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History of the Gavel


Information provided by:
Demetrious Polychron

My name is Demetrious and I'm doing research for a screenplay and I'm having problems discovering the history of the gavel. I'm looking specifically to learn what they were using in England in 1600, but if you could point me anywhere in the right direction with a resource, I would very much appreciate it. Thanks for your help!

Many thanks to Demetrious for the diligent effort in finding this information.
I had a few minutes so I looked around. This item from LegalTrac is the most promising thing I've seen: Full content for this article includes illustration and photograph.

Source: New York Law Journal, June 11, 1992 v207 n112 p1 21 col in.
Title: The vanishing sound of the rap of the gavel. (New York)
Author: Deborah Pines
Subjects: Judges - Rites and ceremonies
Conduct of court proceedings
Social aspects
Jurisdctn: New York (State)
The OED (on our campus network) only has quotations from the mid-19th century:
gavel ('gaev&schwa.l), sb.[4] U.S. a `A mason's setting maul' (Knight Dict. Mech.). b A president's mallet or hammer.
1860 WORCESTER cites SHEPARD. 1866 Nation (N.Y.) 23 Aug. 153/1 Mr. Doolittle gave two or three raps with his gavel. 1895 JEWITT & HOPE Corporation Plate
II. 538 The Mayor's gavel or mallet is of ivory with fluted handle. 2 attrib., as gavel-stand. 1892 Sp. at Chicago in Times 22 June 5/3 Two needs..indispensable to our success-namely, unity and harmony. Of the one this chair and gavel-stand are the representatives.
I checked -- with no success -- Index to Legal Periodicals (the old Chipman Gray one, as well as the Wilson one). Nothing in AmJur or CJS. Nothing in the Oxford Companion to Law. Nothing in Bouvier's Law Dictionary. Nothing in West's Encyclopedia of American Law. Good luck with your quest ****************************************************************
Then I found this
>From the U.S. Senate history FAQ (not an origin, but at least it counts as an "early sighting"): "What is the history of the Senate gavel? "The original ivory gavel is one of the most precious articles in the Senate's collection. According to tradition, Vice President John Adams (our first Vice President and therefore our first President of the Senate) used this gavel to call the Senate to order in New York in the Spring of 1789. Although we cannot document that, we know for certain the gavel was used as early as 1831. In the late 1940s the old gavel began to wear out, so silver tips were added to each end to strengthen and preserve it. In 1954, as Vice President Richard Nixon presided over a heated discussion about atomic energy, the precious gavel fell apart. Senate officials wanted to recreate the original as exactly as possible. When no ivory of sufficient size could be found commercially, India, through its embassy, provided the ivory and had the new gavel hand-carved in exactly the same dimensions as the new one. The new gavel began service on November 17, 1954, and is still in use today. At the end of each long day of service, the gavel is placed in a box beside the mended original gavel." ( By the way, the U.S. Senate gavel is not shaped like a hammer, but is a just a small cylinder without any handle. This may undermine the Hammer of Thor origin. As for a possible conspiracy involving Richard Nixon and the Freemasons, well.... ****************************************************************
Then I found this
My extensive in-depth research reveals that it was in fact Noah who first had occasion to use a gavel. He was endeavouring to induce a reluctant fish to enter his ark, and in frustration at its attitude hit it hard on the head with one. In due course that fish came to be universally known as the flathead. ****************************************************************
Then I found this
I asked a Judge aquaintance of mine, who is an avid gavel collector (the bidding wars on e-bay!) if he knew the answer to the above question. While I realize that it's been asked and answered previously, his answer is so thorough and entertaining I thought I'd share it with all of you.

Neela R. Taub
Practising Law Institute
212-824-5982 (fax)

The fact is that there is very little written on the subject of gavels. Indeed, the historical derivation of the word is unknown. The word gavel was used in Middle English to describe a tribute or rent paid to a superior. When it was a payment in kind as opposed to money it would be a hyphenated term like gavel-corn, gavel-malt, etc. The word was also spelled "gabel" and used in the same context. From this meaning sprung many related words like "gavelet" - a legal writ used to recover rent - and gavelman - a tenant liable for rent. There are many other similar terms all related to the rental scenario. The term gavel is rather generic since it has been used to describe objects otherwise called mallets, mallots, setting mauls, etc.

The early Masonic Lodges which were known to exist in England in the 1700s - and some say as early as the 1500s used a setting maul as their symbol of maintaining order in a meeting. The device actually stood up so that the handle was set on a round based which was flattened on the bottom so that it could stand. When it was stood upright, the lodge was in session, when it was laid in its cradle the lodge was in recess. I know the device was frequently referred to as a gavel.

The early Old Fellows Lodges which also originated in England sometime around the 1700s used gavels as well and the old gavels from that organization which I have seen take the more traditional form. None of this directly answers either your question or the question why the piece is called a gavel. As to your question, my guess is that something was used to demand order almost from the beginning of time. Can't you picture a cave man slamming a club to get everyone's attention. However, if we are talking about the first use of the gavel as we know it, I would go with sometime in the 1700s.

My guess is the term "gavel" may have derived from the rent collection proceedings in the English courts. Those tenancy cases can get pretty unruly!!

Let me know if you get a more educated answer. ****************************************************************
And finally I came to this
The gavel, actually the iron axe, or pick, having a steel edge, or point, with which the quarryman roughly trims the stone, represents the force of conscience. The form of gavel adopted for the speculative's convenience is a wooden mallet, itself a small form of the maul (maul-ette).A chairman's mallet, as well as the Master's gavel, is a wooden hammer whose outline suggests that of the operative's axe, but also resembles the end-wall of a gabled house, for which latter reason it is said-but whether truthfully or not we do not know-it derives its name of gavel, a name apparently of American origin, and not known in England before the nineteenth century.The uses of gavel and maul are frequently confused. The gavel, the implement of both the Master and his Wardens, is an emblem of power,by means of which they preserve order in the lodge; but the maul is the heavy wooden hammer with which the mason drives his chisel. Being the weapon with which the Master was traditionally slain, it is an emblem of violent death and assassination. In Proverbs xxv, 18, we find this curious figure of speech: "A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow." In many lodges the gavel is used by the Master at a significant point in the third ceremony where the correct implement is the heavy maul, which was used in the early English lodges and is still used in some lodges to-day. In the Fabric Rolls of York Minster of 1360 a type of maul, or mell, is called a keevil. The word must have long continued in use, because we find it in a published description, dated 1791, of how stones for the Eddystone lighthouse were worked.Both gavel and maul have been commonly known as a 'Hiram.' The Old Dundee Lodge bought in 1739 a set of three 'Hirams,' and we believe that in the old Bristol lodges the maul is presented under the name of the 'Hiram' to the incoming Master. The name is explained by associating Hiram's direction of the work of building the Temple with the Master's direction of the work of the lodge; but it seems more likely that the name derives from the use of the maul for its peculiar purpose in the Third Degree. The present writer has seen a particularly heavy-looking maul put to realistic work in an American lodge, and it can well be imagined that some of the old English lodges knew how to use such a tool with tremendous effect, particularly if judged from a schedule of the property of the Orthes Lodge (a military lodge moribund from about 1869) which included "a heavy maul, padded; handle, 3 feet; top, 1 foot." This was more beetle than maul. An unusual setting maul of T shape in ceremonious use in an old Bristol lodge has a short handle, but its double head is much longer than the total length of the handle, and each of the two striking parts is of padded leather secured by brass-headed nails to the turned-wood foundation-altogether a remarkably 'arresting' tool. ****************************************************************

This next item was referred to me by a customer and found at this web link. Please read and enjoy.

"Perhaps no lodge appliance or symbol is possessed of such deep and
absorbing interest to the craft as the Master's mallet or gavel.  Nothing in
the entire range of Masonic paraphernalia and formulary can boast of an
antiquity so unequivocally remote," according to Joseph F. Ford in Early
History and Antiquities of Freemasonry. (Hunt)  

Gavels, hammers, mallets, or mauls, have both practical and symbolic
uses in lodges and other meetings, as well as both practical and
symbolic uses in operative and speculative Freemasonry.

Keeping order and punctuating actions

The gavel has been generally adopted by Masonic bodies and many
other groups as a means to call meetings to order, keep order, announce
the results of votes, and otherwise punctuate actions of the group. (Coil) 
However, it is a mistake for the presiding officer to try to stop noise and
keep order by pounding with the gavel. (Roberts)

The use of a hammer to keep order was common in medieval institutions
such as an Elizabethan guild in Exeter where, "the governor having a
small hammer in his hands made for the purpose, when he will have
scilence to be hadd shall knocke the same upon the Borde, and who so
ever do talke after the second stroke to paye without redempcion two
pence." (AQC, XL)  There is also a reference in a biography of the founder
of the Cistercians to "the harsh strokes of the wooden mallet used for calling
the brethren together."  (AQC, XL)

Symbol of authority

In a larger sense, gavels symbolize the executive power, as this is the
instrument which strikes blows (Hunt), or it can be thought of as a symbol
of authority without the use of force. (Haywood)

The gavel is an emblem of the authority of the Master in governing the
Lodge. (Macoy)  At the installation of a Master he is informed, upon being
tendered this implement, that it constitutes the essential element of his
authority over the assembled brethren, without which his efforts to preserve
order and subordination would be ineffectual.  It is the symbol that inducts
him into the possession of the Masonic lodge. (Hunt)  

In the middle ages mallets were thrown and all ground over which they
traversed were acknowledged to be possessed by the thrower.  This
practice gave rise to the symbolism of the mallet indicating the Master's
possession of his lodge. (Hunt and Haywood)  A somewhat different use of
a thrown hammer is shown in an English ordinance of 1462 which is said to
have declared that lewd women should remain as far from the territory of
Masonic lodges as a hammer could be hurled. (Hunt)

The appropriate item for this purpose should be wooden with a flat surface
at one end and a pointed surface at the other.  French and Spanish
Freemasons sometimes refer to it as the "president's hammer" and use an
instrument that is flat at both ends, then slightly pinched, and larger again
in the middle. (Macoy)  The gavel should not resemble a setting maul.

The gavel is sometimes confused with the setting maul which is a different
instrument used for different purposes. (Macoy)  The gavel is a implement
of both the Master and his Wardens, and is an emblem of power, while the
maul is a heavy wooden hammer with which the mason drives his chisel. 
The maul is also the weapon with which the Master was traditionally said to
have been slain, so it is an emblem of violent death.  It is incorrect to use
a gavel instead of a heavy maul in the dramatization of the third degree.
(Jones)  It is also inappropriate to use a little auctioneer's hammer in place
of a gavel, as this may connote that the initiate is being sold. (Mackenzie)

The gavel of the Master of a Lodge is also called a "Hiram" (Macoy)
because, like that architect, it governs the Craft and keeps order in the
Lodge as Hiram did in the Temple (Mackey and Hunt), or because of the
use made of the maul in the third degree.  As early as 1739 both gavels and
mauls were referred to by that name. (Jones)  A negative sense of this
implement is found in the Bible, Proverbs XXV, 18, "A man that beareth false
witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow." 

Use by Operative and Speculative Masons

Mackey and Coil say the gavel used as a hammer has one flat face opposite
the sharp end so that from the top it resembles a gabled roof on a house,
and because of this, "gable" becomes the German word "gipfel" meaning
summit or peak (Mackey, Coil, Hunt) or "giebel" (Macoy) and then the
English word "gavel," although in German lodges the gavel is called the

It is one of the oldest working tools used by man, as illustrated by stories
of Scandinavian mythology where Thor, the principal god, was given a
special hammer or mallet which always struck its targets with great force
and then returned to the thrower without any injury to him.  Symbolically, as
the hammer of Thor destroyed his enemies, so it should continue to be used
to destroy the enemies of that which is good and true. (Hunt)

It is used on stone to make a rough shaping or dressing, with the finishing
done with a chisel and mallet or maul.  Gavel is defined in the Oxford
English Dictionary (1901) as a mason's setting maul or a presiding officer's
hammer, and it is said to be an American usage. (AQC, 101 and XL)  The
name "gavel" was not known in England before the nineteenth century.

Freemasons are taught that the common gavel is one of the working tools
of an Entered Apprentice.  It is used by operative masons to break off the
corners of rough ashlars and thus fit them the better for the builder's use. 
It is not adapted to giving polish or ornamentation to the stone, and hence
it should symbolize only that training of the new Freemason which is
designed to give some limited skill and moral training, and to teach that
labor is the lot of man and that "qualities of heart and head are of limited
value 'if the hand be not prompt to execute the design' of the master."  Its
meaning has been extended to include the symbolism of the chisel, to show
the enlightening and ennobling effects of training and education. (Street)

The gavel is adopted in Speculative Freemasonry to admonish us of the
duty, often painful (Hunt), of divesting our minds and consciences of all the
vices and impurities of life, thereby fitting our bodies (Mackey and Macoy)
or minds as living stones for the spiritual building, not made with hands,
eternal in the heavens. (Mackey)  

The gavel represents the force of conscience.  (Jones)  It is our will power,
through which we govern our actions and free ourselves from debasing
influences.  It requires repeated exercise of our will power to subdue our
passions.  Will power is common to all and it is fittingly symbolized by the
"common" gavel, but just as the gavel is of no worth unless it is used, so is
our will power. (Hunt)  

The gavel is an instrument common to the lowest and the highest in the
Lodge.  The common gavel is shown to each Entered Apprentices to remind
him that symbolically he should use it in Freemasonry to divest himself of
the vices and superfluities of life.  Years later, even when one has attained
the highest rank in the Lodge by becoming its Master, the same implement
of a gavel is placed in his hand as a reminder that we all need to continue
to strive for improvements in our manner and character. (Mackenzie)

Albert Pike felt the mallet and chisel (and gavel) symbolized development
of the intellect of each individual and of society.  He wrote, "...a man's
intellect is all his own, held direct from God, an inalienable fief.  It is the
most potent of weapons....Society hangs spiritually together....The free
country, in which intellect and genius govern, will endure....To elevate the
people by teaching loving-kindness and wisdom, with power to him who
teaches best; and so to develop the free State from the rough ashlar;---this
is the great labor in which Masonry desires to lend a helping hand."

by Paul M. Bessel
February 1995
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