A Crash Course in Material Culture for Tourists: The Mormon Beehive

By September 16, 2013

Is this really a post about material culture? I started out thinking it would be, but I suppose it hasn’t really ended up that way as I’m not analyzing the ways in which the makers or users of these objects physically interact with them. Yet I think there’s something significant in the fact that the Mormon beehive is such a substantial physical presence, both as it is materially incorporated into so many Mormon sites and as it appears in so many of the mundane physical assertions of state power in Utah. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws in an effort to anchor myself to our monthly theme here at JI ? I’ll leave it for the readers of this post to decide!

I?ve always been a very visual person, and I take great delight in quizzing myself and the people around me on the people and pictures that we encounter in our everyday lives. I?m told it?s something of a trial to watch any BBC production with me, as every time a new character appears on screen I immediately give my fellow viewers a brief history of the actor?s previous performances and explain how their previous roles are being used to shape the audience?s reaction to the current character. (This might explain why my husband often chooses to go do something else when I turn on Masterpiece Theatre….) I do the same thing with Disney movies, and I also delighted, when I worked for the Disney Store in college and made frequent excursions to Orlando, at finding the ?hidden Mickeys? that Disney incorporates into designs all over its theme parks. It?s a shame Dan Brown isn?t better at what he does ? I?m a big fan of finding and analyzing hidden symbols… when they?re well hidden (or at least unnoticed or misunderstood by many) and worth finding anyway.

So imagine how much fun I have with the many not-so-hidden but all-too-overlooked symbols I have learned through my study of the Latter-day Saints (as evidenced here by the fact that all of the pictures below are mine, unless otherwise noted).  There?s the ?all-seeing eye? that so fascinated and frightened late-19th and early-20th century American writers, filmmakers, and audiences, which I first encountered in person in the St. George Tabernacle:

Image of the "all-seeing eye" high on the wall above the central platform in the St. George (Utah) Tabernacle.

St. George (Utah) Tabernacle, May 2011


the pioneer beard that allowed me to spot Brigham Young from far across the Hall of Statues in the U. S. Capitol (when I asked the tour guide if that was in fact Brigham Young, some of my fellow tour group members whispered something to the effect that I must be a Mormon);

Statue of a seated Brigham Young in the Hall of Statues at the United States Capitol building.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons. (Somehow I didn?t manage to get my picture taken with Brigham during my tour of the Capitol.)

and, my personal favorite, the beehive.

The beehive is everywhere you look in Utah, where the Mormons adopted it as a territorial symbol shortly after their arrival in the intermountain west in 1847. Given that the Saints? original name for the territory, Deseret, means honeybee, it?s not surprising that the beehive was an important symbol for the community. (It was even on the money.) Furthermore, the hive symbolized for early Mormon settlers in the West the essential value of all members of the community working together for the common good. The Saints? centralized organization and commitment to the larger goals of the community over the independent goals of the individual have long been recognized as key to their success in settling in some of the harshest landscapes in the American West. This community-mindedness, which many 19th-century non-Mormons found off-putting at best and anti-democratic at worst, has at other times been one of the things the rest of America most admired about the Mormons. During the early decades of the 20th century, when two World Wars and a Great Depression demanded that individuals sacrifice for the greater good, the Mormon values of industry and community symbolized by the beehive were widely celebrated in American popular culture.

Given that the source of the term Deseret is the Book of Mormon, it isn?t surprising to find the beehive abundantly represented at Mormon religious sites and historic sites with religious significance.

Entrance to the St. George (Utah) Temple, with beehives on the newel posts at the foot of the main stairs.

St. George (Utah) Temple, May 2011

Historic marker at the winter home of Brigham Young, St. George, Utah, May 2011. The marker, which was dedicated by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, is crested by a beehive.

Historic marker at the Winter Home of Brigham Young, St. George, Utah, May 2011

Wooden newel post on banister of interior staircase in Brigham Young's Beehive House in Salt Lake City. The newel post is topped with a carved beehive.

Newel post in the Beehive House, Salt Lake City, June 2013

The beehive was also an important means by which early Mormon Utahns represented their community to outsiders. When the nation?s states and territories each donated plaques to be installed in the Washington Monument in the mid-19th century, Utah sent this:

A rectangular stone plaque dominated by a central relief carving of a beehive with the words "Holiness to the Lord" above and the word "Deseret" below.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons. The elevator operator on my last trip up the monument tried to stop the elevator in front of the plaque for me, but alas he didn?t know where it was and had to give up because we couldn?t spend several minutes peering out of the elevator on every level of the monument on the way down. [1]

But the beehive became a symbol of the government of the state of Utah, as well, despite the federal government?s pointed demands in the late 19th century that to earn statehood, the Saints must remove their religion from state governance. Perhaps its most frequent manifestation on the Utah landscape is on state highway signs.

Utah state highway sign featuring a black background with a white beehive on which the highway number is printed in black.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons.


The Hotel Utah, completed by the Church in Salt Lake City in 1911, is crowned by a beehive in combination with the ubiquitous symbols of the United States, the eagle and the American flag. This intentional combination of the symbols of the religious and the national community point to the fact that, as the Saints ?Americanized? at the turn of the 20th century by increasingly separating church from state, they didn?t entirely capitulate to the demands of the federal government by envisioning their Mormon faith as separate from the workings of their government. Instead, the Saints blended the old symbols and the new in a striking visual representation of their firm belief that it was possible to be both a believing Latter-day Saint and a loyal American.

Image of the central decorative sculpture atop the Joseph Smith Memorial building, which features a large, white-painted beehive dome fronted by a sculpted eagle with outspread wings. A flagpole bearing the American flag is atop the beehive.

Atop the Church-built Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building)
in Salt Lake City. Look closely behind the eagle. (I was desperate to get a better picture than this, but sadly flying isn?t one of my many talents.)


This symbolic symbiosis wasn?t made ?official? by the state legislature until the 1950s ? the height of the integration between the Saints and broader American culture in the mid-century Mormon Moment ? but in fact it is as old as the state itself. When Utah was officially elevated to statehood in 1896, they adopted the state seal that remains unchanged in its essentials to this day:

State seal of Utah featuring a beehive at center on a white shield, flanked by American flags and topped by an eagle with outspread wings. Immediately above the beehive is the word "Industry." Immediately below it is the year 1847, the date when the Mormons first settled in the territory.

Picture from the State of Utah’s official website (http://pioneer.utah.gov/research/utah_symbols/flag.html).


The seal ? and the state flag, designed in 1903 using the same basic elements as the seal ? are visible, routinely physical signs that the Mormons may have been forced to give up their Kingdom of Deseret, but they did not intend to forget the ideal of community on which it was founded. That beehive may be widely regarded today as a symbol of industry and Yankee thrift, but it is also a powerful reminder of the centrality of the community in Mormon history and religion.

(It?s also a great object to put at the center of your version of travel bingo or a scavenger hunt the next time you go traveling out West.)




[1] Interestingly, the Deseret Stone was first brought to my attention by Arabic calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, who had seen it while on a special tour of the interior of the monument. (Speaking of symbolism, Zakariya was there to see a plaque donated in the 19th century by the Turkish government.) He was fascinated by the Utah stone but didn?t know what the beehive represented; when he met me during a visit to Boston University and learned the subject of my research, one of his first questions was whether I could explain the symbolism of this plaque in the Washington Monument to him.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Material Culture


  1. Interesting post! But I’m curious about the origin of that particular image of the beehive. If you were to ask beekeepers today for a picture of their hives, it’s likely that you’d get something that looks a lot like a box–rectangular, dull, not worthy as a symbol of anything. Can you imagine the state of Utah littered with images of rectangular boxes? May as well change to state motto to UPS.

    Anybody know where Utah’s beehive came from?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 16, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  2. This is great. I’m kind of sad I visited the Capitol before my Mormon Studies days and so missed out on noticing Brigham Young.

    Comment by Saskia T — September 16, 2013 @ 11:07 am

  3. Mark, that type of beehive was widely used in masonic symbology.

    Great post, Cristine.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  4. Mark B., I’m no expert but a quick Google search revealed this well-illustrated blog post on the history of beehives in the context of English and American gardens. Note especially the author’s comments on the beeskep (which you can still easily purchase online). While the post notes that American gardeners of the 18th and 19th centuries preferred to use wooden boxes — essentially what you describe — I’d speculate that since wood was a precious commodity in the early days of Deseret, the straw beeskep might simply have been the more practical structure for early Mormons. Also — again, pure speculation — this blogger notes that the straw beeskep was popular in England throughout the 19th century. How many 19th-century Mormon settlers in Utah were immigrants from England, or the children thereof?

    Saskia, Brigham is a pretty impressive presence in the Hall of Statues. The moreso because A) I remember some pretty virulent railing in newspapers, in the decade after Utah gained statehood, against ever letting a statue of Brigham Young into the U.S. Capitol and B) the tour guide, when I asked, delivered a marvelously sanitized version of Brigham’s personal history and contributions to the American project.

    Comment by Cristine — September 16, 2013 @ 11:28 am

  5. Having read a few histories of beekeeping, the domed beehive is called a skep. It is much more transportable than other forms of traditional beehives including those made of clay or hollow logs. It is also the most common type of beehive in art. Here are some examples of medieval representations of beehives, and every link I clicked on shows a skep:


    Wooden beehives with removable frames began to be used commonly worldwide in the latter half of the 19th century, so unless there is documentation to the contrary, it may be a stretch to link the Mormon use of the skep in its iconography to any Masonic use.

    And now I’ve returned to the computer and refreshed the screen and see that Cristine has already covered much of this material. Beekeeping is a fascinating subject. It can be very complicated to keep a hive properly cared for and healthy. Utah has a thriving and active beekeeping community, and anyone with an interest in beekeeping could probably contact one of the county or regional associations and a local beekeeper would undoubtedly be more than happy to show you the ropes. (Knowing a few of them myself.)

    Comment by Amy T — September 16, 2013 @ 11:55 am

  6. Amy, with as many associated symbols that the Mormons borrowed from masonry, I think it is extremely difficult to say that the beehive was any different.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  7. Thanks, Cristine. This was fun, especially since I’m a sucker for photo essays and images of the beehive. Poking around a bit, I came across this article from Salt Lake Magazine a few years back that touches on some of the same history you outline here and provides additional images of beehives. And Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive is, of course, required reading for anyone interested in the larger symbolism of the beehive in Mormon culture.

    Re: Masonic-Mormon connections on this point, I’m with Stapley. I think it’s fairly common wisdom that early Mormons borrowed the beehive symbol from the Masons.

    Comment by Christopher — September 16, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  8. Loved your thoughts, Cristine. Thanks!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 16, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  9. You forgot the BEERHIVE!! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Beerhive-Pub/163241570361229

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 16, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

  10. I’m sure you two are correct, Christopher and J. I don’t know if I’ve read any Mauss other than a handful of essays and blog comments.

    Here’s another view of the all-seeing eye/Faith and Union decoration from the St. George Tabernacle. (I tried to create a link just to the picture, but it didn’t work, so you have to scroll down.) (St. George Tabernacle.) Curiously, the decoration does not show up in the film, “The Windows of Heaven.” The filmmakers get all sort of shots of the interior of the Tabernacle, including full shots of the back of the room, but they seem to carefully avoid showing that decoration.

    Comment by Amy T — September 16, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  11. Amy, don’t even get me started on what they did to the SLC Assembly Hall.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  12. At the link below is a photo of the Kentlands Ward building in Gaithersburg, Maryland which was dedicated by Elder Ballard twenty years ago this month. Zoom in to the right of the stop sign to see the beehives atop the low wall, flanking the sidewalk. There are also some inside on staircase bannisters. Any newer beehives than this out there?


    Comment by John Mansfield — September 16, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  13. John: yes. On the Conference Center’s windows:

    Conference Center Windows

    Comment by Christopher — September 16, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

  14. Those are great examples, John and Christopher.

    I remember seeing a chapel in Springville, Utah, two or three years ago, and the use of the beehive icon on its exterior seemed so atypical for modern meetinghouses that I took a picture. I won’t bother looking for the picture but here’s the Street View:

    448 South Canyon Drive, Springville, Utah

    Comment by Amy T — September 16, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  15. I’m so excited that you’re all excited about beehives!

    J. Stapley (et al.) — what significance does the beehive hold in Masonry? In other words, what messages are the Masons trying to get across when they decorate with beehives. And do you think that message is in line with Mormon uses of the image?

    Finally, Amanda HK… I’m sorry. I failed you. But this WAS a trip down my own memory lane, and I must admit I have not been to the Beerhive.

    Comment by Cristine — September 16, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

  16. I am by no means an expert on masonry, but my understanding is that it symbolizes organized industry.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

  17. Thanks J. Stapley. So the Masonic symbol carries the industry meaning, but not the vision of community that the beehive also symbolizes for Mormons…

    Comment by Cristine — September 17, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  18. There are two connections to the bees in Masonry. One is part of a kind of gift/endowment of honey and salt which is, I believe, a relatively late addition. (i.e. at end of 18th century)

    The other appears to come out of alchemy into Masonry and probably came originally from various neoPlatonic texts. In those texts (quoted extensively by many Masons) it conveys the idea of higher worlds discerned via symbolic forms. The main text is Porphyry’s “On the Cave of the Nymphs.” It’s a 3rd century text with an allegory of the soul’s progression through mortality to liberation. In the Renaissance it’s given lots of connections. Sometime in the 18th century the beehive becomes one of the ten emblems (including an all-seeing eye) given to a Master Mason at the time of his initiation. It’s associated with the motto industry, as J Stapley noted.

    One should note that the systems out of which Masonry was created were going pretty wild with symbols and especially connecting symbols. Leading to what we’d today call semiotic drift. (i.e. new meanings coming from connections from symbols)

    It’s interesting as George Washington’s masonic apron has a lot of symbols many Mormons would recognize.

    Comment by Clark — September 17, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

  19. If you are in the Salt Lake area, visit the basement of the State Capitol Building where Scott Christensen of the Church History Department has his beehive collection on display. And during this rivalry week here in Utah, it is interesting to note that both the BYU and UofU diplomas have had beehives on them. I’d assume they still do.

    Comment by Alan — September 18, 2013 @ 10:43 am

  20. I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned the traditional Bibical meaning of the beehive.

    By the time of the Exodus, each of the tribes of Israel had taken a symbol (based on the blessings in Gen 49 (A lion for Judah, a ship for Zebulon, a donkey for Issachar, etc.) The sign for the united 12 tribes? Yep. A beehive!

    I often wonder if BY didn’t choose the beehive knowing the dual meaning: Industry, community and cooperation on the one hand, but also the symbol for the literal gathering of Israel.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 18, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

  21. Great post, Christine. Thanks.

    And thanks for the useful comments, all.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 18, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

  22. Yes, thanks, all… Particularly “Other” Clark for reminding us of the additional layer of biblically-derived meanings!

    Comment by Cristine — September 19, 2013 @ 9:12 am

  23. About 15 years back someone (USHS?) did a fabulous collection of Utah postcards featuring different beehives in old architecture – from temples to pubs to ice creams shops and much more. Gave my set to a Mormon historical postcard collector years ago, so cannot reference.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 19, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  24. JI (irregular) blogger Stan did a paper at USHS in 2007 on the use of beehive symbols as a boundary marker. Fascinating paper.

    Comment by David G. — September 19, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  25. That is interesting about the traditional dome-shaped beehive. I had always assumed that to be the natural shape as constructed by bees in the wild, much the way hornets build their own particular type of nests.

    Comment by Rock Waterman — September 20, 2013 @ 1:56 pm


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