Encylcopedia of Freemasonry & its kindred Sciences
by Albert C. Mackey M. D.
The publication of a number of Minute Books of old Lodges since it was written calls for a revision of the paragraph on ASHLAR, on page 107. In one of his memoranda on the building of St. Paul s, Sir Christopher Wren shows by the context that as the word was there and then used an ashlar was a stone, ready-dressed from the quarries (costing about $5.00 in our money), for use in walls ; and that a "perpend asheler" was one with polished ends each of which would lie in a surface of the wall ; in that case a "rough" ashlar was not a formless mass of rock, but was a stone ready for use, no surface of which would appear in the building walls; it was unfinished in the sense of unpolished. In other records, of which only a few have been found, a "perpend" ashlar was of stone cut with a key in it so as to interlock with a second stone cut correspondingly.
It is doubtful if the Symbolic Ashlars were widely used among the earliest Lodges; on the other hand they are mentioned in Lodge inventories often enough to make it certain that at least a few of the old Lodges used them ; and since records were so meagerly kept it is possible that their use may have been more common than has been believed. On April 11, 1754, Old Dundee Lodge in Wapping, London, "Resolved that A New Perpend Ashlar Inlaid with Devices of Masonry Valued at £2 12s. 6d. be purchased. " The word ''new'' proves that the Lodge had used an Ashlar before 1754, perhaps for many years before; the word "devices" duggests long years of symbolic use.
It is obvious that the Ashlars as referred to in the above were not like our own Perfect and Imperfect Ashlars. It is certain that our use of them did not originate in America ; there are no known data to show when or where they originated, but it is reasonable to suppose that Webb received them from Preston, or else from English Brethren in person who knew the Work in Preston's period. Operative Masons doubtless used the word in more than one sense, depending on time and place ; and no rule can be based on their Practice.
The Speculative Masons after 1717, as shown above, must have used "Perfect Ashlar" in the sense of "Perpend Ashlar" ; nevertheless the general purpose of the symbolism has been the same throughout - a reminder to the Candidate that he is to think of himself as if he were a building stone and that he will be expected to polish himself in manners and character in order to find a place in the finished Work of Masonry. The contrast between the Rough Ashlar and the Perfect Ashlar is not as between one man and another man, thereby generating a snobbish sense of superiority; but as between what a man is at one stage of his own self-development and what he is at another stage.
In Sir Christopher Wren's use of "ashlar" (he was member of Lodge of Antiquity) the stone had a dimension of 1 x 1 x 2 feet; and many building records, some of them very old, mention similar dimensions; certainly, the "perpend" or "perfect" ashlar almost never was a cube, because there are few places in a wall where a cube will serve. Because in our own symbolism the Perfect Ashlar is a cube, a number of commentators on symbolism have drawn out of it pages of speculation on the properties of the cube, and on esoteric meanings they believe those properties to possess; the weight possessed by those theorizings is proportionate to the knowledge and intelligence of the commentator; but in any event these cubic interpretations do not have the authority of Masonic history behind them.
NOTE. During the many years of building and re-building at Westminster Abbey the clerk of the works kept a detailed account of money expended, money received, wages, etc. These records, still in existence, are called Fabric Rolls. In the Fabric Roll for 1253 the word "asselers" occurs many times, and means dressed stones, or ashlars. A "perpens" or "parpens," or "perpent-stone" was "a through stone," presumably because it was so cut that each end was flush with a face of the wall. It proves that "perpend ashlar" was not a "perfect ashlar" in the present sense of being a cube.