When faced with the resources that the Smithsonian Institution can muster, even the most mysterious objects will usually surrender their secrets. At the National Museum of American History, curators and conservators had given the “third degree” to a Masonic apron that was said to have belonged to George Washington, and the findings were not promising. All signs pointed to an apron that had been designed and made in the early 1800s, decades after the nation’s most famous Freemason had died in December of 1799. Still, much of the evidence straddled the 18th and 19th centuries. In the hopes of a definitive answer, we turned to the laboratory.
The apron’s owner gave temporary custody to the museum and permission for closer inspection. Curatorial staff again examined the artifact, this time in the well-equipped textile laboratory in the Division of Home and Community Life. The apron was taken out of its shadow-box frame and removed from the velvet-lined backing board. Helena Wright and Joan Boudreau, curators with the museum’s print collections, confirmed that the design was a product of intaglio printing. Textile curator Kathy Dirks took tiny fiber samples from several areas in order to analyze the apron’s construction. She examined each sample under the microscope and noted the following:
- The body of the apron was a satin weave silk, known to be a good surface for textile prints.
- The light blue ribbon border was of plain weave “slight” silk. This was a common material used in both the 18th and 19th centuries.
- The sewing thread used throughout the piece was two ply silk. This type of thread was used for sewing silk fabrics throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Still nothing conclusive but there was one part of the apron left to examine—the backing fabric. It appeared to be original, with no areas of patching or replacement. When Kathy examined the sample fibers, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. The backing fabric was all cotton weave, common to the 19th century. An 18th century backing would most likely be a linen-cotton blend or an all linen weave. More importantly, the backing fabric was machine woven. This put the date of manufacture no earlier than 1815. We had our answer. When Thomas Hammond purchased Washington’s Masonic apron in 1802, it wasn’t this one.
The apron under the microscope. Top left: Satin weave silk making up the body of the apron. Top right: Plain weave “slight” silk of the ribbon border. Bottom left: Two ply silk used as sewing thread. Bottom right: Machine woven cotton weave of the apron’s backing.
The story doesn’t end there. Although the Washington connection was now gone, it had served an important purpose. The apron had been prized by the donor’s family for generations, carefully mounted and stored. The ribbon border was complete and the strings were intact. The colors were not heavily faded. Ok, so it wasn’t Washington’s, but we now had the opportunity to accept a beautifully preserved printed Masonic apron dating to around 1820.
While the museum certainly holds many objects related to important and famous individuals, most of the collections consist of artifact that reflect the lives of everyday Americans, objects that can often open a window to understanding the larger currents and themes of the nation’s history. This apron touches on several aspects of a young America—expanding printing and textile industries, classical influence in the decorative arts of the Federal period, and the growth of fraternal societies. In the first two decades of the 19th century alone, American membership in Freemasonry increased from 16,000 to over 80,000—around 5% of the adult male population. With all this in mind, we asked that the owner still consider a donation and, thankfully, the apron is now part of the fraternal collections here at the National Museum of American History. I think Brother Washington would approve.
Tim Winkle is an associate curator with the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.