Ornaments or Emblems of the Order are described with great Facility. The Ceremony being now ended, the new-made Member is obliged to take a Mop out of a Pail of Water brought for that Purpose, and rub out the drawing on the Floor, if it is done with Chalk and Charcoal. Then he is conducted back, and every Thing he was divested of is restored; and he takes his Seat on the Right Hand of the Master. He also receives an Apron, which he puts on, and the List of the lodges is likewise given him.

In the Three Distinct Knocks, another early exposé, is found:

The Explanation of the following figure which is all the Drawing that is used in this Sort of Masonry, called the Most Antient by the Irishmen. It is generally done with Chalk or Charcoal on the Floor, that is the Reason that they want a Mop and Pail so often as they do: before when a Man has been made a Mason, they wash it out; but People have taken Notice and made Game of them about the Mop and Pail: so some lodges use Tape and little Nails to form the same Thing and so keep the World more ignorant of the Matter.

It seems reasonably obvious that chalk and charcoal were originally used to "draw the lodge” and that perhaps even earlier, the lodge was drawn upon bare earth.

Taking these symbols into speculative Masonry made necessary some explanation of a practice which disappeared not long after the speculative era began and the early use of floor cloths, wall paintings, and charts.

Hence the development of “freedom, fervency and zeal” as the spiritual meanings of what were originally merely utilitarian objects in practical use in lodge meetings!

The Masonic Service Association of North America