Hawke's Bay Research Lodge No. 305

Tracing Boards or Degree Charts?

An Opinion of VWBro Terry Carrell, PGLec (Christchurch)

The following is taken from a paper presented some ten years ago by Bro Mark S Dwor, Centennial-King George Lodge No. 171, Richmond, Canada.

1.   Much of what needs to be known about Tracing Boards is known. The people who made them and the Lodges that use them are all fairly well documented. This part of Masonic history does not fall into "from time immemorial."

2.   The time frame when the Tracing Boards came into being is roughly at the very end of the Eighteenth Century and the first decades or so of the Nineteenth Century. The content of them reflects the reality of Masonry at the time, just prior to and through the process of and after the Lodge of Reconciliation (formed 7 December 1817).

3.   While we think of the rise of the two rival Grand Lodges in the Eighteenth Century as a time of conflict, in actual fact it was a time of the greatest Masonic growth where the Brethren in the Lodges were experimenting with different methods of communicating the Masonic message to each other and perfecting new rituals.

4.   The Tracing Boards are teaching aids. They have taken on a life of their own, which has had some startling repercussions in Ritual work.

5.   To understand where Tracing Boards came from, you have to understand where Floor Cloths came from, but that does not necessarily mean that Tracing Boards are an evolution from Floor Cloths. Many Lodges that use Tracing Boards still use Floor Cloths, and some Lodges that use Floor Cloths, do not use Tracing Boards, &c.

6.   The Tracing Boards that we use ought not to be called Tracing Boards, and this has been recognized by commentators for the last 80 years, but the chance of renaming them even 80 years ago was zero and is certainly less than that now.

7.   The Tracing Boards were originally designed to lie flat on the floor of the Lodge, and the Tracing Boards that we use now have used the same artistic perspective, as did the original Tracing Boards.

8.   While the Tracing Boards as a teaching aid can also be an adornment of the Lodge, it is generally agreed by the writers on this topic that the ones that are most commonly in use, are the least artistically interesting.

In researching a lecture on the development of what we know as the Tracing Boards, I found considerable evidence to suggest that these are (as no doubt some of you already suspect) incorrectly named. In the “presentation” of the First Degree Tracing board we are informed that the Tracing Board is for “the Master to lay lines and draw designs on.

We know that this is certainly not the current use of these boards; I would not dare draw on our Tracing Boards. In some jurisdictions however, the board is not an ornament as we know it but a floor blackboard on which the emblems or symbols of the degree are drawn at each lodge (degree) opening and erased at each closing. I have witnessed this at Loge La Perouse in Noumea.

There are two aspects to the development of the Tracing Boards. First is the adoption and defining of the symbols and emblems, and the second is the accumulation of them into one presentation.

Today we have a formal presentation the Tracing Board in each degree; however I suggest this is an aberration of the original purpose of those boards. Prior to 1800 it was common for long lectures, perhaps as much as thirty pages, to be read to new initiates or “when called upon by the Master.” Evidently the Brethren grew tired of this practice (who can blame them?) and new ritual was developed to achieve the same ends.

The various symbols displayed on our Tracing Boards were in evidence prior to the introduction of these Boards and can be found in image records of items such as early Masonic jewellery and hand painted aprons, some elaborately decorated.

The Tracing Boards, as we know them, came into vogue around 1800 when the ritual was “modernised” by various Masonic scholars. This was a time of turmoil in Freemasonry as the Ancient and Moderns vied for supremacy but far from being a time of trouble, it was a time of considerable advancement for the Craft and from which we can trace the ritual of modern Freemasonry.

At that time (c.1800) the “Tracing Boards” were introduced to illustrate a lecture; which has now been turned around to be a lecture that explains the Tracing Board. Why do this when in fact the lecture is about the Lodge room and its ornaments, real and imaginary?
To ponder on the image of the “Tracing Board” is to reflect on Freemasonry and on the Lodge Room itself. It is thus that the name we use for these “boards” is misleading; surely they are Degree Charts as they map out the procedures of the degree and illustrate the lessons of the ritual. One has to agree with Bro Dwor when he says that the chance of renaming them today is close to zero.
I continue to be drawn to the conclusion that the ritualistic presentation of the “Tracing Board” from the tracing board itself is self-defeating. In this way we over emphasise the importance of the board making it a definitive object when in fact it is an illustration. In trepidation I suggest that the explanation of the board should be an item of education rather than an item of ritual functionality. I trust we all agree that an understanding of the symbolism of the board is more important than the glory of correct “ritualistic” presentation.

I have witnessed the perfected flowing presentation of some of our past Brethren where they would explain the board in the context of the Lodge Room, moving about the room as they give the lecture. Thus the board had meaning; it had direct relationship to the craft. It explained the ethereal as well as the worldly. The presentation was not so much ritualistic as practical, although it still followed the lecture as defined in our ritual.

Did the Tracing Boards develop from the early “floor cloths” once used to define the Lodge? Not really, although the introduction can perhaps be related to the lifting of those clothes from the floor to the wall. Those floor cloths were emblazoned with patterns, which defined the Lodge in the temporary rooms then used for meetings. They, in turn, had replaced the very early floor scratchings/chalk drawings when floors became carpeted and such floor drawings became inappropriate.



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Hawke's Bay Research Lodge No.305

WBro Nigel Friggens

Hawkes Bay Research Lodge meets in the Masonic Centre, Jervois Street, Hastings

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DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in printed papers published by the lodge are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the lodge or its members.