Digest>Archives> December 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Another U.S. Light House Establishment Find

By Jim Claflin


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We recently had the good fortune to purchase an item that we have long hoped to find. Lying for many years in a home closet, this item was long ago put away and forgotten until recently. They are rarely seen in collections or museums, and only mentioned briefly in the Instructions to Keepers. These items were issued to every light station but most were long ago used, worn out and in later years thrown away. What is this valuable item? It is a United States Light House Establishment linen lens cleaning cloth.

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From the very early years of the Light House Establishment, keepers were issued supplies for use in trimming the lighthouse lamp(s) as well as cleaning and polishing the expensive reflectors and later the large Fresnel lens.

The Instructions for Keepers for 1870 notes that “It is necessary to dust the lenses daily, and also the catadioptric rings of the apparatus, and then wipe them off with a piece of soft clean linen…. If these pieces are wiped before being dusted, their surfaces would be scratched.”

Such linen cloths were issued by the Light House Establishment to stations, the number of cloths determined by the size or order of light. According to the 1870 regulations, first order lights were issued 24 towels; second order, 20 towels; third order, 18; and so on to 12 for fifth and sixth order lights; and 6 for beacon and mast-head lights. The towels were of a soft off-white linen measuring 24” x 41”. The two 24” ends were finished in a 1/2” fray.

To prevent loss or use for other than intended uses, each towel was boldly marked with the “Light House Establishment pattern.” This consisted of large letters in an 8” circular pattern: “UNITED STATES LIGHT HOUSE ESTABLISHMENT.”

As you can imagine, years after the Lighthouse Service was absorbed into the Coast Guard, those towels that did still exist probably found many other uses changing oil or hand washing and were eventually discarded. To find one after over 130 years was indeed a great find. Their value? In the $1,600 range would not be out of line.

I found one other piece that I thought might be of interest too, especially in this election year. It is a copy of the New York Daily Tribune for August 11, 1843. In it is a short 1” column noting that “Mr. B.H.A. Collins, of Eastham, Mass. who was elected to the last Legislature out of charity for his lameness and poverty by the Whigs of his town, and sold out his party to the Loco Pocos, giving them the control of the State Government, has just been appointed by John Tyler Keeper of Light House on Cape Cod; This appointment reflects equal credit on Collins and Tyler.” Keeper B. H. A. Collins served at Nauset (Three Sisters) Lighthouse from 1843-1849, when the political party in office changed and he was removed, and again from 1853-1861 when his party was again in power. It is an interesting note on the politics of the time. One wonders if we are we that much better off today.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the December 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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