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the master's hat

by Unknown Author

Why does the Master wear a hat?

How many times do newly raised brethren ask the question, and how few of the brethren interrogated can give a satisfactory answer! Usually the reply is: "Oh, that's an old symbol," or, "That's one of the Landmarks." But, as a matter of fact, wearing a hat in Lodge is symbolic only as all custom with regard to headgear are symbolic, and certainly no custom which has suffered so many changes and reversals as this, can, by any stretching of a point, be considered a Landmark.

Ceremonies connected with clothing are very ancient, dating at least from the era in which the first captives in tribal wars were stripped of all their clothing, partly that their captors might possess it, partly as a symbol of the complete subjugation of the slave state. Among some peoples today, stripping part of the clothing is still a sign of respect; the Tahitians uncover to the waist as a sign of reverence to a king; Asiatics bare the feet; Japanese take off a slipper for ceremonious salute. Worshippers in ancient Greece and Rome remove their sandals in a house of worship, as do East Indians today.

During the days of chivalry, knights often wore full armor in public, and usually when going upon private journeys. To open the vizor was a form of greeting which said, in effect: "I do not expect a sword thrust in the mouth from you." A knight removed his helmet before a friend as a token that he feared no blow, and always in the presence of a king, as a symbol that his life was the king's.

Moderns remove the hat as a sign of respect in greeting a friend, always when speaking to or meeting a lady, a survival of the ancient custom of uncovering as a symbol of trust, or subjectivity to a higher authority.

That monarchs wear crowns-or hats as a right when all others are uncovered, has been sung by poets of all ages. In Scott's Lady of the Lake, Ellen Douglas is taken to see the king, little suspecting who he is:

"On many a splendid garb she gazed-
Then turned bewildered and amazed
For all stood bare; and in the room
Fitz-James alone wore cap and plume.
To him each lady's look was lent,
On him each courtier's eye was bent;
Midst furs and silks and jewels sheen
He stood, in simple Lincoln green,
The center of the glittering ring
And Snowden's knight is Scotland's King!"

The king never uncovered. He wore his crown where he would, even in the House of God. All had to uncover before the king, as all had to retreat from his presence by moving backwards custom which obtains today in ceremonial audiences in England-that none might "turn his back on his Sovereign." The very bowing of the head without hat is a survival; the savage who lowered his head in the presence of authority confessed either fearlessness of an unseen blow, or his wiIlingness to receive it from his liege lord.

Not always does the removal of the hat indicate respect. Orthodox Jews remain covered in their synagogues; early Quakers wore hats in their houses of worship; women do not remove their hats in some churches. Romans prayed with covered heads; indeed, Romans forbade the head-covering to a slave, a wooden cap (pileus) being only for citizens. After a Roman owner liberated a slave, the manumitted man often went to the Temple of Feronia, on Mt. Suracte, if indeed, he did not receive his freedom in her Temple. Feronia, the goddess of fruits, nurseries and groves, was especially honored as the patroness of enfranchised slaves, and in her Temple the manumitted received a cap.

Dr. George C. Williamson (Curious Survivals) says of the House of Commons in London: "A member has to wear his hat when he is to address the House and there is often confusion when the member is unable to find his hat at the moment, and to put it on, before he addresses the speaker, but, were he to rise without his hat, he would be greeted immediately with cries of 'Order, order!"

Just when or where originated the custom of a Master wearing a hat as a sign of authority is an unsolved question. It is easy enough to "guess" that it began from operative Masons of the middle ages aping the customs of the court, and requiring all Fellows of the Craft to uncover before the Master Mason. But guessing is not proving.

Oliver is quoted as saying: "Among the Romans the hat was a sign of freedom. Formerly Masons wore them as a symbol of freedom and brotherly equality. In English and American Lodges it is now exclusively an attribute of the Master's costume." Oliver as a historian is open to question; certainly hats are not generally worn by Masters in England now. But this quotation indicates that English Masters formerly did, which is born out by some notable exceptions of today; Bristol, for instance and Lodge Newstead, 47, in the Province of Nottingham, where the Master wears a silk hat at Lodge ceremonies. In the Royal Sussex Lodge of Hospitality (Bristol) the Master carries (not wears) a cocked hat into the Lodge room. In Lodge Maria the transfer of the hat from outgoing to incoming Master has for many years been a part of Installation.

There are extant some rituals of French Masonry of 1787, apparently authentic, which seem to give a true picture of the ritual and practices of French brethren of the time. Masonic students are agreed that while doubtless French Masons did dramatize some of the English ritual and made certain changes in the old English ceremonies which the better fitted the Latin temperament, on the whole these rituals contain much that was originally English Masonic practice.

In the old French ritual of 1787, in the third degree, each Master is required to wear a hat. The word "master" here has the double significance; Master of the Lodge and Master Mason. This has led to some confusion in translating the real meaning of the rituals. But in this particular instance the context is made clear by some old prints, showing French brethren in a Lodge in which all present wear hats except the candidate.

Writing in 1896, Swor. Brother Gotthelf Greiner states, of German Masons; " . . it is the invariable custom for brethren in Lodge to wear high silk hats (which are raised during prayer and when the name of the G.A.O.T.U. is invoked). In that country, it (the wearing of the hat) is not a distinction confined to those of any particular standing." It is to be noted that the Ahiman Rezon of Pennsylvania specifies that at Masonic funerals all the brethren should wear black hats.

Contrast these instances of all brethren wearing hats (except the candidate) with one :of the articles of the Statutes of the Chapter of Clermont (1755) which reads: "Only the Master of a Lodge and the Scots Masters are permitted to remain covered." Confirming this, an old eighteenth century catch question (which survives in some of our Lodges to this day) is:

Q. "Where does the Master hang his hat ?"
A. "On Nature's peg."

Some fanciful theories have been advanced to account for the Master's hat. Among these may be mentioned this curious idea; because of a supposed unpopularity of the Masons' Craft in the middle ages, the brethren on a cathedral building projects were occasionally permitted to hold their meetings in the cathedral they built, or, if that was not sufficiently advanced, in a nearby monastery. The monks, being learned men, were often made Masters of the various builders Lodges, and continued to wear their mitres, as was their custom. From this is supposed. to have arisen the custom of a Master wearing a hat!

Fort, in his Antiquities of Freemasonry, writes: "During the Middle Ages, when a traveling Fellow approached a Lodge of Masons in prescribed form, he first exclaimed: 'May God bless, direct and prosper you, Master, Pallirer (Wardens), and dear Fellows!' Whereupon the Master, or in his absence the Pallirer, was instructed by the ordinance of Torgau to thank him in reply, in order that the visiting brother might see who was custodian of the Lodge. And having obtained suitable assistance, the wandering craftsman removed his hat and thanked the brethren with an established formula. From the preceding ceremony, it is evident that neither the Master nor the Wardens of a mediaeval German lodge were distinguishable by distinctive tokens while at mechanical labor; otherwise, no regulation was essential or obligatory upon the officers to make proper response to a visitor for the purpose of determining the Master.

"Curiously enough, the implication is direct and clear that the Masons of ancient times, when regularly convened for work, and during the formal reception of a traveler, pursued their daily avocation and attended the usual Masonic demands, within closed portals, with covered heads. At the present day the custom has materially changed, and, with one exception, the members of a Lodge at labor noticeably divest themselves of their hats. This is unquestionably a transformation of recent origin, and with it the, instruction usually incident to the distinction has been adopted to the innovation.

"When the initiatory rites in a mediaeval Lodge were performed, the Master was not thus prominently contrasted with his brethren. I speak with especial emphasis upon this point, because the esoteric and sublime signification involved in the Master's hat has been recklessly perverted and destroyed. It was typical, during the Middle Ages, of superiority, and was so interpreted in the ceremonies of initiation by the Masons of France at the termination of the eighteenth century, all of whom sat in open Iodge with covered heads. (At the conclusion of the rites in French lodges, the Master handed the candidate his hat, and said: 'For the future. you shall be covered in a Master's Lodge.' This very ancient usage is a sign of liberty and superiority.) Among the Germans, this article was used as a symbol of transfer of chattels, and landed property. The judge held a hat in his hands; the purchaser must receive it from him, and with it the title passed. Frequently the ceremony perfecting a sale was performed by the contract parties thrusting their hands into a hat, and upon withdrawing them the estate changed owners.

"Gothic justices wore a cap or suitable headdress when presiding over court, as emblematic of authority, and manifestly the people wore their hats while attending the tribunal as symbols or personal liberty. (In an engraving, dating from the 15th century, given in Lacroxi, op. cit. p. 379, all persons attendant upon court are presented with heads covered). And with this typical allusion generally acquiescence originally harmonized; but the distinctive and exceptional feature of a Master's head-dress contains the secret symbolism of authority at the present day, while mediaeval Masons worked with covered heads as a sign of freedom. Both customs, descended from a remote Teutonic antiquity, have long since, dissipated their vital forces, while the ordinary interpretation possesses less significance than a dilapidated mile-post!"

By all of which it may be seen that we really know very little, and must guess a great deal, as to the origin of the custom. But in the light of history and the etiquette of various ages, the most probable theory seems to be that a Master wears a hat today in imitation of the rulers of olden times who wore hat or crown while those who owed them allegiance uncovered. Turning from history to practice, a question often asked is: "When should the Worshipful Master remove his hat?" The answer must come from taste rather than law. Some Masters are veritable "hat snatchers", pulling off their headgear whenever they speak from the East. There seems little more reason for a Master to divest himself of this badge of office when -addressing a brother, than to remove his apron or jewel. The Master's hat is not used as a head covering designed for warmth and protection from the weather, but as a badge of authority. Good taste would dictate its lifting when the Master speaks of or to Deity, of death, during the reading of passages of Scripture, and in the presence of the Grand Master. In other words, the Master's hat is doffed in the presence of superior authority.

It is customary for Masters to wear their hats when conducting funerals, raising them, of course, during the prayer. But equally common usage makes the Master remove his hat when services are held in a House of Worship. What kind of a hat should a Master wear Here also is neither law nor rule except those of good taste. Fashion and custom rule all our clothing, including our hats,. The gentleman in dark cutaway coat, gray striped trousers, a black and white tie, gray gloves and spats, who appeared at the White House wearing a golf cap, might easily be mistaken for a lunatic; he who tried to step to bat on the diamond with a derby would certainly receive Bronx cheers if not pop bottles!

Lodges in which the officers appear in evening clothes, either "swallow tails" or dinner coats, naturally expect Masters to use black silk hats. Lodges where less formality is practiced frequently see Masters in silk hats, but the results are sometimes anomalous. The spectacle of a brother in white trousers, a blue shirt, no coat, suspenders, black and white shoes and a silk hat, is incongruous, at least. At a Lodge meeting in hot weather in informal clothes the Master is better dressed with a straw hat than the more formal silk. Lodges in which officers wear ordinary business clothes should look with approbation on the felt or derby.

The Grand Master in Massachusetts wears a three cornered cockade hat at the solemn ceremonies of St. John's Day in Winter, survival of the custom begun in the days when Paul Revere was Grand Master. But the official costume of a Grand Master in that Jurisdiction, inclusive of a large, heavily gold-incrusted apron, collar, gauntlets and jewels, removes any feeling of incongruity from the appearance of this old custom; the Massachusetts Grand Master does not wear his cockade when visiting other Grand Lodges.

That the Master should wear his hat, and not let the old custom go by default, merely for personal convenience, goes without saying. But it has been said. In closing the One Hundred Fiftieth Communication of the Grand Lodge of New York, Grand Master Charles S. Johnson (now Grand Secretary) said; "I want to call your attention to the fact that I have been wearing a hat during this Communication. I have done it on purpose - not because I have any desire to wear a hat like this, but I want you men in the Lodge to see to it that the ancient custom of a Master wearing a hat shall not be dispensed with. I have found as I have gone around the State, again and again, that in many Lodges there is no attempt on the part of the Master to fulfill this ancient tradition of our Fraternity. It is a very interesting tradition in our organization, and I think it is one that we ought not to lose; and, therefore, I have set you the example, and I ask you in your respective Lodges throughout the State and the City of New York, to see that this old tradition, which has been so honoured in the past, shall be continued even in these modern days."

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Last modified: March 22, 2014