Digest>Archives> November 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

U. S. Light House Establishment Library

By Jim Claflin

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We recently picked up a rare early item that was issued to most light stations for the enjoyment of the keeper and his family – a United States Light House Establishment Traveling Library Box.

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In an effort to satisfy the intellectual need of remote light keepers and their families, the Light-House Establishment in 1876 first introduced portable libraries and furnished to all light vessels and inaccessible offshore light stations a selection of reading materials.

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These libraries were contained in a portable wooden case, each with a printed listing of the contents posted inside the door. Such library boxes were made of shellacked white pine strengthened with heavy brass trimmings. Inside were two shelves of different heights. The doors were secured with a bolt on one, and with a mortised lock on the other. On the sides were hinged handles.

The cases were constructed so as to make a neat appearance when on a table yet be sturdy for transport. Each box was numbered and inventoried and by the end of the century there would be over 700 library boxes in service with at least 200 more to follow. The cases were lettered on the doors: On the left door was “U.S.L.H. Est.” (United States Lighthouse Establishment). On the right door “Library No. 159”(or whatever the number might be).

In the Annual Report of the Light House Board for the year 1876, they note that “…It is intended that each library shall remain about six months at a place, when it will be exchanged for another. By this means the keepers will be constantly supplied with fresh and interesting reading matter and be made more contented with the lonely life and routine duties of these distant and often inaccessible stations….” The keepers surely enjoyed the respite provided by these books, for in the following year’s report, it is noted that “The moral effect of these libraries on the character of the keepers and their families can scarcely be too highly estimated…. The keepers generally have manifested great desire to obtain these libraries, as well as to have them exchanged after the books have been read.

Proper arrangements were made for the exchange of these libraries at intervals, and for revision of the contents as books became obsolete in accordance with suggestions obtained from public library authorities. The books were carefully selected from books of a good standard appropriate to the families who would use them.

While largely fiction, other classes of literature were included in reasonable proportions including technical books when requested. The books and periodicals contained in the libraries remained the property of the Light-House Establishment and each was marked in the front with the official Light-House Establishment bookplate. The beautiful 3” x 4 1/2” bookplate label bears a wonderful image of an iron pile lighthouse and Minot’s Ledge Light, and a lightship and bears the words “The Property of the Light House Establishment.” To find these books or original bookplates today is extremely difficult but slowly and with patience, these libraries can be resurrected with original books.

Titles that I have found from these libraries over the years include: Preble, Rear Admiral George Henry. A CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF STEAM NAVIGATION; Bishop, Isabella Bird. SIX MONTHS AMONG THE PALM GROVES, ,CORAL REEFS, AND VOLCANOES OF THE SANDWICH ISLANDS; Williams, Thomas. LIFE OF SIR JAMES NICHOLAS DOUGLASS (Formerly Chief Engineer to the Trinity House); Hardy, W. J., LIGHTHOUSES, THEIR HISTORY AND ROMANCE; .na. TRUE STORIES FROM ANCIENT HISTORY; Torpelius, Z., THE SURGEON’S STORIES – TIMES OF CHARLES XII; na. THE CENTURY ILLUSTRATED MONTHLY MAGAZINE; Lamont, James. SEASONS WITH THE SEA-HORSES; OR, SPORTING ADVENTURES IN THE NORTHERN SEAS; Ainsworth, William Harrison. OVINGDEAN GRANGE; Chaplin, J. D., LIFE OF CHARLES SUMNER.

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

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 November 2010 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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