Many of us have the Antiques Roadshow fantasy. You know the one. Some object or work of art, inherited or bought on the cheap (then relegated for years to the back of your attic or bottom of the closet) is revealed to have a connection to someone famous (wow) or worth thousands of dollars (WOW). That pencil sketch on a napkin that you found cleaning out Aunt Edna's apartment after she died? A genuine Picasso. The pocket knife you bought at a yard sale for a dollar? Turns out it belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody. But there is a flipside to this phenomenon. Your family has a treasured relic that has passed from generation to generation, a piece of history that has become the focus of family pride, of local lore and legend. But what if the story is too good to be true?
Curators here at the National Museum of American History are regularly offered objects associated with famous celebrities or historical figures from America's past. There is an obligation on our part to do what we can to confirm the connections to important persons before we consider acquiring such donations. From the standpoint of American history, they don’t come much bigger than George Washington and recently the Museum was offered the chance to acquire a true rarity—a Masonic apron that was said to belong to the First President. The first question—was this fact or fiction?
It is well established that George Washington was a member of the Freemasons, a fraternal society that had reached America from Great Britain by the 1720’s. He became a member of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in 1753 at the age of 20, and would serve as the master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 in 1788. Five years later, while serving as President, he led the Masonic ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new United States Capitol. As a Mason, he would have owned at least one apron, perhaps more. These aprons are worn at Masonic meetings, called lodges, as well as at public ceremonies and serve to identify the wearer as a member of the fraternity, a link to the leather work aprons worn by stone masons of the Middle Ages.
The apron itself had no documentation to support the claim, only the donor's family traditions. But this was no mere family legend that could be shrugged off as wishful thinking. The donor was a descendant of Thomas Hammond, a veteran of the Revolution and had married Washington's niece, Mildred. This raised a real possibility that apron could well be Washington's own.
When Martha Washington died in 1802, a sale of family possessions was held at Mount Vernon for the beneficiaries of her husband's will (Washington had died in 1799). Two Masonic aprons were listed in an inventory of Washington’s possessions, and records of the 1802 sale show Thomas Hammond bought one of them. The second apron was purchased by another extended family member, Burdett Ashton. Ashton's apron would eventually come into the possession of the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, the same lodge where Washington had once served as master. This apron had been a gift to General Washington soon after the victory at Yorktown, and is well documented in Washington's own correspondence, leaving little doubt of its authenticity.
The fate of Hammond's apron is more contentious. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania claims to own it, as does the Mount Nebo Lodge No. 91 of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. But perhaps both organizations are mistaken. What if the donor's family tradition was true? Had this piece of history escaped public notice for two centuries and, instead, passed down through generations of the Hammond family? It would take the input and efforts of curators from across the Museum to try to solve that mystery…
Tim Winkle is an associate curator with the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.