by Laura Libert, Contributing Curator
Made in China: Masonic export items for the Western market
During the 18th and 19th centuries there was an extraordinary demand for Chinese-made items in England, Europe and America. Silks and teas were the primary basis of trade, but westerners also desired "exotic" items such as porcelain, lacquerware, ivories, fans and clothing. A great number of these items were made specifically with the Western market in mind, and could be personalized depending on the buyer's taste and fancy, including and not limited to coats-of-arms, biblical scenes, and Masonic symbols.
Affluent and metropolitan Masons of the 18th and 19th centuries desired these custom-decorated items because they displayed not only their fraternal membership, but also their social standing and good taste.
One example of such an item is the partial tea and coffee service, c. 1760, which the museum was fortunate to add to its collection earlier this year. Consisting of a coffee pot, teapot, tea caddy, spoon tray, saucer dish, coffee cup and two saucers, this handsome set is decorated with an elaborate coat-of-arms and crest flanked by iron-red foliage, Dutch sailing ships, Masonic working tools such as the square and compass, and scattered floral sprigs.
During the early 19th century, many Chinese items produced for export were decorated with symbols that acknowledged many American's newfound sense of identity and patriotism. Displaying both personal pride and national pride, this 5" diameter cup plate, c. 1795, is decorated with a central crest featuring an eagle with spread wings, holding arrows in its right talon and an olive branch in its left talon, all within an area formed by the recognizable square and compasses. The shield on the breast of the eagle is inscribed with the initials of the owner.
It is known that many items of clothing were produced for export to the west, but most have not survived due to their perishable nature. Men's satin breeches and waistcoats as well as ladies silk dresses and slippers were made to order in China but were worn out in America. Fortunately, a Masonic apron, with a history of being made in Canton, China, exists today. John Flagg Fry, member of St. John's Lodge No. 1, Providence, Rhode Island, had the apron made in 1799. His son, John William Fry, the first Worshipful Master of Doylestown Lodge No. 245, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, inherited the apron and presented it to the lodge in 1859. The silk apron is embroidered with many Masonic symbols, such as the all-seeing eye, beehive and hourglass and is further embellished with metallic thread and spangles.
If you would like to learn more about the China trade, these and several other Masonic Chinese items, such as punch bowls, toddy jugs, reverse-paintings-on-glass and mugs, are currently on display at The Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania. The Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania is grateful to Doylestown Lodge No. 245 for loaning the wonderful and rare John Flagg Fry apron for exhibition.
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