Signed and Sealed: Masonic Certificates

Masonic register for Joseph H. Foster, between 1878 and 1881

Lodges authenticated certificates with seals like this.

Seal affixed to Masonic Register made for Joseph H. Foster, Rhode Island, 1878-1881. Gift of Barry and Barbara Bayon, A2003/009/2.

Masonic lodges in the American colonies began issuing credentials to new initiates in the mid-1700s.  These documents, when presented at another lodge, helped prove the holder was a Mason in good standing—a brother entitled to a warm welcome, hospitality and, in some cases, charity.

The signatures of lodge officers and of the certificate’s owner helped make the document official, as did an impression of the issuing lodge’s seal.  Certificates from the handful of lodges that met in the mid-1700s, if issued at all, were handwritten on long-lasting parchment. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, lodges commissioned artists to design printed certificates.  Many artists modeled their certificates on English examples using similar compositions and symbols; others designed entirely new creations. In the early 1800s engraved certificates featured, along with the text, images and symbols that related to Freemasonry’s teachings, what the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts described, in 1801, as “device[s] emblematical of, and suited to, the Genius and Design of Freemasonry.”

Some engravers created certificates specifically for individual lodges; others crafted flexible or “open” certificates with spaces that allowed different lodge names and locations to be filled in along with the Master Mason’s name and the date he received the degree.  By the mid-1800s, many state Grand Lodges, rather than individual lodges, had assumed the responsibility of issuing certificates. As a consequence, certificate designs became increasingly standardized. The same was true for certificates and diplomas given to new members of different Masonic groups, such as the Scottish or York Rites. Because these groups were active throughout the United States, the same or similar documents could be used by members from all over the country. Regardless of when and where the certificates displayed here originated, each tells a story of how the issuing organization wished to be perceived and bears the name of a Freemason who was proud of his membership.

This online exhibition is based on an exhibition that was on view at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, January 21, 2017-February 1, 2018.