Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lighthouse Equipment

By Jim Claflin


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For over twenty years we have heard of the existence of a Light House Establishment book detailing the equipment utilized by lighthouse keepers. What a treat this would be if we could only find a copy – does one still exist? Over the years we have pieced together from books, documents, supply lists and other sources the items that a keeper might be issued but there are still many gaps in the information. Years after I began in this field, I sometimes thought that “I must have seen it all” – I thought that I had found most every item that was available to keepers, only to come up with a different size oil measure, a bronze boundary marker, or a tin “Red Lead” can that I had never seen before. And what did they call these items. I have always called a can with a long spout for filling the lamps a “lamp filling can,” while others have called it a “Lucerne.” How did the Light House Establishment refer to it?

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Over the years, we scoured lists at the National Archives, looked through every official Light House Establishment (and Service) publication, looked through references of all types and in over twenty years we found only two or three brief mentions of this publication. Without more information we would never find it, if a copy did indeed still exist.

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This past January we purchased a used government report on lighthouse furnishings from another bookstore, and there it was! In the bibliography was listed: “Price List of Standard Articles (for Lighthouse Purposes) Furnished from General Depot, Thompkinsville, New York. 1901.” Now we had a name to search for. Within a month we had found it.

The cloth and leather bound book contains 83 pages, including 18 text pages, 44 full page photo plates and 21 fold-out plates of implements and equipment available from the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island, for use by keepers at light stations, depots, for use on light vessels and tenders.

The first 18 pages detail the items and parts available, with the prices associated with each. We believe that each lighthouse district or depot had a yearly budget, and “purchased” needed items at the prices shown from the General Depot. The dollar amounts would then be deducted from their budget.

It is interesting to review the prices shown and compare them to what the items sell for today. For a keeper’s service basket, cost then was $5. Today they fetch $1,500 or more. 2 1/2 gallon oil carrier cost up to $6.25. Today a cost of $2,200 is common. Other costs include keeper’s brass dustpan $.65 cents, lamp feeder (lamp filling can) $.94 cents, one gallon oil measure $1.56, wick box $1, brass drip pan $3.38, etc.

How about a fourth order 6-panel revolving lens – cost $760, or a first order 8-panel revolving lens – cost $6,328 (today this might sell in the $100,000 plus range if one could be found). First-order, five-wick lamp costs $212, fourth-order lamps $29.70 for three, including extra parts (today one fourth-order lamp can sell for $2,500+. A brass table lamp costs $5.50, while a lens lantern lists for $131.78.

In addition to the valuable item and parts listings, even more valuable are the 65 photo and fold-out plates. These picture every item and part listed and give us additional insight into the items and what they look like. A good example is the many lamps pictured including 4th and 5th order lamps, lightship lamps, hanging lamp for lighthouse tenders, bracket lamps, table lamps, locomotive headlight (used for range lights), and more.

Other items pictured include steam whistles, automatic sirens, electric buoy lantern, engines to power fog signals, a complete fog signal house, Daboll trumpet, bell striking apparatus, air pressure lamps, 4th, 5th, 6th order lamps, lens lantern, light vessel lanterns, post lantern, revolving clock mechanisms, revolving lenses, keeper’s service basket, oil carrier, dustpan, drip pan, oil feeder, oil measure, and more.

And what is the “lamp filling can” called? The official name is “oil feeder.” The cans for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order lamps that we had been calling “oil transfer cans” – they should be called “oil carriers.” This and much more is included in this important document.

Important too are the items NOT included in this document. For example, the five sizes of small oil measures are not included in this listing, even though they were made at the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot as well. One thought at the moment is that by this time (1901), as IOV lamps and soon electricity were coming into use, many of the items that earlier were required were now no longer needed, and thus no longer offered by the Depot.

Although there are still numerous questions to be answered, this document has added a most important piece to the puzzle. For those interested in the subject, we have produced a complete spiral bound, photo-reproduced copy for $86 plus $8 postage. This will be a “must” for museums, collectors, writers and researchers on the subject and anyone interested in the apparatus used by the Lighthouse Service.

Next month, we will take a look at life at the Shinnecock (Great West) Bay Lighthouse in Ponquogue, on Long Island, New York, from a rare account by the keeper’s daughter, recently discovered in a Long Island estate.

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 Jul/Aug 2011 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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