Digest>Archives> October 2007

Collecting Nautical Antiques

U.S. Lighthouse Department

By Jim Claflin


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We recently obtained a great item that brought up another question on the terminology used by the Lighthouse Service.

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At an auction we were lucky enough to obtain a lot consisting of an early “U.S.L.H.S.” soup bowl, and with it

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an early brass aneroid wall barometer. Engraved on the side of the barometer,

in beautiful script, are the words

“U.S. Light House Department.” The barometer measures 5” in diameter and

is marked with the distributor’s name of “R. Merrill’s, Sons, New York.” It is also marked on the face and on the case with the maker's mark “PNHB” within a circle, for Naudet-Pertuis-Hulot-Baromètres. Paul Naudet, who was France’s premier barometer maker of the second half of the 19th century, marked his units with his marks “PNHB.”

Robert Merrill started his company in New York in 1835-36 with a partner (as Merrill & Davis), then moved to his own address in 1840. In 1869 his company became Robert Merrill & Sons, the firm continuing into the twentieth century. From this information we estimate that this unit may date from as early as the 1860’s or 70’s, and not after the 1880’s.

If you remember our past article in which we discussed the use of the terms “Light House” or “Establishment” rather than “Lighthouse Service,” we neglected to mention the use of the term “Light House Department.” Although obscure, we do see this term used on occasion during the earliest years of the Light House Establishment.

In an 1851 letter by Stephen Pleasanton to Thomas Corwin, Secretary of the Treasury, Pleasonton admitted that he had used the services of Revenue Cutters and their crews to maintain buoys in “waters leading to our principal cities...” Pleasanton discontinued this practice in 1842 when all extra pay from every branch of the service was cut off by law and noted that “...I considered it improper to ask the Secretary of the Treasury to exact this as a duty from those engaged in the cutter service….In the district of New York a vessel is owned by the [light house] Department...which perform[s] this and other duties connected with the light house department...”

Another period article discussing

the gathering seabird eggs from around

the lighthouse on San Francisco’s Farallon Islands notes that in the 1850’s eggers scrambled up and down rocky cliffs on San Francisco’s Farallon Islands to raid seabird rookeries. By 1897 it

was decreed that...“ traffic in any

form in birds or eggs from the

Farallones must cease by order of the U.S. Light House Department.”

Finally, in The Life of Capt. Joseph Fry written by Jeanie Mort Walker in 1875, she writes that Captain Fry “…returned home, and, after recruiting for some time, was placed in charge of the Light-House Department of the Gulf Coast; which position he held until the breaking out of the late civil war...”

I suspect that by the 1880s and certainly by 1900 the term “Light House Department” was no longer in use. With this knowledge, I am confident that a piece such as this is an extremely special and important find. Once again, it pays to examine one’s finds closely – you never know what you might turn up.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

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 October 2007 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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