Everybody knows that the Masons wear aprons. Well…everybody that knows about fraternal matters knows that. But not many people realize that a a wide array of fraternal organizations, both in the US and abroad, have worn aprons as part of their ritual garb.
It’s a common mistake of Freemasons to just assume that, “they copied that from us.” The facts may be quite different. Going back, we can trace other equally old groups in the UK and Ireland that have worn aprons for an extremely long time. The Order of Free Gardeners, for instance, which is identifiable coevally with the pre-Grand Lodge Masons in Scotland (late 17th C), wore aprons. The style of their aprons was longer than the typical styles found in Freemasonry. When you spend your day kneeling in a garden, you need something that falls below the knee! And it makes complete sense that there would be other orders with aprons or apron-like garments. We can trace a number of to-be fraternal orders out of the misty meeting places of early trade unions and incorporations (as they were known in Scotland). These orders will have brought with them for the ride, the emblems of the earlier trade that inform the ritual of the later order. That will include aprons in a number of contexts, I imagine.
In some cases, however, there does seem to be a very purposeful copying of Masonic emblems and styles in the use of the apron. One notable example is with the Ancient and Illustrious Order Knights of Malta, whose apron can be seen here in my collection. The AIOK of M were, as their name implies, a “knighthood” fraternity, styling themselves somewhat loosely after one of the several organizations that emerge from the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation who use the same terms for themselves. The original Sovereign Military Order of Malta was a successor order to the Hospitallers, who themselves soaked up the men and money of the crushed Templars. The AIOK of M probably tie themselves to the Order of St. John—Protestant schismatics from the original Papal Military Order—as the AIOK of M were a notably anti-Catholic organization. (cf. private correspondence with S. Anthony, November 2012.) Their regalia is almost indistinguishable from the Knights Templar of the York Rite. The most glaring difference between the two is that AIOK of M wore rectangular aprons, and KTs wore triangular aprons (when they did, these days they don’t wear aprons at all). Otherwise, the black late 18th C. military uniforms with silver decorations, chapeaus, the Maltese cross emblem, the red cross emblem, the skull and crossbones, and even their motto, “In Hoc Signo Vinces”, are nearly identical. The best way to tell an AIOK of M item from at KT item is that the AIO places eagles between the arms of their Maltese cross, whereas the KTs don’t.
Additionally, the Odd Fellows also wore aprons for a very long time, although they don’t any more. It is recorded in the Complete Manual of Oddfellowship that at least as early as 1797 the Oddfellows utilized aprons, which were given to relieve the nakedness of an initiate, and were meant to recount and symbolize the covering of their own naked bodies by Adam and Eve in the garden. Oddfellows aprons are very widely varied in type, shape, format, and decoration. When they have a flap on the front, it is almost always a rounded flap, or even a double-lobed flap, rather imitating a hanging garland in its form. Sometimes they have no flap at all. They have tended to be extremely colorful, and perhaps more composed in a heraldic sense overall than their older Masonic counterparts (which have a tendency toward a scattershot of emblems reminiscent of tracing boards). Cloth applique is not uncommon, often with borders of colorful or tartan cloth added as framing devices. It was very common on Oddfellow aprons to print the leather with an engraving plate, and then add hand coloring and other elaborations. Reports of such elaborate finery holds up and makes good sense considering that early reports of Oddfellow parades, going back to the early days of the order, when it can be distinguished and discovered in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, mention the group as having a particular penchant for a florid excess of color and decoration. (cf. Victoria Solt Denis, Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies. pp.90,91) In what year the Oddfellows stopped wearing aprons—perhaps due to a change in the ritual that referenced them?—I am not certain. Images from just past the turn of the 20th Century show the apron disappearing. There have been quite a few different Oddfellows groups through history, it was a notably schismatic community through the 19th C, and different obediences probably retained their aprons for different periods of time. I bought this IOOF apron because of its beautiful blue field and the colorful contrasting appliqué band around the border. It is a more unusual style of apron for the Odd Fellows, and if the bullion decorations weren’t as precise as they are, I would suspect that it was home-made, rather than commercial.
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, or more commonly just “the Elks” wore lambskin aprons for the first 30 years or so of their existence as a fraternity, but the apron was the first of the (almost surely Odd Fellow or Freemason-inspired) fraternal “secret society” aspects of their ritual and function to be done away with, around 1895.
Ultimately it is the Masons, and the constellation of orders that revolve around the Blue Lodge, that have been the ultimate wearers of aprons. Every Mason is presented with his lambskin during his degrees, and no Mason can be in Lodge without a properly situated apron, depending on their degree and station. The two primary appendant bodies in the US, the York Rite and the Scottish Rite, also make extensive use of very particularly decorated aprons in their panoply of degrees. The only York Rite body that does not wear an apron—which makes historical sense, as their allegories stem from times quite apart from the overall Masonic narratives—are the Knights Templar, and even they have occasionally worn aprons. The drill teams (precision marching units) of certain KT Commandries have in times past worn a triangular black apron, trimmed in silver and with silver memento mori emblems on them. These are not regulation to the Templar uniform, however, and seem to have been completely discontinued. (cf. personal conversation with Dickie Winchester, Rt. Em. Gr. Cmdr. of the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar of New Mexico, April 2013)
I collected this Masonic apron recently. The fact that it is an older piece from a New Mexico Lodge made it very attractive to me, to begin with. But as I looked more closely at it, at the hand-calligraphed inscription beneath the flap, I knew I had to have it. Because it’s wrong! Well, that gives a skewed impression. The jurisdictional notation of F&AM is incorrect: New Mexico is an “Ancient” state, we are AF&AM Masons. A nerdy detail which of course made this intensely interesting to me. It is either the work of an indifferent calligrapher, or it could be a purposeful jab of sorts, as the Lodge in Silver City actually stood in revolt against the formation of the Grand Lodge of New Mexico in 1877. They preferred to unite with the Grand Lodge of Arizona, which would have made them an F&AM Lodge.
So, in the end, some orders are aping the Masons…by wearing aprons. Others are not. In the case of the Odd Fellows, Gardeners and other much older groups, I would put forth the totally unsubstantiated theory that similarities—especially in the earliest days of what we now consider to be fraternal orders—might have arisen because they were drawing on common source material. References to the Temple of Solomon would have been common throughout intellectual circles in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. An image like the All-Seeing Eye might well have been ubiquitous in esoteric symbology of the era. (I will remind us that the Seal of the United States is not a Masonic image, and it uses the All-Seeing Eye!) Similarly, such accoutrements as aprons might have been used by an array of orders in those pro to-fraternal days because such garb might have already been in use by the orders and societies that spawned the groups we now lump together as Fraternal.
Regardless, they are magnificent billboards, are they not?