Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Happy Valentine’s Day

puzzle-purse-love-token-c-1790-british-postal-museum-and-archive

Isn’t this a pretty valentine? It’s a handmade “puzzle card” from 1790, on display at the Postal Museum in London. The verse around the edge reads,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

But that’s not all of it. You can see where the heart unfolds. Here is the unfolded paper:

ob-interior-of-the-puzzle-purse-love-token-c-1790
Before printing became economical, greeting cards were made by hand, like the one above. The ancient Egyptians sent affectionate notes on papyrus scrolls; the Germans made woodcarvings; and the Chinese sent New Year blessings on paper, which they invented. Sending greetings on Valentine’s Day came along later, probably in the fifteenth century.

You’ve probably heard the story that this holiday celebrates a priest named Valentine, who was imprisoned for secretly performing wedding ceremonies of Roman soldiers who had been forbidden that act because it took their mind away from their duty. It’s a nice legend, but purely fiction. Roman soldiers were never forbidden to marry, so there was no need of secret ceremonies.

There were actually at least 3 Saints named Valentine (or Valentinus), but the most well-known was a Christian who was said to have passed out hearts cut from parchment paper, with Bible verses about God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation written on them. He was arrested and interrogated, but instead of confessing, he tried to convert his interrogator. For this he was sentenced to death; but, he supposedly performed the miracle of healing the blind daughter of his jailer before his execution, which caused her and 44 others to convert to Christianity. Legend says he had fallen in love with this daughter, and wrote her a farewell letter signed “from your Valentine.”

The earliest known reference to Valentine’s Day comes from a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame). The poem, titled Parliament of Foules (Assembly of Birds), was written in 1382 to celebrate the one year anniversary of King Richard III’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. It describes a dream in which a man is taken into the netherworld, where Nature has assembled all the birds and they are choosing mates. The pertinent lines read,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.)

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Parliament of Foules

It ends with a separate poem welcoming spring which contains these lines:

Saint Valentine, who art throned aloft –
Thus sing the small birds for your sake –
Welcome summer, with your sunshine soft,
That this winter’s tempest does off-shake.

Three other poets mentioned birds choosing mates on Valentine’s Day around the same time as Chaucer, so it was evidently an established tradition; but, there is no record of how this idea began, although some claim that it dates back to the early Roman spring festival of Lupercalia. It was long believed that birds mated for life. Ma Ingalls even told her daughters that, as Carrie later related in a letter of memories. Today, we know that while a feathered couple may bond for a season or longer, monogamous mating for life is pretty rare among them.

The earliest known narrative of a Valentine’s Day celebration is in Charter of the Court of Love issued by Charles VI of France. It describes feasting, music, dancing, poetry, and jousting; but the highlight was the “court” held by royal females, who heard “cases” of lovers’ disputes and ruled on them. There is no official record of such festivities, and it is believed that Charles’ wife, Queen Isabeau, may have created the Charter from her own imaginings.

court

Court of Love festival

The earliest known surviving valentine is a farewell letter written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The original is written in French. Below is the best translation I could find:

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too late,
And I for you was born too soon.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
Well might I have suspected
That such a destiny
Thus would happen this day,
How much love would command.

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.

Personally, I think the “sick of love” (which is also often translated “tired of love”) would be more accurate as “love-sick” or “sick with love.” That may not be the literal meaning of his words, but there are entire books written about how Charles’ works and words are so stylistically unique that they are virtually un-translatable. Love-sick is defined as “missing the person one loves, so much that one is unable to act normally,” and that fits the meaning of the poem more, I believe.

charles

Charles writing in the Tower of London

The earliest extant English-language valentines are two letters written in February,1744 by a young lady letting her suitor know that she was anxious to marry him. Margery Brews wrote to John Paston,

Ryght reverent and wurschypfull, and my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn…

I said it was English, but not that it was modern English. 😉 She goes on to tell him that she’s unwell from anxiety over him, and asks him not to leave her but to come settle the matter with her father, ensuring him that she would still want him even if he had only half his livelihood, and that she would always be true to him.

His reply to her letter is not preserved, but we know he did answer because her next letter, which begins, as before, to Right worshipful and well-beloved Valentine, thanks him for it, and for his promise to “have a conclusion” with her father. She writes that she would be “the happiest creature alive” if it “comes to effect,” but will be “most sorry and full of heaviness” if not.

pastonletter-wl

She also tells him to be prepared that her father will not increase her dowry: “I let you plainly understand that my father will no more money part with in that behalf,” but if he “could be content with that good, and my poor person, I would be the merriest maiden on the ground.” She begs her “good, true, Valentine” to be satisfied so that she may be his “true lover and bedwoman during her life,” and signs it “by your Valentine, Margery.”

Pretty forward for a fifteenth-century lady. Luckily for Margery, her Valentine did have a conclusion with her father.

Here’s another handmade Valentine, from about 1800.

frkphilfreelibfront-copy

The note around edge says,

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain.

Like the first one in this post, this card also unfolds, and a pinwheel gives more love:

My dearest dear and blest divine
I’ve pictured here thy heart and mine

But Cupid with his fatal dart
hath deeply wounded my poor heart

And has betwixt us set a cross
Which makes me lament my loss

But now I hope when this is gone
That our two hearts will join in one.

frk00753f

But wait – there’s more! Unfold further, and the following is revealed.

frkphilfreelib2

The center verse, around the circle and ring of flowers, says:

My heart is true to none but you
My heart I hope you will pursue
The roses and the lillies twine
Since you became my Valentine.

Round is my ring and has no end
So is my love unto my friend

Think of the work it took to make this token of affection!

Here is the oldest extant commercially-printed Valentine’s Day card.

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From 1797 London, the verse (see it along the edge of the garland?) reads,

Since on this ever Happy day
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.

I’ll conclude with this unusual way to let one’s beloved know of one’s feelings – a handkerchief, with love verses printed onto it. It was made in France in 1793.

1793-2-songs-i-chuse-you-for-my-valentine-i-chuse-you-out-of-all-the-rest-because-i-thought-i-liked-you-best

Wilder Wednesday: Drinking from the Saucer

Eliza Jane was more bossy than ever. She said Almanzo’s boots made too much noise. She even told Mother that she was mortified because Father drank tea from his saucer.

“My land! how else would he cool it?” Mother asked.

“It isn’t the style to drink out of saucers any more,” Eliza Jane said. “Nice people drink out of the cup.”

“Eliza Jane!” Alice cried. “Be ashamed! I guess Father’s as nice as anybody!”

Mother actually stopped working. She took her hands out of the dishpan and turned round to face Eliza Jane.

“Young lady,” she said, “if you have to show off your fine education, you tell me where saucers come from.”

Eliza Jane opened her mouth, and shut it, and looked foolish.

“They come from China,” Mother said. “Dutch sailors brought them from China, two hundred years ago, the first time sailors ever sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and found China. Up to that time, people drank out of cups; they didn’t have saucers. Ever since they’ve had saucers, they’ve drunk out of them. I guess a thing that folks have done for two hundred years we can keep on doing. We’re not likely to change, for a new-fangled notion that you’ve got in Malone Academy.”

That shut up Eliza Jane.

~From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

 This was the first, and for a long time, only, reference to drinking from a saucer that I’ve ever come across. Mother Wilder’s history was a bit faulty: Europeans first explored China in the 1516, when the Portuguese explorer (and cousin of Columbus) Rafael Perestrello landed on the southern coast of mainland China and traded in Guangzhou. I think what Mother Wilder had in mind was the United East Indian Company, a Dutch-chartered trading company that had a trade monopoly with China in the 1600s.

 Another reference to drinking from the saucer can be found in Tom Brown’s School Days, a British novel written by Thomas Hughes in 1857:

“Well, I wish I were alongside of him,” said Tom. “If I can’t be at Rugby I want to be at work in the world, and not dawdling away three years at Oxford.”

“What do you mean by ‘at work in the world’?” said the master, pausing, with his lips close to his saucerful of tea, and peering at Tom over it.

“Well, I mean real work; one’s profession; whatever one will have really to do, and make one’s living by. I want to be doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world,” answered Tom, rather puzzled to find out himself what he really did mean.

“You are mixing up two very different things in your head, I think, Brown,” said the master, putting down his empty saucer, “and you ought to get clear about them.”

 Cups and saucers have been used since the Middle Ages, and I could find no definitive answer about whether they drank from the saucer as well as the cup, or when that habit began. But it certainly was common in Russia and Scandinavia for many years. In fact, in Sweden, they not only sipped from the saucer after purposely overfilling the cup, but sipped the beverage through a lump of sugar held in the front teeth, a custom called “dricka på bit” or “drink with a lump.” While there are people who remember their elderly, usually rural, ancestors drinking this way, it seems to have fallen out of favor in the 20th century. It was still a common enough practice in 1914 to be portrayed in a painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

 tea-drinking-by-konstantin-makovsky-1914

Drinking from the saucer was not confined to Europe. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson returned from France to find Congress organized into two parts, he asked George Washington why there needed to be a Senate. Washington answered with another question: “Why do you pour tea into your saucer?” Jefferson answered, “To cool it.” “Just so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” See, the Federal Convention felt that the members of the House were too emotional, so the Senate was formed to have “cooler heads” prevail. This story is anecdotal, but does show that using the saucer to cool the tea was a familiar custom here in America.

I’ll leave you with a poem by John Paul Moore:

 Drinking From The Saucer

I’ve never made a fortune,
And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter
‘Cause I’m happy anyhow

As I go along my journey
I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

I don’t have a lot of riches,
And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me
I think I’m rich enough

I thank God for the blessings
That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

He gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for
I’m already blessed enough

May we never be too busy
To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer
When our cups have overflowed

Masonic Monday: French Chefs

A friend sent me this link recently. It’s an article that looks into the claim that all the best French chefs are Freemasons, and they keep non-Masons from advancing in the culinary field. It’s a good example of some of the rumors that abound about Freemasons. As the author of the article discovers (spoiler!), although some top chefs in France and around the world are Masons, many others aren’t, and some won’t say either way. Whatever their status within or out of the fraternity, it has no bearing on their culinary skill or whether they support those attempting to rise in the industry.

There are other theories about Freemasons that are a bit more ambiguous. For example, history-inspired friends have told me that after reading Little Lodges, they began noticing how many founders – of cities or counties, states, and even our country – were Masons. Sometimes they wonder if that’s evidence that Freemasons want to take over the world.

picture1Picture6.pngIt’s true that many founders belonged to the fraternity, but in a way that’s like saying, “Most of the founders had brown hair, so brunette men must want to take over the world.” During the peak of Masonic membership, most men did belong to the Lodge. It was an opportunity for working-class men to become acquainted and socialize with those who were powerful and influential. So belonging to that ancient organization was almost as common as having brown hair (among men, that is – no women allowed).

But in another way, it’s not entirely coincidental that Masonry counted in its membership so many men who were also men of power and influence. The tenets of the fraternity focus on improving society as well as self – ideals that one wanting to establish schools and law and other necessities of civilization would naturally be interested in. Add in the fact that a man beset with scandals could have neither joined the Lodge or advanced his career, and it’s not surprising that movers and shakers were often Freemasons – whether they had brown hair or not.

Wilder Wednesday – Color-coding Children

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked down her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids! She and Mary looked at each other and did not say a word. Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown…“Oh dear!” Ma exclaimed. “I put the wrong ribbons on Laura’s hair!” “It’ll never be noticed on a trotting horse!” said Pa. So Laura knew she could wear the blue ribbons.  ~On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A friend recently turned me on to Sarah Albee’s blog, which I’ve been enjoying. Not long ago, she posted about the trend of gender-specific colors, which you probably know is a relatively recent development. I wanted to know why these trends developed, and found some interesting theories.

It was around the mid-1910s that colors were “assigned” to specific genders. Before that, both genders were usually dressed the same. Same styles and same color – white, for a very practical reason: the inevitable stains could be bleached out. But some market-minded person realized that if mothers could be persuaded to dress their children in colors, there would be more sales; and if the genders had different styles – including different colors – that would be even more sales (succeeding children of a different gender couldn’t wear the older sibling’s clothing). For some time, there was no consensus on what those colors should be, but eventually pink and blue took over.

Pink was designated as the color for boys, and blue for girls. It is supposed that this selection was influenced by Renaissance art, which usually depicted the Virgin Mary in blue and the Christ child in pink. Blue has traditionally been associated with the heavens and purity, and thus appropriate for females, who were viewed as more virtuous. Pink is a derivative of red, a bold and aggressive color, so it was suited for masculinity. Trade publications of the fashion industry promoted these choices, along with other differentiations such as that blue was flattering for blue-eyed blonds and pink for brown-eyed brunettes. This encouraged more sales among even same-gendered children.

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Timing begs the question, did Laura’s story of the ribbons actually happen? Or was it inspired by the fashion of the day that she was writing? Perhaps it could be read as an indictment of silly fashion trends – why on earth shouldn’t she enjoy ribbons of blue, or any other color, just because her hair was brown? Or perhaps the opposite: showing children that there have always been social norms to which they should conform. This scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek could be polysemantic. Or maybe it’s just a fun scene. What do you think?

So when and why did pink and blue switch genders? Theories abound, ranging from nursery rhymes to Hitler. Some believe that verses such as “Little Boy Blue” brought the change. Others claim that the purple triangle assigned to homosexuals under the Nazi regime led to the color being thought of as feminine, and then lightened to pink for female children. Still others mention the influence of “battleship gray” and “navy blue” in World War II in identifying blue with boys. There is no real evidence for any of these theories.

During the 1940s, an advertising company surveyed sales of several large department stores across the country. They concluded, based on what customers chose, that boys preferred blue and girls preferred pink. (It would probably be more correct to say that parents preferred blue for boys and pink for girls, but this is not definitive since we don’t know to what extent parents let the children do the choosing.) Manufacturers adjusted accordingly.

After a time of mostly unisex clothing during the ‘70s, coinciding with the women’s lib movement, the pink-for-girls-blue-for-boys came back with a vengeance in the ‘80s. It seems this stems in part from the homophobic idea, now understood to be incorrect but for centuries held as incontrovertible, of gender as binary.  The phobia was (is?) so deep-rooted that it was deemed insulting not to know at a glance whether an infant or young child was male or female, but of course one can’t know without some added contrivance – like color-coding.

Recently, there has again been movement away from “gender-appropriate” color. I wonder what Laura would think.

Wilder Wednesday – The Dark Side of Old Dan Tucker

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie series of books.

“Play, Ingalls!” he said. “Play me down the road!” So while he went down the creek road and out of sight, Pa played, and Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might,
“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man;
He washed his face in the frying-pan,
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
And died of the toothache in his heel…”
Far over the prairie rang Pa’s big voice and Laura’s little one, and faintly from the creek bottoms came a last whoop from Mr. Edwards.
“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his supper!”

~Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Ingalls family loved music, most often supplied by Pa’s fiddle. Laura recorded dozens of songs that the family enjoyed. One of these is Old Dan Tucker, more strongly associated with Little House on the Prairie due to the character of Mr. Edwards, who sang it often on the TV show.

The song dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. It is not certain who wrote it, although it is often attributed to Dan Emmett (who also wrote Dixie). It is certain that his blackface troupe Virginia Minstrels made it popular.

Wait…did I just say “blackface?” Yes, I did, and that term should be explained for those unfamiliar with it. Merriam-Webster defines it as “makeup applied to a performer playing a black person, especially in a minstrel show; also: a performer wearing such makeup.” What the definition does not say is that blackface minstrel theater was more than just makeup; it was an exaggerated, stereotypical portrayal of caricaturized black people, meant to be humorous. (I’ll discuss minstrel shows, including Pa’s – Pa’s! – participation in one, more in a future post.)

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

In the case of Old Dan Tucker, the original words were written to be performed by a troupe, with some verses sung – and acted out, an essential ingredient in minstrels – by “Dan” and other verses sung by other members as observers of Dan’s antics. Despite some claims to the contrary, there is no doubt that Dan was supposed to be black. The vernacular of the song, particularly Dan’s own verses, was overplayed Black English (now often called Ebonics). An early playbill calls the show “a Virginian Refrain, in which is described the ups and downs of Negro life.”

It was the usual practice for blackface troupes to portray people of color as ignorant and uncouth, or worse. Old Dan Tucker, according to the 1843 lyrics (which can be found at the end of this post), was a fighting, drunken glutton who had no sense of, or didn’t care about, social mores. He sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, as a child might, which is to further show his simple-mindedness. Part of the appeal of this portrayal is that it allowed “lower class” whites to poke fun at the culture of the “upper class” in an analogous way, as opposed to outright finger-pointing, which would only further cement their own lesser-mannered class.

It is important to note that both black and white performers used blackface. Black minstrel performers often satirized the behavior of whites, including their racist attitudes, and promoted abolition. By the 1870s, white minstrel shows were giving up blackface (often incorporating other ethnic stereotypes, such as the blarney-filled, drunken Irishman, or greedy, conniving Jews, instead) and black performers were taking over blackface theater. Some African Americans saw it as a means of spreading their own culture, while others realized that it was a much easier way to earn a living than most avenues available to them (which was mostly menial labor). This does not, of course, excuse the caricaturizations of black people by white minstrel performers in blackface.

Old Dan Tucker was immediately successful and became a popular song across the country. In fact, it was one of the top 3 most popular songs in 1843, thanks in large part to the Virginia Minstrels.

Virginia_Minstrels,_1843

However, its lyrics did not remain static. Performers added, deleted, and changed verses as it suited them. Hundreds of different versions have been recorded. Some of these promoted specific causes; for example, in 1844 a group called the Hutchinson Family Singers turned it into “a song for emancipation” with abolitionist lyrics. Other versions were designed to eliminate the racist portrayal of blacks and convert it into a generic, fun tune.

That is how we today think of Old Dan Tucker. Its history should not make us shun the song, but learn from it. Let its modernized verses bring to mind Mr. Edwards and his helpfulness and neighborliness – to everyone, regardless of their race or color – and enjoy it as an entertaining bit of Americana. Here’s a mix of that version.

What do you think? Does the dark history of Old Dan Tucker change how you think about the song? Should it?

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1843 sheet music for Old Dan Tucker

1843 Lyrics of OLD DAN TUCKER as sung by the Virginia Minstrels

I come to town de udder night,
I hear de noise an saw de fight,
De watchman was a runnin roun,
Cryin Old Dan Tucker’s come to town.

Gran’ Chorus:
So get out de way! Get out de way!
Get out de way! Old Dan Tucker.
Your too late to come to supper.

Tucker is a nice old man,
He use to ride our darby ram,
He sent him wizzen down de hill,
If he hadn’t got up he’d lay dar still.

Gran’ Chorus.

Here’s my razor in good order,
Magnum bonum—jis had bought ‘er,
Sheep sell oats, Tucker shell de corn,
I’ll shabe you soon as de water get warm.

Gran’ Chorus.

Old Dan Tucker an I got drunk,
He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk,
De charcoal got inside he shoe,
Lor bless you honey how de ashes flew.

Gran’ Chorus.

Down de road foremost de stump,
Massa make me work de pump;
I pump so hard I broke de sucker,
Dar was work for ole Dan Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

I went to town to buy some goods
I lost myself in a piece of woods,
De night was dark I had to suffer,
It froze de heel of Daniel Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

Tucker was a hardened sinner,
He nebber said his grace at dinner;
De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squal
He ‘hole hog wid de tail and all.

Gran’ Chorus.

Masonic Monday – The Quick and Dirty Lowdown on Freemasonry

Masonic Monday is a series that discusses a bit of Freemasonry each week, from famous members to strange rituals.

I’ve been asked to explain what Freemasonry is. There have been volumes written about this, so one blog post can’t do justice to the subject. But, so that Henscratches readers will better understand the “Masonic Monday” posts, I offer this “quick-and-dirty lowdown,” excerpted and condensed from Little Lodges on the Prairie. Feel free to ask any question, or leave any other thoughts, in the comment section.

Legend holds that the organization began with the stone masons who worked on King Solomon’s Temple almost a thousand years before the Christian era. Only masons of the most upright character were allowed to work on that holiest of buildings. To ensure that only the deserving would have a place at the construction site, they devised secret words and phrases to convey the trade secrets of their craft to deserving masons, and keep those secrets from masons who were not deemed worthy and from persons who were not masons.

Although there are no records supporting this theory, we know there were stone mason societies in existence in Europe from long before the Templars’ time; extant records date them as early as 643 A.D. From these documents, we know that societies of masons existed, that they had instructions in behavior, and that they had rituals and secret words. These masons were the ones who built the great cathedrals and castles of the medieval period. The headquarters for the stone masons at a large building site was a smaller building or tent nearby known as the lodge. In the lodge, the craftsmen received their orders from the supervising master mason and met to discuss the technicalities of their work; it was also the place they could rest and eat.

Suppose you are a stone mason living in 1200 A.D. You have heard that a large castle is being built in Exeter, so you journey there, seeking work. When you arrive, no one there knows you. You find the supervising (master) mason and ask if there is a place for you to work. The master can make his decision in one of several ways. He can just look at you and make a decision. Quick, but not very reliable. He can ask you to sculpt something, to prove that you know what you’re doing and see your level of skill for himself. Reliable, but not very quick. Or, he can ask you for the secret words and signs. Since you had belonged to a society of masons previously, you know secret words and signs which instantly let the master know that you are trustworthy, that you have vowed to follow certain behaviors and work ethics, and how skilled you are (since there were different words for masters, craftsmen, and apprentices). Quick and reliable. Which do you think the master would most like to use?

This is the origin of Masonic Lodges, with their rituals and secrets. They were “operative masons,” that is, working masons by trade, and the oaths and signs and secret words had a practical purpose in the trade at that time.

Toward the end of the Gothic era and the beginning of the Renaissance, there was less physical building and more emphasis on enlightenment and intellectual growth, meaning less work for trade masons and, therefore, a decline in their membership. So, Lodges began to admit non-masons as honorary members. They only accepted into a Lodge men who were deemed worthy in regard to their moral behavior and who, in harmony with the new ideals of the enlightenment, wanted to work in cooperation with other men to create not only a better Lodge society, but also a better society at large. Also in harmony with the times, when symbolism of all types was enjoying a spurt of popularity, signs and symbols were used to reinforce the teachings. Naturally, these signs and symbols were drawn from the trade mason’s craft.

The non-mason men who were initiated into Lodges were known as speculative masons. Before long, speculative masons began to outnumber operative masons. By the early 1700s, so many Lodges were made up of mostly “accepted” speculative Masons, with only a few true “free” operative masons, that the leaders began to see the need for some sort of means to keep them unified in their rituals, words, and so forth. So in 1717, on the 24th of June, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (also called the Premier Grand Lodge of England) was organized.
As the ultimate authority, its leaders established the ritual and set some basic tenets to which all Lodges had to conform in order to be recognized as a true Masonic Lodge.

In outlining the tenets of the society, the Grand Lodge drew inspiration from the tolerance, unity, and advancement of intellectual pursuits promoted by the enlightenment. The founding principles were liberty, equality, and peace. Charity, beginning within the Lodge, Mason to Mason, but also extending outside the Lodge to any in need, was also an important precept.

Today, Freemasonry is said to be the oldest and largest fraternity in the world. There are approximately five million members worldwide; about half of those are in the United States. Within the organization, all members are equal as individuals; there is no recognition of social status or class among them. The Masonic term is “on the level,” and it means that a lowly laborer may meet with the President of the United States, and while in the Lodge, the President has no more prominence as a person than the laborer — they are equal as brothers. Although an office in the Lodge, such as that of Worshipful Master, may be a higher office, the individual in the office remains on the level with the other members.

The requirements for membership are simple, yet meaningful. The first three requirements are to be free, male, and adult. Much of ritual Masonry depends on the obligations made, which has always been considered a contract. Slaves, females, and children were not able to act in legal capacities, and this is what precluded them from membership. In addition, children must answer to parents, slaves to owners, and – in those days – wives to husbands; thus, none of them had complete control of their own actions, and might therefore be unable to fulfill a commitment made. Furthermore, women and children were not stone masons in ancient times. As Freemasonry builds on the Old Charge landmarks of masonic guilds, these membership requirements remain as they were in those days. A man must also hold a belief in a Supreme Being, and be of high moral character.

Many people believe Masonry is a religion. This is a misconception. Freemasonry is a fraternity, not a religion. A Mason may be of any religion or faith, as long as he is not an atheist. One reason confusion exists about the nature of the organization is the spiritual aspect of the fraternity. Faith is an important value in Freemasonry. Masons are admonished to seek the blessing of Deity before commencing any important undertaking. Furthermore, they are instructed to diligently study the Sacred Law; however, during Lodge meetings, no religious dogma or creed may be advanced, nor any political agenda. The meetings are “no religion or politics” zones, as Lodges are to promote unity, not discord.

Freemasonry is sometimes mistakenly called a “secret society,” but Masonry is not a secret at all. Everyone knows about it, and its Lodges are brazenly marked. It is instead a society with secrets. Supposedly, anyway; there really aren’t that many secrets. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1730, “Their Grand Secret is That they have no Secret at all.” In these modern days of the information superhighway, there is more truth to his statement than Franklin would have thought possible.

Why does the fraternity have secrets at all? Remember that in the beginning there was a practical purpose for the secret words and signs: to convey, without the time, effort and cost of actually sculpting something, a mason’s level of skill and trustworthiness in a time when there was no other means to do so.

The secret works (signs, words, and rituals) used today are symbolic of this trustworthiness. If a man cannot keep a mere word or hand signal secret, how is he to be trusted with your business, your wife, or anything else of importance? The ability to know that a fellow Mason will treat you honestly in business, care for your wife or widow, keep his word, and render aid when needed: these were — and remain — important characteristics within the Lodge.
The secret words and signs also give Masons a means to identify one another, and know upon meeting that this is a brother Mason, who has taken an oath which includes helping fellow Masons or their family if needed. It may be easy to overlook the importance of this, but to those living in times or places that make it difficult to know who can be trusted, such as in Nazi Germany, these secret words and signs can mean safety or even life.

The goal of Freemasonry is, as it was in days of old, building. Today Masons are building not structures and a physical society, but rather character and a better communal society. The stated aim of the fraternity is “making good men better.” The organization seeks to meet this goal by focusing on lessons that strengthen relationships; promote honesty and brotherly love; and encourage education, tolerance, and charity.

This is accomplished by learning from the ancient wisdom of the craft of masonry, and defined by degrees, or stages of advancement within the society, which represent movement from darkness and ignorance to light and knowledge. The steps through the degrees include self-examination, determination of values, resolution to keep those values, and making all actions consistent with them. The lessons of each degree are taught through ritual dramas in which the initiate takes part in acting out various scenes from the building of King Solomon’s Temple. The continual use of signs and symbols from those dramatic rituals reinforces the lessons.

Probably the most widely recognized symbols in Freemasonry are the square and compasses. In the craft of masonry, the square is a tool with an angle of 90 degrees, and is used to ensure that the edges of a stone subtend the same angle for accuracy. In the Craft of Masonry, the square symbolizes morality, truthfulness, and honesty; the duties of a Mason to his Brothers and neighbors. Masons are obliged to square their actions by the square of virtue. The symbolism of the square has become so ingrained that it has become common to speak of “a square deal” for any honest transaction. There are many more such symbols used in the character building lessons of the Craft. These symbols remind Masons of their obligation to apply the associated value lessons in their daily lives.

The fraternity is benevolent in nature, and another time I’ll discuss this aspect. It’s truly awesome.

LauraPalooza recap – Part 2

The second day of LauraPalooza lived up to the expectation set by the first day. The opening presentation was by William Anderson, preeminent LIW researcher, who announced his forthcoming book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. From the earliest existing letter written by Laura (to the Eastern Star chapter in De Smet, and which is also included in my book Little Lodges on the Prairie) to the last, this book will be the last words of Laura that we’ll have. I’m really looking forward to it.

Then Julie Miller gave a moving presentation about her life on an Iowa Century Farm. She experienced many of the same things Laura did.

Eddie Higgins of the UK talked about her experience reading the Little House books across the sea, and some of the things that didn’t make sense due to differences in British English from American, and things that are just unfamiliar across the sea.

Did Pa get suspenders or braces for Christmas? It depends on where you live!

Did Pa get suspenders or braces for Christmas? It depends on where you live!

The next two presenters also had some of those same issues. Hisayo Ogushi and Yumiko Taniguchi are both from Japan, and spoke of the influence of Laura in that country and the translation of the books into Japanese.

We had another wonderful lunch, during which John Miller spoke of Laura as a Midwesterner.

After lunch, there were hand-on workshops. Choosing among crafts, woodworking, and writing was probably difficult from some people, but of course I went straight to “Write Your Own Little House Story” with Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. She led us in exercises to enhance creativity in writing, using our experiences with the Little House books.

The afternoon presentations dealt with addiction in the 1800s, finances and well-being, Charles Ingalls’ time in Illinois, and the similarities of the Little House books to fairytales. All were interesting and informative.

After the last presentation, I went to supper with four friends.

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We spent 4 hours visiting, and laughed so hard we cried (I did, at least – and I know I saw a couple of them wiping their eyes a few times, too). And there was still the field trip to come!

Saturday was spent in De Smet. We were split into smaller groups; my group went first to the Ingalls home built by Pa on 3rd Street. The staff was gracious enough to allow Julie Miller and Kevin Pearce to play a duet on the pump organ and violin, and we all sang Pa’s favorite song, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”

Julie Miller and Kevin Pearce played "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."

Julie Miller and Kevin Pearce played “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”

The rest of the group then went on to the surveyor’s house and the first school in De Smet, but I broke off (I’ve been to those locations several times) and went to the Masonic Lodge to see if I could help set up for a special Eastern Star program that was going to be held later in the afternoon. It ended up being much smaller than anticipated; the driver of a group that was coming from out of town injured his foot at the last minute and had to go to the emergency room, so that group didn’t make it. Still, it was nice to visit with those who were there and talk a little about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Eastern Star.

As an added bonus, a few of my group from LauraPalooza came by and got to view a few special items: the original copy of that earliest letter that Laura wrote mentioned above, along with an original letter written by Carrie and one written by Grace; Pa’s original petition to join the Eastern Star; the actual minutes of the meeting at which Laura joined the Eastern Star; and the sword Pa used as Tyler of the Masonic Lodge.

Letters written by Laura, Carrie, and Grace, and Pa's petition to the Eastern Star.

Letters written by Laura, Carrie, and Grace, and Pa’s petition to the Eastern Star.

A few "LauraPaloozers" got to hold the sword Pa used as Tyler of the De Smet Masonic Lodge.

A few “LauraPaloozers” got to hold the sword Pa used as Tyler of the De Smet Masonic Lodge.

I snuck in a cemetery tour with Nancy Cleaveland. Later, I met up with my little group again for the pageant. We had fun at the photo board, even though the sun was shining right in our eyes.

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The pageant was the last activity. We said our goodbyes, but we’re all on social media so we can keep in touch until LauraPalooza 2017. And who knows, maybe we’ll meet up at a LIW site or somewhere before that. Here’s hoping.

Even though the conference was over, my adventure wasn’t. Stay tuned!