A little known Masonic apron believed to have been George Washington's was unveiled at the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, and Gardens on February 19, 2011. Owned by Mount Nebo Lodge No. 91 Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the apron is on public display in Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center until May 19, 2011. Presiding Master of the lodge, George Alwin said, "In commemoration of the bicentennial in 2011 of Mt Nebo Lodge, we are pleased to loan this national treasure to Mt Vernon. It has been our honor to preserve this important piece of Masonic history in our lodge."
The apron's origins and how it came into Brother Washington's possession are subjects of ongoing research. According to Mt. Nebo Lodge history, the apron was a gift to General Washington from the Masonic Grand Lodge of France. Marquis Lafayette was said to have conveyed it to Washington in 1784 when Lafayette returned to America and visited Mt. Vernon. By design, symbolism and construction the apron is indeed French. The crossed U.S. and French Bourbon flags date the apron after 1776 and before 1789. The apron lacks Washington and French Masonic documentation but this may be due to revolutions, wars and Nazi occupation over the last 230 years.
The apron's known history begins after George Washington's death in 1799. The inventory of his estate, compiled in early 1800, lists among the contents of his Study "1 Japan Box containing Masons apron" valued at $40 and "1 Piece of Oil Cloth contg. orders of Masonry" at $50. The inventory taken after Martha Washington's death in 1802 does not itemize the Study's contents, so no Masonic aprons are listed. However, a record of personal property sold out of the Washington estate after Martha died lists two Masonic aprons: one was purchased for $5.00 by Burdett Ashton (1747-1814), husband of Washington's niece, Ann (1752-1777); the second was purchased for $6.00 by Thomas Hammond (1770-1820), husband to Washington's niece, Mildred (1772-1805). There is no reference in this sales list to any box corresponding to "Japan Box" listed in George Washington's inventory.
Soon after purchasing Washington's second apron, Thomas Hammond and his wife Mildred moved to the Appalachian foothills of Virginia. In 1811 the Grand Lodge of Virginia granted a lodge charter to freemasons in Shepherdstown. Called Mount Nebo No. 91, it retained the same name and number when it came under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of West Virginia in 1872. According to lodge history, Thomas Hammond became a freemason in Mt. Nebo in 1815. In appreciation for his initiation he donated the second apron to the Lodge. Despite the Anti-Masonic Period of the 1830s, the Civil War and countless other dangers, the lodge kept the apron safe.
Meanwhile, the apron purchased by Burdett Ashton is believed to have passed from to his wife's cousin, Lawrence Lewis (1767-1839), a nephew of George Washington's who had married Martha Washington's granddaughter, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis (1779-1852). On June 3, 1812, Lawrence Lewis donated a Masonic apron, sash and a japanned box to Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 in Alexandria, Virginia. It is generally accepted that this embroidered apron is the famous "Watson-Cassoul Apron," which takes its name from the two commercial agents, American Elkanah Watson and Frenchman Francois-Corentin Cassoul, who commissioned it while working in Nantes, France during the War of Independence. In 1782 they sent it along with a signed letter to General Washington. Washington received the apron while encamped at Newburgh, New York. His thank you letter, the envelope it was mailed in, and Watson's and Cassoul's initial letter all still exist. It is assumed President Washington wore this apron at the 1793 cornerstone ceremony of the U.S. Capitol. The apron and sash remain in the care of Alexandria-Washington Lodge and are rarely exhibited. The Japanned Masonic box may be viewed in the Lodge's Replica Room within the George Washington Masonic Memorial.
If the dating of both the Mt. Nebo apron (1784) [to the left] and the Alexandria-Washington apron (1782) [to the right] are correct then it is not surprising they are similar in shape, style and high craftsmanship. Both display exquisitely embroidered crossed flags, and a knotted and tasseled cable-tow with a suspended gavel on white silk. The central motifs, however, are quite different. Mt. Nebo's apron has a square and compasses with one leg above and one below the square. A spring of acacia intertwines the square. In the center is a skull with a crossed bone and dagger. According to European Masonic scholarship this apron design is not uncommon with the central symbols referring to the murder of Master Builder of King Solomon's Temple, while the acacia symbolizes immortality. The apron is trimmed with black silk ribbon and backed with black silk.
The design similarities may be the root cause for confusion between the two aprons. Indeed the controversy began at least as early as Marquis Lafayette's toured the United States as "the Nation's Guest." According to Lodge history, in 1825 he visited Alexandria-Washington Lodge and upon seeing the Watson-Cassoul Apron, declared it to be the one he had given to Washington nearly four decades before. Age 82 and a survivor of the French Revolution, Napoleon's regime and two Bourbon restorations, the Marquis may be forgiven if he mistook one apron for another. Yet it remains unclear if it is Mt. Nebo's apron or Alexandria-Washington's apron that Lafayette conveyed to General Washington.
Since 1844, however, Mt. Nebo's apron is well documented. According to the Lodge's minute books the first public appearance was May 16, 1844 in Charlestown. It was displayed at a banquet celebrating the 90th anniversary of a legendary Masonic meeting in a local cave. The minutes state: ". . . an apron black silk velvet, presented more than half a century to Gen. Washington by the Grand Lodge of France, through the person of this early friend, brother and companion in arms, Bro. Gilbert M.D. Lafayette."
In 1847 the apron traveled to the District of Columbia. It was worn by Mt. Nebo Lodge brother S. McElroy at the Masonic cornerstone ceremony of the Smithsonian Institution. Three years later the Grand Master of Virginia, James Points, wore the apron in Richmond at the Virginia Statehouse George Washington Monument ceremony. President Zachary Taylor also attended. The Grand Lodge of New Hampshire's 1867 Proceedings reported the apron, as well as President and Bro. Andrew Johnson, were present at the cornerstone ceremony of Grand Lodge of Maryland's new temple in 1866. Ten years later, the local newspaper The Shepherdstown Register ran a full story on the apron.
The apron's last major public appearance was in Minnesota. In 1892 Bro. Wynkoop Lemen, a dual member of Mt. Nebo Lodge No. 91 and Warren Lodge No. 150, Warren, Minnesota, gained permission to bring the apron west. It came first to Warren Lodge then appeared at the annual Grand Lodge of Minnesota meeting in St. Paul. Before returning to Shepherdstown, the Grand Lodge commissioned a beautiful hand-carved Masonic framed case. The apron then traveled to Chicago where it appeared at two lodges. The national publication, Voice of Freemasonry ran an illustrated article of the apron and its case. It is curious that its description of the apron is lifted from the 1877 The Shepherdstown's Register's piece.
The Voice's article led to the apron to appear in a well-know 1896 lithograph. The Chicago firm of Kurz & Allen produced a pair of prints "Franklin Opening the Lodge" and "Washington Closing the Lodge." Both are more Masonic fantasies than historical accuracy and are modeled after Emanuel Leutz's 1856 portrait "Washington as Master Mason." Yet, unlike the Leutz painting, Washington is wearing the Mt. Nebo apron. Furthermore, Franklin's apron has a similar square, compasses and acacia sprig. These prints were quite popular and hung in numerous lodges and are still available through the Internet.
Perhaps the last major public appearance was at the 100th commemoration of Washington's death. On December 14, 1899, under the authority of the Grand Lodge of Virginia more than 300 freemasons representing every grand jurisdiction in the country attended a special service at Washington's Tomb at Mount Vernon. Afterwards President and brother freemason William McKinley addressed the brethren from the east lawn. According the November 1899 Grand Lodge of West Virginia's annual communication, Mt. Nebo Lodge planned to have the apron present at the commemoration.
After 1900 the apron slipped out of Masonic and public awareness. Mt. Nebo kept the apron in the Minnesota frame and hung it on the north lodge wall. On a few special occasions it was brought out for public view and appreciation. Periodically local newspapers and town histories wrote about the apron, but word of the apron did not spread beyond the mountains. Past Grand Master of Virginia William Mosely Brown in his excellent book, George Washington: Freemason (1952) acknowledged the apron's existence, but did not follow up with further comment.
Until 2009 the apron lived quietly in the Lodge. Now, in celebration of their 200th anniversary, the brethren of Mt. Nebo Lodge have returned the apron to George Washington's home and to public light for everyone's benefit and delight.