Tracing Board

Tracing Board, ca. 1796

Boston, Massachusetts

Gift of Union Lodge, Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 75.46.17

Photograph by David Bohl


In the 1700s lodge members used floor cloths painted with symbols to instruct new brothers in the meaning of Masonic emblems. When a floor cloth was not needed, members rolled it up for storage. Union Lodge of Dorchester, Massachusetts, owned this tracing board, mentioning it on property inventories made from 1796 through 1820. At some time, probably in the early 1800s, members decided to attach the tracing board to a wood panel. This change allowed the tracing board to be hung on the lodge room wall during meetings.

Historians estimate that there were about 5,000 Freemasons in the colonies by the 1770s. From this modest start, Freemasonry grew rapidly in the late 1700s and 1800s. For example, while he was Grand Master of Massachusetts, Paul Revere (1734-1818) chartered twenty-three new lodges over his term from 1795 to 1797, almost doubling the number in the state. New lodges needed tracing boards, furniture and ritual objects to undertake their work and, “Fit up their hall in Masonic style.” Established lodges sought to keep their lodges attractive and up-to-date. These combined needs drove commissions of the kinds of objects displayed here.