Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2005

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Massachusetts Humane Society

By Jim Claflin


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In the 18th century, large sections of the United States' eastern coastline were sparsely populated. The crew of any ship running aground could expect very little, if any, help. As maritime trade increased, so did the demand for assistance for those wrecked near the shore. During a strong northeaster, a sailing craft could be driven up on the rocks and sandbars located offshore. Any ship so stranded usually would be pounded to pieces within a few hours. To make matters worse, few people could survive a 300-yard swim in the 30-40 degree storm-tossed surf. Those few sailors who managed somehow to reach the beach in winter stood a good chance of perishing from exposure on the largely uninhabited shore.

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By the 1780s, as shipping increased and more and more victims succumbed to the sea, an organization based upon the British example was formed in Boston. Known as the Massachusetts Humane Society, this became the first organization in the United States founded to aid shipwrecked mariners and to award citizens for their exertions in the saving of life. Since some victims made it to shore on their own, yet died of exposure, the Massachusetts Humane Society first began to build huts along the coast, known as "Humane Houses." Volunteers from the Society helped to build such houses along the coast, equipping them with firewood, kindling, lanterns, blankets, and furniture. Starting in Boston Harbor with shelters and food for shipwreck survivors, the Society eventually established outposts on Cape Cod and Nantucket in the early 1800s. Soon, too, it was recognized that only small boats stood a chance in assisting those who had not made it to the beach, and a better system to provide assistance was still needed. By 1807, the Humane Society established the first life-boat station in America at Cohasset, Massachusetts.

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Humane Society silver medal awarded "To Jonathan ...

The boat stations were small shed-like structures, holding a surfboat and rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. By 1869, 92 stations of the MHS lined the Massachusetts coasts. The last station under that organization's control was functional until at least 1936. In 1848 the federal government finally entered the scene.

William A. Newell, a Congressman from New Jersey, made a

vigorous appeal to Congress for $10,000 to provide "surf boats, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks on the coasts of New Jersey..." The new government stations would be administered by the U.S. Revenue Marine (later called the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service), within the Treasury Department. Soon, they would fall under the emerging U. S. Life Saving Service. The United States Life-Saving Service's (USLSS) first station to be built under this new legislation was located at Spermaceti Cove, New Jersey, and began service in September 1848. The Life Saving Service quickly proved its usefulness in January 1850 with the wreck Ayrshire, saving all 201 persons aboard. With this proven success, the USLSS expanded rapidly along the shores of America.

Various awards were issued by the Humane Society over the years, both to their volunteers and to local citizens, for "exertions in saving life" Awards included monetary awards, certificates, bronze, silver and gold life saving medals, silver mugs and cups, and more. Such awards have become most collectible and difficult to find and are well worth the search.

Some years ago it was said that if you called this organization, a tape recording would come online stating, "If you called about a dog or cat, then you have the wrong number." Today the Massachusetts Humane Society is still different from the animal humane society. It continues to operate for its original purpose, and possibly that message can still be heard. The Humane Society continues to issues awards for outstanding acts of lifesaving, and the organization is well worth learning more about.

For further reading on the subject, a number of wonderful references can be found and including: Howe, M. A. DeWolf. The Humane Society Of The Commonwealth Of Massachusetts – An Historical Review 1785-1916. Boston. 1918; and Farson, Robert H., Twelve Men Down – Massachusetts Sea Rescues. Yarmouth Port. 2000.

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.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2005 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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