The Evolution of our Modern Tracing Board


By Bro. Norman B. Spencer.


THE TRACING Boards differ in different Lodges, particularly the older ones. The reason for this is that although Grand Lodge acknowledges the existence of Tracing Boards, as they are anointed at the consecration of a new Lodge, it lays down no particular pattern or shape for them.

Now let us see what our rituals say about the Tracing Board. In the explanation of the Tracing Board of the first Degree we find the following: "The immovable Jewels are the Tracing Board and the rough and perfect Ashlars. The Tracing Board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs upon.... They are called immovable jewels because they lie open and immovable in the Lodge for the Brethren to moralize upon. As the Tracing Board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on the better to enable the Brethren to carry on the intended structure with regularity and propriety, so the V.S.L. may justly be deemed to be the spiritual Tracing Board of the G.A.O.T.U....."

If you examine this passage, you will find a strange inconsistency. If the Tracing Board is for the Master to "lay lines and draw designs on," then it must surely be a plain and clear drawing board without anything already painted on it. On the other hand, if it is for "the Brethren to moralize on," it surely must be more than a plain and clear drawing board. The explanation is that two separate boards are referred to. The first, the real Tracing Board, is a plain drawing board depicted on the First Degree board in front of the pedestal, and the second, the Lodge Board, is what is usually known to us as the Tracing Board, with the various symbols and emblems upon it.

It is with the second of these boards, the Lodge Board or, as it used to be called, "The Lodge," that we are concerned. I will endeavour to show you how and why it came to be in our Lodges and how it took its present form and became associated with the various symbols and emblems which we see painted upon it.

Our inquiry falls naturally into three parts. Firstly, the use of the Tracing Board among the Operative Masons of ancient times. Secondly, the evolution of the Modern Tracing Board from the drawing on the floor, used for a considerable time after the transition from Operative to Speculative Masonry. Thirdly, the development of our modern Tracing Board from the Tracing Boards and cloths which first came into general use at the close of the 18th century.

There is no doubt that among the ancients, particularly the Egyptians, a Tracing Board of sorts was in use, as the remains of many of them have been found alongside the ruins of ancient buildings. They were ruled in squares, and the plan of the building represented a certain number of bricks or cubes of stone, and the builder was thus able to get the proportions of the building right. This method was also used by the sculptors. The architect usually cut the Tracing Board in the stone somewhere near to his building. Many of these exist to the present day. It gradually became the custom to draw these Tracing Boards on the floor of the workroom where it would be convenient for all the workmen to see them. This custom still persists in Persia at the present day, after 4000 years. The squares are laid out on the floor of the workroom, and the plan of the building to be erected is marked out and each square represents four bricks.

Undoubtedly the Tracing Board formed a very important part in the equipment of the ancient builders, particularly when we consider that the secrets which they so zealously guarded were probably the properties of the right angled triangle, known as the 47th proposition of Euclid, and certain properties of the circle. It was the knowledge of these which enabled them to draw their plans so accurately.

We will now pass on to the dawn of Speculative Masonry, more than 200 years ago. It should not surprise us to find a considerable portion of the ceremony connected with a drawing on the floor of the Lodge room. In those days Lodges usually met in some well-known inn or tavern. The furnishings of such a place would be very plain, and the floor would consist of boards sprinkled with sand or rushes. When a degree was being worked a space in front of the Master's pedestal would be swept clear. On this cleared space it was the Tyler's duty to draw with chalk and charcoal a design in the form of an oblong square, representing a building, with various Masonic emblems and symbols such as the square, level and plumb rule.

The best description of this drawing on the floor of the Lodge that I have been able to find is in an exposure of the year 1760, known as "Jachin and Boaz," or "An Authentic Key to the Door of Freemasonry, both Ancient and Modern," and is as follows: "He is also learnt the step or how to advance to the Master upon the drawing on the floor, which in some Lodges resembles the Grand Building, termed a Mosaic Palace, and is described with the utmost exactness. They also draw other figures, one of which is called the Laced Tuft and the other the Throne beset with stars. There is also represented a perpendicular line in the form of a Mason's instrument commonly called the Plumb-line; and another figure which represents the tomb of Hiram, the first Grand Master, who has been dead almost 3,000 years. These are all explained to him in the most accurate manner, and the ornaments or emblems of the Order are described with great facility."

After the symbols and emblems had been carefully explained to the candidate, he was given a mop and pail of water and ordered to wash out the drawing on the floor.

It was the Tyler's duty to make this drawing with chalk and charcoal. For this he received a special fee known as the Tyler's Fee, and the drawing was known as "The Lodge." In the account books of old Lodges, one frequently finds entries such as "Paid Tyler for forming a Lodge, 2/6." The drawing was a most important part of the ceremony, and a Lodge could not be held to initiate a candidate without it.

Now, as time went on, the Lodge rooms became more luxurious, and the floors were covered with carpets. It thus became impossible to draw on the floor with chalk and charcoal. Also many of the Tylers were not artists, and the resulting drawing left much to be desired. To get over this difficulty the custom gradually came in of having the drawing made on a large piece of cloth which could be placed on the floor and rolled up and put away when not in use. It is undoubtedly in these old floor cloths that our modern Tracing Boards had their origin. For the sake of convenience these cloths were placed on boards held up by two trestles known as Trestle Boards. Gradually the custom seems to have arisen of drawing the emblems on the board itself, and as the drawing on the floor was known as "The Lodge," the board became generally known as the "Lodge Board," though sometimes still called "The Lodge." For example, in the Book of Constitutions of the year 1784 there is an account of the dedication of the Freemasons' Hall, London, England, in which it states: "About half past twelve the procession entered the Hall in the following order: Grand Tyler with drawn sword, four Tylers carrying the Lodge covered with white satin...."

No fixed dates can be given for the various changes. There seems to have been no uniformity. Some Lodges appear to have had boards before they had cloths and some to have had both at once, and some to have gone straight from the drawing on the floor to the Lodge Board. Although, undoubtedly, there were Lodge Boards in existence before the year 1800, they did not come into general use till about that time. The earliest dated board still in existence is dated 1800 and belongs to Lodge Faithful, No. 85, Harleston, Norfolk, England. Within a few years of that date the Lodge Boards more or less as we know them now were in general use throughout the country. The earliest Lodge Cloth still in existence is the Kirkwall Kilwinning Scroll. This, although undated, is generally understood to go back to the year 1790. It belongs to the Kirkwall Kilwinning Lodge, No. 38. It is 18 feet, 6 inches long and 5 feet, 6 inches in width, and hangs now on the west wall of the Lodge to which it belongs. It has various panels of the Biblical and Masonic nature, while the edges depict the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, also the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert.

It is generally agreed that these floor cloths did not come into general use till about the year 1790, although there are records of some Lodges using them many years earlier. They seem to have been in general use between the years 1790 and ca. 1815, though after about the year 1800 they were gradually being replaced by the boards. These dates are only approximate as there was no uniformity at all about the changes.

The earliest record of a floor cloth occurs in the minutes of the Old Kings Arms Lodge, No. 28, on December 3, 1733, and is as follows: "The Acting-Master represented that whereas the institution of new Brethren was attended with more than ordinary and perhaps unnecessary trouble, it was, therefore, moved that a proper delineation should be made on canvas and be deposited in the Repository ready for those occasions, and Brother Hayman was appointed to take and execute the Master's directions on this point."

Also in the picture of the Mock Procession of Scald Miserable Masons, in 1740, we see a number of large banners painted with Masonic emblems. These might very well be representations of floor cloths particularly as in the key of the print below the large banner we find the following:

"The True Original Mason Lodge"

"Upon which poor old Hyram made all his entr'd 'prentices. The Masons, for want of this, are forced to make something like it with chalk on the floor whenever they take the culls in; that is when they have a making."

Some Lodges did not give up the practice of drawing the Lodge on the floor until well into the 19th century. For example, in the minutes of the Old Dundee Lodge, No. 18, the last entry of a payment to the Tyler for drawing 'The Lodge,' or framing the Lodge, as it was sometimes called, was on the 13th of February, 1812.

The conclusion seems to be that floor cloths did not come into general use until about the year 1790, although some Lodges used them very much earlier, and that Lodge Boards, or, as we now call them, Tracing Boards, began to be generally used about ten years later and gradually replaced both the floor cloths and the drawings on the floor.

These early Tracing Boards vary very much in the symbols shown and the manner in which they are depicted. No rule has been laid down by Grand Lodge as to what should be shown on the Tracing Boards or the manner in which they should be shown. It is only natural that the earliest Tracing Boards painted by different artists in different parts of the country should vary very much. Each particular artist had his own idea of what should be shown and how it should be painted. One only has to look round the Tracing Boards in use in our Lodges in Auckland to realize how they can vary even in our present day.

In the first half of the 19th century the Boards varied a great deal according to the artists, but since 1849 they have nearly all been patterned after the set painted by John Harris in that year.

The artists who have had the greatest influence in the making of our modern Tracing Board were Cole, Bowring and Harris.

John Cole first published his design of Tracing Board in his "Illustrations of Masonry," (1801). This design had a certain popularity for some years. He was the first to introduce the diamond pavement in place of the square pavement. In his design the Winding Stair begins in the N.W.

Josiah Bowring, the greatest and most correct of the old Lodge Board designers, was a portrait painter by profession. He was initiated in 1795 and died in 1831. In all Bowring's Boards "The Key that hangs" hangs from Jacob's Ladder. In the first of Bowring's Boards the Winding Star springs from the North, but in later ones it springs from the South.

John Harris is the real designer of our modern Tracing Boards. He was a miniature painter and architectural draughtsman by profession, and was made a Mason in 1818. In 1823 he published a small set of designs for a Tracing Board. In 1846 the Emulation Lodge of Improvement called for designs for new Tracing Boards. Those sent in by Harris were accepted. The prize set was used in that Lodge and a number of other sets painted for other Lodges. In 1849 he published a set which has since been used as a standard design for the Craft. In 1857 Brother Harris lost his sight and died in 1872.

(May, 1949, issue, Transactions of the Masters' and Past Masters' Lodge No. 830, Christchurch, New Zealand).

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