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Introduction & Origins

In England, and many of the English speaking jurisdictions, with the conspicuous exception of the United States of America, tracing boards are a familiar sight in every Lodge room. They are prominently placed on display, leaning against the Junior Warden’s pedestal, or, sometimes almost obtrusively, in the centre of the Lodge. They play an important part in our opening and closing ceremonies, and in our lectures on which we moralise. They also serve some basic functions, such as an indication of the degree in which the Lodge work is being conducted at any one time. It is rather surprising, therefore, that there is no Grand Lodge ruling of any kind on tracing boards. Strangely, there is also very little about them in our ritual. We hear of them in the first lecture and in the presentation of the certificate to Master Masons. Otherwise it is only in the consecration ceremonies, dating back to Preston’s England in the 1790s, that the ‘Lodge’ - as the tracing boards were then referred to - is placed in the centre of the temple, covered in white satin and the consecrating elements are poured over it.


There are some interesting theories as to the origins of tracing boards. From an operative viewpoint, they were intended as the practical boards on which the medieval operative working Master Mason would have set his plans for the building. Bro R Meekren, in AQC 61 in 1948, came up with a most interesting theory on the origins of the Tracing Board. He stated:


            ...if we take the insistent and universal tradition among Masons that

            lodges - at some vague time in the distant past - were used to be formed

            out of doors, on some high hill or in some deep vale...


than, continues his theory, the delineation that marked such out of door meeting space may have been converted to the form and shape of the Lodge or tracing board, once Lodges began to meet in doors. Much earlier still, the Mark Book of the Lodge of Aberdeen dating to before 1670 tells us that Masonic meetings took place in the open fields. We would today need an exceptional sense of imagination to visualise the setting of a Masonic meeting in the open fields of the 1670s.



A frequently advocated theory is that the physical implements and symbols placed on the floor - as they still are today in the Royal Arch degree - would have gradually been converted to floor drawings. There is plenty of evidence showing exactly the opposite as well, however! When Masons met mostly in private rooms of taverns and inns in the 18th century, the Tyler’s duties included drawing ‘the Lodge’ with chalk and charcoal on the floor of the meeting room. These drawings consisted of various Masonic symbols - square and compass, globes, the letter ‘G’, columns etc - which today we find as decorative physical objects in our temples. The quality of such drawings naturally depended upon the ability and talent of the individual Tyler. It was also the responsibility of the newly initiated candidate to use a mop and pail to wipe clean the drawings after the meetings were over. Hence some of the early satirical prints and comments about the Freemasons depict them with mop and pail as their emblems.


The best known of these prints is William Hogarth’s 1724 engraving titled The Mystery of Masonry brought to light by Gormogons'. This refers to the anti-Masonic institution set up by the eccentric Duke of Wharton, 6th Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England. It is Hogarth's parody on a parody, and depicts named Chinese elders, followed by an aproned monkey, symbolising the 'aping' of free masonry by the Gormogons. A tall and prominent Duke of Wharton in the guise of Don Quixote stands in full armour, directing the attention of on looking masons to the procession.

Dr Desaguliers, depicted as Sancho Panza, is behind him. Most importantly, because this appears to be the only known portrait of him, Dr James Anderson, compiler of the first book of constitutions in 1723, is shown in his apron and gloves, carrying a pail and mop in front of him. Incidentally, both the Duke of Wharton and James Anderson were no longer alive at the time of the publication of this print.


The Gabanon Floor Cloths

The Tyler’s primitive floor drawings left much to be desired. Other than the poor quality of the drawn emblems, and total reliance on the Tyler’s talent and inclination, the contemporary Brethren began to fear that outsiders would be able to reconstruct details of the erased drawings. This first led to the taping to the floor of delineation of the drawing of symbols and emblems. In the 1725 anonymous Masonic exposures named Dialogue between Simon & Philip there is a reference to the use of tracing boards made from material other then cloth: the floor drawings are described as ‘emblems made of thin silver or Tin very thin placed in position upon the Lodge. From here the idea of using more enduring floor cloths, instead of floor drawings or tin delineation, came about. Now the emblems were permanently drawn on cloth with greater artistry than a Tyler may have been able to achieve. At each meeting the floor cloth would be rolled open before the Masters’ pedestal and then put away at the end.


Several French exposures have illustrated plates, which show the delineation of the Lodge room. These are often decorated with a multitude of emblems and symbols. The plates are often referred to as The Lodge in the various degrees. They are themselves derived from the practices of Lodges at the time as well as being the source for the tracing boards that followed later. The most important of these prints is far more elaborate than mere drawing of the lay out of a Lodge. It consists of a series of eight prints by the German engraver Reigens, whose name appears on them, first published in 1746. They are dedicated to the French anti-Masonic author Louis Travenol, who was better known by his pseudonym of Leonard Gabanon. The drawings were titled in French Assemblée De Nouveaux Francs-Maçons and have often erroneously thought to be of French origin. They are the earliest available prints showing the positioning of the tracing board in the centre of the room. Brethren in their aprons and hats stand around the floor cloth, which is decorated with numerous Masonic emblems. These illustrations often explain aspects of our ritual that were not described by the written word. For instance, on viewing the illustration it is quite obvious that those surrounding the floor cloth would have had to perambulate around it, which is clearly the origin of squaring the Lodge as practised in many of our lodges.


These prints were copied by Thomas Palser and published in 1813 in England, with English instead of German and French décor and costumes. They reflect the practice of ceremonies some times taking place in private homes. At a time when Lodges often met in Taverns, it may have been unworthy for prominent and distinguished dignitaries to meet is such sordid surroundings. Thus there is a record of the 1st earl of Blesington, who was persuaded to become the 1st noble Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, being installed as Grand Master in a private ceremony in his own library in 1756. He had already ruled the Craft in Ireland as the 3rd Viscount Mountjoy and must have thought it convenient to have the ceremony so conducted. 


There are several references and surviving examples of floor clothes in various Lodges and Museums. Our own Grand Lodge Library has a relatively late example dated in the latter half of the 19th Century hanging in the Museum hall. W Bro Alan Alvey presented the Derbyshire Masonic Museum with a similar floor cloth, from his personal collection. The Old King’s Arm Lodge Number 283, referring to the tracing board, records in its minutes in December 1733...delineation be made on canvas. The Lodge of Union 129 also records the purchase of a set of cloths or floorings in 1772 . As a final example, the Chapter of Sincerity 261 in Taunton in the Province of Somerset possesses and displays at its convocations a beautiful floor cloth with blatant Royal Arch symbols which originated from an Antients Lodge in the late 18th Century. The Companions of the Chapter purchased it in 1827 from Comp Francis Townsend, the first Principal in the Chapter in 1821.


Trestle Boards and Tracing Boards

There is no information as to where the term Tracing Board originated. It appeared for the first time in Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected published in October 1730. On page 14 of the first edition the candidate for initiation is asked:


            Q. What are the Immovable Jewels?

            A.  Trasel Board, Rough Ashlar, and Broach’d Thurnel.

            Q. What are their Uses?

            A. Trasel Board for the Master to draw his Designs upon......


This pamphlet is unquestionably one of the most important sources we have of the practices of our forefathers in the first half of the 18th Century. Prichard describes the Trestle Boards, as we do today, as the immovable jewels. In symbolic terms we refer to various Lodge implements and furniture as the Jewels of the Lodge. The movable jewels are the square, level and plum rule. Movable because the Master and Wardens, to whom they belong, pass them to their successors each year. The immovable jewels are the Tracing Board, the rough and smooth or perfect ashlars, and they are immovable because they remain constant in their set positions in the Lodge. This arrangement is reversed in American practice. Their explanation is that the square, level and plum rule are immovable because they remain permanently in the East, West and South respectively and it follows that the tracing boards - referred to as Trestle Boards - and ashlars are immovable. Prichard’s Masonry Dissected was so successful that there were no further exposures in England until 1760. Meanwhile in Europe the development of the Tracing Boards and their use can be traced through various Masonic exposures published in France, Italy and Germany, among others.


Meanwhile in England, following the formation of a competing Antients Grand Lodge in 1751, two important exposures were published in 1760 and 1762 respectively. The first was titled Three Distinct Knocks and explicitly stated in its introduction that it detailed the ritual working and practices of the Antients Grand Lodge. The second exposure, Jachin and Boaz, purported to represent the working of the Moderns Grand Lodges as well as that of the Antients. Both exposures had the representations of the tracing boards as illustrations in the book. These were not the colourful and ornate tracing boards we are used to today. In the 1760 they merely outlines diagrammatically the lay out of the lodge and incorporated some of the familiar symbols.


We next come to the representation of the Tracing Board in an official form, so to speak. The 1784 edition of our Book of Constitutions has a superlative frontispiece designed and engraved by Brother Francesco Bartolozzi who was assisted by Jean Baptiste Cipriani. The two famous Italian artists depicted the inside of Free Masons’ Hall in this stupendous print. The explanation to the frontispiece states that the mirror held by Truth, from which rays of light descend, do so on ‘…other Masonic Furniture and Implements of the Lodge.’ The illuminated altar is covered by a cloth on which are drawn and placed several Masonic emblems. It supports the theory that the cloth was placed on a table or board supported by trestles, hence the possible origin of the word ‘tracing’.


Modernisation of the Tracing Board

It is only at the turn of the Century that we find the first tracing board designs as we enjoy them today. In 1801 John Cole published the designs for a set of tracing boards in his Illustrations of Masonry. The designs classify as charts rather than artistic designs. They are distinctive in having a different border decoration for each of the degrees and a chequered floor that is diagonal. The three columns are in the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles of architecture with Wisdom, Strength and Beauty attributed to them in that order. This order was somehow later changed to Ionic, Doric and Corinthian and is still in common use today in this erroneous order of priority, probably attributable to the manufacturers of our Masonic furniture.


Various artists after 1801 copied John Cole’s designs for his tracing boards. Some used their imagination quite freely and produced a diverse range of sets of new tracing board designs. One of these by Josiah Bowring is quite intriguing, showing the coffin lid set aside to reveal a rather realistic image of Hiram Abiff himself!


The basic features in all these wide range of tracing boards, however, remained essentially consistent. With the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England in December 1813, when all ritual working was standardised, Tracing Boards also began to gain a certain amount of regularity, although there are no records of any specific attempt at such standardisation. In 1815, shortly after the union, the miniature painter and architectural draughtsman, John Harris, appeared on the scene and revolutionised the concept of tracing boards. Many lodges throughout England are familiar with the Harris name because they are the proud possessors of a set of his tracing boards. John Harris is to tracing boards what James Anderson is to the Constitutions. He became fascinated by the concept of the designs on tracing boards from the day of his initiation into Freemasonry in 1818. Within two years, he had produced a set of miniature tracing boards that had all the elements of the artistry we associate with his name today. The next set of boards, elaborate and highly symbolic in design, were dedicated to the Duke of Sussex in 1823, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. This act naturally popularised John Harris’ designs and his tracing boards now became fashionable among Lodges. 


The Lodge of  Emulation

The true breakthrough for Harris, however, came in 1845 when he and others were invited to submit designs for tracing boards to be considered by a committee of the Emulation Lodge of Improvement. John Harris’ designs won hands down. The committee recommended them for use in every Lodge and John Harris never looked back. His name has ever since been closely identified with the Lodge of Emulation. The original large size boards that won the competition are available for viewing every Friday evening of the year in Grand Lodge, where the Emulation School of Improvement meets for its rehearsals. They are housed in huge protective cases, easily accessible for close inspection by those interested. They are truly magnificent in design and well preserved over the years.


In 1849, John Harris produced a new set of boards, which were only a minor improvement on the 1845 designs. The portraits of the three graces were moved from the pillars unto the steps of the stairs leading to the heavens. The attraction and beauty of Harris’ boards lie in a combination of the simplicity and depth of his designs. There is an artistic purity and balance of colour and architecture, and an exceptional representation of the symbolism we are so familiar with as Masons. His composition was in perspective, giving a three-dimensional look to the drawing. The 1st degree board is characterised by the large and heavy entablatures surmounting the three pillars, seen almost from a bird’s eye view. The altar, a Harris innovation, supports the three great lights and Jacob’s ladder has been transformed to a fully fledged staircase on which stand Faith, Hope and Charity. As mentioned above, in the 1845 designs they stood on the pillars. The most intriguing of Harris’ designs is the 2nd degree board. His partition of the board into two sections - also a change from the earlier designs - reflects the distinction between biblical history and Masonic legend. The lower half of the board depicts the principal entrance to the Temple whilst the upper section shows the  porch-way or entrance to the Middle Temple.


Significantly, the compass points have been omitted from the borders: is it possible, therefore, that Harris intended the 2nd degree tracing board to be reversed when laid on the Lodge floor? When the board is viewed with the top toward the East, the winding staircase starts in the North and the two Great pillars, at the main entrance to the Temple, are in the South.  If the board is reversed, however, facing away from the Master, than the principal entrance to the Temple correctly appears to be facing East. The staircase for the craftsman emanates, again correctly, from the South.


Finally, Harris’ third board has a simple closed coffin with an intriguing array of reversed ciphers and Hebrew letters. Hebrew characters were first used by the portrait painter, Josiah Bowring in his 1817 tracing boards and they probably inspired John Harris to also use Hebrew. The question has frequently been asked as to why Harris depicted the ciphers on the tracing board in reverse. There has never been a satisfactory answer. It is possible that he merely continued, or possibly misunderstood, the Hebrew tradition of writing from right to left. The three letters in the cipher appearing on the various versions of the boards are transliterated as: TC, MB twice and HAB respectively, reading from top to bottom.


Virginia’s Civil War Lodge of Research

In 1933 the current new and impressive Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, in the heart of London, was completed and dedicated. This was the site where the first Freemasons’ Hall was constructed in 1774. Grand Lodge decided in 1919 to erect this new Freemasons’ Hall as a Masonic Peace Memorial dedicated in particular to those Brethren who lost their lives in the Great war of 1914-1919. An international tender was placed and two British architects, Henry V Ashley and F Winton Newman won and were nominated and commissioned to undertake the work. The foundation stone was laid on 14 June 1927 and the two architects were subsequently appointed Grand Superintendents of the United Grand Lodge of England for the years, 1937 to 1945 and 1946 to 1953, respectively. Their completion of the architectural undertaking included all furnishings for the individual 19 craft and royal arch temples in addition to he stupendous Grand Temple. The chairs, desks, lighting systems, pedestals were all part of the overall design and to date these are not replaceable. The architects also designed a set of three tracing boards, unique to the United Grand Lodge of England. These tracing boards are normally not to be found outside of Freemasons Hall in Great Queen Street, with one exception. In July 1998, as Master of the Lodge, I was greatly privileged to lead a delegation of seven full members of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No 2076 and twenty five members of the Correspondence Circle on a trip to the United States of America. We were the official guests of the Civil War Lodge of Research No 1865 under the Grand Lodge of Virginia.


At the end of the wonderful days proceedings, attended by over three hundred Masons from all of the Grand Lodges of the United States and several European and other jurisdictions, members of QC had the opportunity of explaining the use of the tracing boards under the English Constitutions. The explanations ended with a presentation to W Bro Paul Bessel, Master of the Civil War Lodge of Research, of a set of the three tracing boards described above. The American Brethren received these with great acclaim and delight and the tracing boards are now on display and opened at every regular meeting of the Lodge of Research. These relatively modern and graphic designs of the tracing boards now used by Grand Lodge and the Civil War Lodge of Research have strong and bright colours and look functional. They are no match to the inspiration that John Harris’s original tracing boards arouse in every mason who has the good fortune to enjoy and contemplate their beauty first hand.




Bracey, W E Some Notes on the Tracing Boards Lodge 3746 Transactions, 1944

Dring, E H The evolution & development of the Tracing, AQC 29 (1916 )

Haunch, T O Tracing Boards. Their development and their design AQC 75/77 1962/64