Today, many of us enjoy the various treasure hunt shows that are telecast regularly on the History and Discovery channels. They draw us in with their look backs into the past, unanswered questions they seek to find, and periodic discoveries that highlight their efforts.
At the beginning of 2021, as Museum and Library Curator of Lodge No. 43, Lancaster, Pa., I embarked upon a long-overdue project. A treasure hunt of my own if you will, to review the contents of the many cartons of old paperwork that resided in the archives of Lodge 43 at the Lancaster Masonic Center in Lancaster, Pa.
The cartons, of which there were several dozen, were known to consist primarily of old paperwork that represented decades of Lodge 43 communications and business. No one really knew how far back the paperwork represented, or what it even consisted of for certain. It had simply been tucked away in cardboard boxes and placed in storage.
I set upon an objective to physically evaluate the contents of every carton and examine every single piece of paper within each of the cartons. There was no order to the stored paperwork, rather every piece of paper was simply placed in a carton in random order. There had been no attempt to segregate or categorize the subject matter within those cartons in any manner whatsoever.
My efforts quickly evolved into a very interesting and rewarding “treasure hunt” of a Masonic nature. I discovered that this archived paperwork spanned the early years of our lodge’s very beginnings in the late 1700’s up through the early 1900s. Remarkably, I found I was looking at lodge paperwork, much of it handwritten, that represented well over 200 years of Lodge 43 history. Two centuries of material that represented the business of the lodge, and the work of some of our most prestigious members of our lodge! James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States and Past Master of Lodge 43, is an example of one of the members of which I found several samples of his handwritten lodge communications when he served as Senior Warden and Worshipful Master.
Our lodge was warranted in 1785. The earliest documentation I was to discover in this review process dated back to the late 1790s. I did not find any documentation prior to that. I can only surmise that our lodge founders following the masonic principle of secrecy, and a very limited membership through the first ten-year period, did not record much in writing; or simply whatever paperwork there had existed had been lost over time.
My intent and objective were to identify the subject matter of each piece of paper, create files based on ten-year increments beginning with 1790, and segregate the specific forms of subject matter within those years.
It was inherent in this process to realize that the lodge secretaries throughout this long period of lodge history had maintained a high degree of consistency in what they saved. In fact, consistent with today, it appears they saved every piece of correspondence no matter how significant or insignificant.
The review process enabled me to identify several different, but specific categories of lodge business and communications.
A. Invoices – Invoices may not normally be considered historical documents. However, when put into perspective the Lodge 43 invoices clearly reflected a development in the many services that evolved in American history. The Lodge 43 invoices document everything that the lodge had purchased or regularly paid for on a yearly basis. Building developments, maintenance needs, assistance to brothers, transportation, and refreshments made up the majority of invoices that had been saved for decades. The evolution of electricity, telephones, transportation was evident by example of their progression in available services in the different time periods.
Most interestingly, however, were several handwritten invoices in the late 1790s which detailed lodge refreshments for stated meetings that were ordered and paid for in British currency! In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the lodge met in some of Lancaster’s homes and inns of that period due to the absence of a physical lodge. The handwritten invoices reflect refreshment items such as cigars, brandy, and pints of lager that were paid for in British currency. Other examples of invoices or cash transactions reflected a transition period of both British and American currency, as evidenced by payments in the same period using both types of money.
B. Historical Documents – Lodge 43 is over two hundred and thirty-five years old. In that period the Lodge has certainly experienced much in both Masonic and American history. This is especially evident when you consider America itself was only 10 years old when Lodge 43 was warranted. That growth is well documented in the published Lodge 43 Twenty-five Year Anniversary books; the first of which was published in 1885, reflecting the first 100 years of Lodge 43 history. After that publication, they were regularly produced to reflect twenty-five-year anniversaries.
Those published accounts note historical events that define the history of Lodge 43. In the Lodge 43 Museum and Library, there are few examples of original documentation of these major events in the Lodge 43 history. The significance of the project I had undertaken took on a whole new meaning and excitement when I started to come across handwritten, original documents of specific events that had occurred in Lodge 43’s history. The documents were handwritten, dated, and signed by various members of Lodge 43 who were among Lancaster’s most prestigious people of their time.
Prime examples found among this valuable historical documentation were several original handwritten correspondences between the City Justices of Lancaster and Lodge 43 pertaining to the agreements needed to build the second floor on the new Market Street building in 1798. This new structure was intended to serve both the City of Lancaster as a new market facility on the ground floor for city vendors, and in agreement with Lodge 43, to serve as a new lodge home on a planned second-floor addition. Documentation recovered contained the various approvals between the city and Lodge 43. Additionally, detailed estimates by the building contractors involved at the time were also recovered. These documents include detailed correspondence regarding all manner and materials for the construction.
Another noteworthy discovery was the original handwritten documentation from Grand Lodge in 1822 requesting Lodge 43 to surrender their warrant due to what was perceived by Grand Lodge as rebellious conduct. This was an event brought on by Lodge 43’s opinion that Grand Lodge had not been supporting or communicating with Lodge 43, as well as other lodges in the district satisfactorily. Grand Lodge’s perception was that Lodge 43 was being rebellious and influencing other lodges in the district to do so as well. Grand Lodge took exception to this perceived behavior, thus requested Lodge 43 to surrender their warrant. It was submitted in November of 1822 and recovered within a very short period of time. Lodge attorneys, including James Buchanan, traveled to Philadelphia to present their argument for Lodge 43. Their efforts were successful in recovering the warrant. A copy of this formal printed response from 1822 was recovered from one of the cartons, in addition to several handwritten communications from the Grand Lodge Secretary on this very critical event in our history.
A framed lodge meeting notice from 1792 which consisted of a 1 sheet notification of an upcoming stated meeting was found in one of the cartons. While the date is significant in itself, one line highlighted on the notice emphasized the need for attendance. It reads “At Your Peril Fail Not.” This certainly would have served as a stern reminder of one’s obligation to attend. Attendance throughout the early 1790s had been a problem, prompting the Lodge at one point to impose fines on members for failure to attend.
C. Original Petitions – Before the establishment of a formalized petition form, an applicant desiring membership to Lodge 43 simply had to make a handwritten request of his desire and have two members of the Lodge sign the request. This written request would then follow the normal process, somewhat consistent with the process today.
As I explored the archived cartons in Lodge 43, I became to uncover scores of old original handwritten petitions and later petitions where the establishment of a formalized form for membership had been utilized. The petitions I found covered the period from 1795 up to the mid-1800s.
Interestingly, I could account for every member’s petition for the period of 1795 through the mid-1800s, but I did not find any petitions prior to 1795. In fact, I did not find any documentation or communications of any type prior to the late 1790s. One might assume that whatever documentation that existed in the first ten years of our existence had been lost to the ages and was probably minimal at best.
D. Signatures and Penmanship – Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this whole process that made an impression on me was the artistic nature of their penmanship and the pride in the personal signature of the early members of Lodge 43. It was most apparent that their command of the English language was evident in their cursive writing and sentence structure skills, particularly in their letter writing. In their letters, the clarity and beauty in their handwriting were performed with great skill, and it was not uncommon to see correspondence that may include 10 pages or more to express their thoughts.
It was also interesting to note that writing materials in the late 1700s and early 1800s, varied a great deal in their quality and size. Paper quality was of a variety of different types, no standard sizes, and all space utilized to the fullest. No lined paper or bright white sheets of paper as we take for granted today, but more of a variety and quality of different paper types and sizes. This led one to believe they used whatever was at hand to accomplish their written communications. You also might consider that their examples of early written communications were accomplished with a quill feather and early fountain ink.
Most impressive was the pride and beauty of the original signatures of our early members. Their signatures were of the highest artistic qualities. Their personal pride was reflected in the beauty of their signature. No comparison to how we simply illegibly scribble our signature on documents today, especially if we are signing electronically when we use our credit or debit cards.
Their signatures, often the largest written element of the communication, were accomplished with clarity, beauty, and artistic flairs which distinguished them as gentlemen of pride and distinction.
One of the more artistic examples uncovered was that of John Reynolds, father of General John Reynolds who was killed in the first day of battle in Gettysburg. His signature appears on many lodge communications, always consistent with the artistic flair he apparently prided in his personal signature. Edward Hand, a noted Lancaster founder and member of Lodge 43, also distinguished his documents with his signature on documents recovered.
Also recovered were numerous previously unknown examples of James Buchanan documents, containing his signature, when he served as both Senior Warden and Worshipful Master. While they might be considered non-essential lodge documents, they do represent important pieces of lodge history that are now preserved within the lodge museum. They represent historical signature documents of a Mason who was later to become our 15th President of the United States.
As I processed each of these handwritten examples of lodge business and communications, I found I was in awe of the fact I was handling and reading original documentation and communications prepared by individuals, in some cases well over 200 years ago. It gave me a sense of understanding and appreciation of Lodge 43 history by being able to see and handle the actual paperwork accomplished in their time. It made much more of an impact and historical significance than what I previously learned from our Lodge history books.
E. Artifacts – Another rewarding result of researching the archives were the many masonic artifacts that had unknowing been packed away amongst this old paperwork. It truly resembled a masonic treasure hunt when periodically old masonic items were found buried away in some of these boxes of paperwork.
Of significance were 2 beautiful handmade masonic aprons that suggest by their style, a period dating back to the early to mid-1800s. They are now framed and hanging proudly in the Lodge 43 museum.
Uncovered masonic jewelry included old working tools regalia that had once adored the officer’s collars. Lapel pins, masonic coins, and the actual stamps used to produce such coins were recovered. A Masonic Stamp Collection, beautifully prepared and donated to the lodge in 1942, was found and recently evaluated by a knowledgeable member of our fraternity. It contains masonic presidential stamps dating back to the early 1800s. It also includes other noteworthy famous masonic personalities who were honored by the US Postage System periodically with a postage stamp.
Numerous old Past Master Aprons, Jewels, and Gavels were uncovered, documented, and neatly put into storage to honor our Past Masters.
Personally, for me as I segregated, documented, and organized all these historical records and objects it proved to be an enlightening experience. A step back in time if you will, to review and handle materials that had been hidden away for so long. Historical documents that represent very important specific events in the lodge history, that up to now had only been mentioned in Lodge history books. Having recovered these treasures, they now will be maintained for the future safeguarding of Lodge 43 history. Reviewing the old paperwork that made up lodge business, no matter how insignificant the note or purpose, provides a good understanding of exactly what it must have been like in the lodge in the 18th and 19th centuries.
What initially began as an administrative project quickly evolved into a Masonic history lesson from which I and others who study lodge history will truly benefit. The knowledge and appreciation for the work these past Masons accomplished in their time were truly outstanding. So Mote It Be!
Nathaniel Gilchrist P.M.
Library and Museum Curator
August 10, 2021