Treasures Revealed Episode 9 – Masonic Mystery

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered 9. 

In the 9th episode of Treasures Revealed, LAC Curator Forrest Pass unravels the mystery of a Masonic Tracing Board dating back to the early 1800s.

Duration: 20:50

File size: 28.8 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: January 19, 2023

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 9

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 9, “Masonic Mystery”.

    On today’s episode, the treasure we’ll be discussing is a Masonic tracing board dating back to the early 1800s. Here to tell us about this treasure is LAC Curator Forrest Pass.

    Forrest Pass (FP): My name is Forrest Pass. I am a curator on the Exhibitions team in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division, and I have been at LAC for almost two years.

    TM: Before we get to the treasure of this episode, the Masonic tracing board, we must first mention that Masonic tracing boards are used by Freemasons. For this reason, we asked Forrest to explain what Freemasonry is.

    FP: Freemasonry is a fraternal order, a fraternal system, dating back to the 17th or 18th century, though it claims much earlier origins; it claims to be descended from the guilds, the Masonic guilds of the Middle Ages. And it is a secretive fraternal order. They would say rather than being a secret society, they’re a society with secrets.

    So, men would join the order and would be introduced to a series of secrets, many of them with heavy Biblical imagery, medieval imagery, again dating back to the myths of the masons who built European cathedrals and right back to the Temple of Solomon. What these legends or these symbols are, or these stories are, are really allegories for upstanding behaviour. So it’s a way of improving men’s moral standing and relationships with others, and of building a means, yeah, a means of building a sort of a fictionalized brotherhood among men from diverse backgrounds, giving them an opportunity to work together, to socialize together, regardless of their background and in the process improve themselves mentally or morally.

    TM: If you are interested in viewing the Masonic tracing board, you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related Links section on the episode page for this podcast.

    We asked Forrest to tell us more about the Masonic tracing board held here at LAC. What exactly is it, and how is it used in a lodge?

    FP: This is a Masonic tracing board, which was a tool for teaching new initiates the mysteries of Freemasonry. And this particular example belonged to Rideau Lodge Number 25, which was a lodge established in the village of Burritts Rapids, Ontario, just after the War of 1812. And the lodge purchased this particular tracing board in 1818, and it probably came from a supplier in New York State.

    TM: The word lodge has two meanings in Freemasonry. It is both the place where Masonic meetings are held, and a collective term for the members who meet there, the basic organizational unit of Freemasonry.

    FP: Now what a tracing board is, if any of the listeners have watched “Sherlock,” the BBC series “Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch, if you think about the mind palace scenes or the memory palace scenes, that’s essentially what this tracing board is. It is a representation of the Temple of Solomon, and through the process of initiation, the initiate would wander through, metaphorically wander through, the floors of Solomon’s Temple.

    As you can see, if you’re looking at the board, there are three storeys, one for each of the degrees of Craft Masonry, so the Entered Apprentice degree is the bottom, the Fellow Craft degree the second, and right at the top, the sublime degree of Master Mason. It would hang at the front of the lodge or on one of the side walls of the lodge room, and as a new initiate was being introduced, he would go through an initiation ritual. And the ritual would include various lectures from the officers of the lodge, and, sort of, various tasks and oaths and the like that he would have to take. But these would be structured in such a way that it was as though he were walking through a portion of Solomon’s Temple.

    So, on the tracing board, we see the three storeys of Solomon’s Temple. In the first degree, the Entered Apprentice degree, he would be wandering through the first floor. And he would encounter a number of symbols there that are significant, within the order, within Masonic legend. So at the back of the first floor, for example, you see an open book. This is called the Volume of Sacred Law. It’s typically the Bible, but it could be another sacred scripture, depending on the dominant religion of the members of that particular lodge. There’s also a series of candles that represent the lights of the east, the lights of the west, and the lights of the south. So these are all concepts that are significant in Masonic mythology or Masonic lore.

    As he progressed through the degrees, when he went onto the Fellow Craft degree, the second degree, he would rise to the second level within the Temple. Again, this is not happening physically, he’s wandering on the floor of the lodge room, but metaphorically, he is now rising to the second storey within the Temple. And there, we see a couple of other symbols, for example, the columns of Jachin and Boaz, which are the pillars that supposedly stood on the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, and we see those in the second storey.

    Finally, as he came to the third storey, which represents the degree of Master Mason, the highest degree in Craft Masonry, he would encounter a coffin and a branch of acacia, which represent elements of the story of Hiram Abiff, who was the architect of Solomon’s Temple, again according to Masonic lore, and the founder of the order, according to legend.

    So you’d go through an initiation ritual, and the tracing board, in essence, is a mnemonic device for the initiation ritual. It’s a way of presenting the stories and the virtues and the symbols that are introduced in the initiation ritual; this is a way of reminding the initiate. So throughout his time in the lodge, that tracing board would always be there, and he would be able to look back at it and remember, ah yes, there’s the branch of acacia, representing everlasting life; there is the Volume of Sacred Law, which also appears on the altar of the lodge; there is the apron, which is the badge of the Masonic brotherhood. So there are various emblems there that he would encounter over and over again in his Masonic life, that the tracing board would have first introduced to him and now serves as a device to remember them.

    TM: Forrest, how did you first discover this treasure in the collection?

    FP: I first encountered it while I was working at the Canadian Museum of History, and I was researching a set of artifacts that had belonged to Rideau Lodge 25. As you know, there are many collections or many instances where a physical collection, a physical artifact may have gone to one of the national museums, while the records, the paper records, have come to LAC. And this is one of those instances where many of the physical artifacts—ballot boxes, candlesticks, aprons, other items that had been used by Rideau Lodge 25—had ended up at the Canadian Museum of History, while the records had remained at Library and Archives Canada.

    So I was using the LAC records of the lodge to try to trace some of the artifacts from the museum’s collection. I kept coming across references to a carpet, and carpet is a synonym for a tracing board, recalling the fact that in the early days of Freemasonry, these symbols would be drawn on the ground, much like a carpet or a floor covering, rather than painted and hung on the wall. And I wondered if this carpet had survived.

    And LAC’s catalogue listed a tracing board that had belonged to Rideau Lodge’s successor in the neighbouring village of Kemptville. It was another lodge established in the 1850s that had acquired a lot of Rideau Lodge’s paraphernalia, their ritual regalia and the like. And so I arranged to come and take a look at this tracing board; there was no digital version in the catalogue.

    And as soon as I saw it, I knew that it must be the one acquired in 1818, because the iconography is very typical of the second decade of the 19th century. This three-storeyed representation of the Temple of Solomon dates to about 1812. There was an engraving by a Connecticut engraver named Thomas Kensett that depicts King Solomon’s Temple in this way, and it was copied by tracing board manufacturers, artists, embroiderers and the like, making other forms of Masonic regalia. So this is very typical of that period during the 1810s, and I figured it must be the original board.

    TM: What was your first reaction when you finally saw it?

    FP: I was hugely excited to see it, both because I was excited to have found it, but also, it is very, very imposing. This is a, you can’t necessarily tell from the photograph, but it’s about two metres high. So it’s a very, very imposing item, when you see it in the vaults at the Gatineau Preservation Centre.

    And this is really part of its appeal at the time. You can imagine for a moment, being a farmer in the Rideau Valley in the 1810s or the 1820s, and you’re spending your day out milking cows, or clearing land, or harvesting or planting wheat, and one evening a month, you go to a lodge meeting, and through flickering candlelight, you see this two-metre-high representation of the Temple of Solomon, and it’s meant to inspire awe. It’s meant to inspire a sense of Masonry’s mysteries but also of its majesty, and I think that that is one of the key attractions of Freemasonry in the 19th century, is that it offered a respite from the mundane and an opportunity to take part in something that was secret, something that was special, something that was magical.

    TM: What other sort of Masonic items does LAC have in its collection?

    FP: LAC has a very good collection of Masonic published material. There’s a very good library collection of some very rare Masonic books. We have the records of a number of lodges and of individual Masons, of course. This is the only painted tracing board that we have, and in fact, it is probably the oldest board of its kind in Canada. There are other examples somewhat similar to this in American collections, but they’re very, very rare. I know of a couple of other tracing boards in the possession of individual lodges in Ontario that date from perhaps the 1840s, perhaps the 1850s, but nothing as early as the 1810s. This is a very rare item, particularly in a Canadian context.

    TM: Do we know who created or fabricated this particular tracing board?

    FP: We don’t. And this is one of the challenges in researching a lot of this early Masonic material, is that these would be produced on commission, possibly by artists who did other work, and they didn’t necessarily sign their work. There are a series of tracing boards of a similar vintage in various lodges in upstate New York that are similar in that they take their inspiration from that Kensett engraving that I mentioned, that they have the three-storey representation of the Temple of Jerusalem, but they typically have a compass-rose type design that appears on the lower storey, and some scholars of Masonic material culture have suggested that that compass rose is, in fact, a signature, that marks those as having been prepared by the same artist, even though it’s still an anonymous artist; we don’t know who it was.

    In the case of this one, the one particularly unique feature of the LAC tracing board are a number of figures wearing Masonic aprons and hoisting blocks or hoisting squares of stone, using a block and tackle. And they’re visible flanking the sides of the tracing board. That may be a signature. It may be that sometime in the future, a similar board might come up in another collection, that has that same element, and that might suggest who had prepared it. It’s almost certainly from upstate New York.

    We do know that the cost of purchasing this, there was nobody producing them in Canada at the time, and the cost of purchasing this item in 1818 was about 15 colonial pounds, or 60—the exchange rate of the day—about 60 U.S. dollars. And that’s in line with what lodges in the United States were paying for their boards, which suggests that it was coming from an American source. To give listeners a little bit of a sense of what that would be in today’s dollars, that’s over, well over a thousand dollars, for a lodge in a region of the country that at the time was cash-poor. And so this exhausted, they ended up spending about half of their lodge savings on this board, which gives a sense of how important it was to the lodge when they purchased it.

    TM: Do we know when LAC acquired this item?

    FP: It came to LAC in the 1970s, and the successor lodge in Kemptville, which is still in operation, Mount Zion Lodge Number 28 in Kemptville, donated a lot of this older material that had first come to light in the 1890s. When Rideau Lodge went defunct in the 1840s, or went dormant, they transferred a lot of their records and a lot of their regalia to this new lodge in Kemptville; Kemptville was the growing population centre at the time. And the Kemptville Lodge had used some of the material in the intervening years, some of it they had forgotten about completely and had recovered it later in the 19th century. But they had used some of it in the intervening years, and by the 1960s, they were moving from one Masonic hall to another and decided that these materials would be better off in a, at a heritage institution, at an institution that could care for them a little more effectively. And so they donated the items to the then Public Archives of Canada, whence, as I mentioned, some of the physical artifacts were then transferred to what was then the National Museum of Canada, now the Canadian Museum of History.

    TM: Forrest, why do you consider this item a treasure?

    FP: I consider it a treasure for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that it’s very rare. And as a historian, I’m excited to have these glimpses into the process of producing Masonic regalia, the process by which elements of Masonic imagery were diffused from, or taken from particular publications, like the Kensett engraving, and then reinterpreted or reimagined by other artists further afield, and how those ideas and that imagery ends up on the Canadian frontier.

    But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that it was a treasure at the time that it was created. It was, as I’ve mentioned, one of the most expensive purchases that Rideau Lodge 25 ever made. It is something that, it was clearly significant to the lodge, to purchase a very imposing, very expensive, and at the time, cutting-edge representation of Masonic mythology, from a source perhaps quite far afield; they might have imported it from quite some distance.

    And again, that notion that a farmer who was a member of the lodge, coming in from the fields, would see this through candlelight and that it would give him a sense that he was part of something mysterious, something magical. I think that that would have been enough to make it a treasure in its own time.

    TM: Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Forrest Pass. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque and Melissa Beckett for their contributions to this episode.

    The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox, with additional editing and sound design by Tom Thompson.

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    For more information on our podcasts, go to LAC’s homepage and type “podcast” in the search bar in the top right corner and click on the first link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, you can find the email address for the podcast team located at the bottom of the episode page.

Host: Théo Martin, Archivist, Performing Arts Archives

Guest: Forrest Pass, LAC Curator


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