Monday, April 04, 2011

Washington's Apron?

This is a fun series from the National Museum of American History's Blog - it looks at a possible donation of a Masonic apron supposedly belonging to George Washington - but is it really?
Curators here at the National Museum of American History are regularly offered objects associated with famous celebrities or historical figures from America’s past. There is an obligation on our part to do what we can to confirm the connections to important persons before we consider acquiring such donations. From the standpoint of American history, they don’t come much bigger than George Washington and recently the Museum was offered the chance to acquire a true rarity – a Masonic apron that was said to belong to the First President. The first question –- was this fact or fiction?

This apron had no real provenance, but there was enough to raise the possibility:

It is well established that George Washington was a member of the Freemasons, a fraternal society that had reached America from Great Britain by the 1720’s. He became a member of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in 1753 at the age of 20, and would serve as the master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 in 1788. Five years later, while serving as President, he led the Masonic ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new United States Capitol. As a Mason, he would have owned at least one apron, perhaps more. These aprons are worn at Masonic meetings, called lodges, as well as at public ceremonies and serve to identify the wearer as a member of the fraternity, a link to the leather work aprons worn by stone masons of the Middle Ages.

The apron itself had no documentation to support the claim, only the donor’s family traditions. But this was no mere family legend that could be shrugged off as wishful thinking. The donor was a descendant of Thomas Hammond, a veteran of the Revolution and had married Washington’s niece, Mildred. This raised a real possibility that apron could well be Washington’s own.

So the first step was checking out the apron:

As there was no documentary evidence to support the donor’s family tradition that George Washington had once owned it, the key would be in dating the apron. Place it between 1752 (the year he became a Freemason) and 1799 (the year of his death) and there would be at least a possibility the apron could have been Washington’s. There was doubt about this, even at first glance, but as curators inspected the apron more closely, a firm date remained elusive.

Textile curators and conservators immediately determined that the apron was made of silk. Silk Masonic aprons do exist before 1800, but they became far more common in the 19th century. Curators specializing in printing history pointed out that the design was printed on the silk rather than painted or drawn. This technique, called intaglio, involves printing with ink on an engraved plate or roller. Intaglio printing was indeed practiced in the late 18th century, but is more widespread after 1800, especially in Masonic aprons.

Then comes more in depth examination:

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.

So it's not Washington's, but it is still a beautifully printed and preserved apron, dating to around 1820.

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