Today, Craddock’s handcrafted aprons are a rarity. But throughout much of the history of U.S. Masonry, they were the norm.
In the mid-18th century, Masonic aprons in the U.S. were
larger, designed simply to look like a stonemason’s apron. Then,
influenced by French Masonry, they began to incorporate elaborate decorations, usually embroidered or hand-painted.
By the turn of the 19th century, aprons were being custom-made in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Production
was purely artisan-driven. Much of the time, it was a side
business – a sign or billboard painter by day would decorate
aprons by night, or a Mason’s wife might do the embroidering
and hand-painting. As a result, there was no such thing as a
“Not all apron makers were trained artists, although some
definitely were,” says Adam Kendall, collections manager for
the Henry W. Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry. “Each
[apron] style was commensurate of the maker’s skill and inter-
pretation of Masonic iconography.”
The museum houses several noteworthy examples. One
apron, dated 1821, belonged to influential American Freemason
Giles Fonda Yates. According to Kendall, Yates – an artist him-
self – likely drew the design and contracted a printer to make
an engraving plate. Another two aprons, circa 1800, came
from a group of German Americans. “They illustrate American
Masonic symbolism through German eyes,” says Kendall.
Kendall refers to these aprons as “seldom-explored examples
of folk art.” After all, the selection of symbols, the materials
used, and the style of adornment all say something about the
wearer, the maker, and the historical period.
But as the 19th century crept on, the Industrial Revolution
ushered in a culture of mechanization. At the same time, fraternal societies like the Freemasons were booming, creating a huge
demand for regalia.
“They were cranking out aprons as quickly as possible,”
Craddock says. “Instead of choosing an apron shape, size, and
design, you’d get a laborer off the street, pay him minimum
wage, and give him a template.”
Craddock believes that the standard
apron worn by Masons today was popu-
larized as a convenient design for mass
production. Today, most members aren’t
even aware of a time when aprons were
handcrafted. It’s his goal to turn that around.
A badge with meaning
The Masonic apron is often one of the first gifts
presented to a candidate when he joins a lodge,
and it’s considered the badge of a Mason.