Digest>Archives> April 2006

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lightkeeper's Cleaning Apron

By Jim Claflin


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Jeff Shook of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy recently sent us some wonderful photos of an early U.S. Lighthouse Establishment keeper’s cleaning coat that they recently acquired. This extremely rare piece may be one of a kind today, as most surely were lost or discarded years ago. Cleaning was a constant job at the lighthouse. Keepers were required to keep everything polished and clean at all times, while still maintaining their uniforms clean as well. For this reason, the Service provided cleaning coats or aprons to protect their uniforms.

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Cleaning coats could be used while performing lens cleaning duties; aprons while painting and performing other chores.

In addition, the coat or apron protected the expensive lens from being scratched as the keeper worked around it, cleaning or refilling the lamps, etc. The Lighthouse Service required that no watches, jewelry, belt buckles or sharp objects be on one’s person while cleaning and polishing the lens.

The glass was the heart of the lighthouse and as such, if it were scratched or chipped, it would lose its effectiveness.

The “1902 Instructions to Lightkeepers” noted that,“ When the light is extinguished in the morning, the keeper must hang the lantern curtains and immediately begin to put the apparatus in order for relighting. While doing this, the linen aprons provided for the keeper’s use must be worn, that the lens may not suffer from contact with the wearing apparel.” The lens glass was extremely delicate and daily cleaning was required. However, it was important that it be done in just the right manner. Indeed, even wiping the dust improperly could scratch the

lens. The regulations continued: “Before beginning to clean the lens, it must be brushed with the feather brush to remove all dust. It must then be wiped with a soft linen cloth, and finally polished with a buff-skin. If there is oil or grease on any part, it must be taken off with a linen cloth, moistened with spirits of wine, and then polished off with a buff-skin. Under no circumstances must a skin which has been wet or damp be used, as this will scratch the lens.”

The coat is made of a fine patterned linen, without metal buttons. Its construction was of all cloth with two buttons, and hung well

below the waist line to protect against a belt buckle or button underneath the coat. As with all objects in the Lighthouse Service, even the coat was marked, bearing a large circular “U.S. Lighthouse Establishment” marking as seen in the photographs. Indeed, even the linen cleaning rags were marked with a similar marking, to ensure that they were not removed and used for other purposes.

This is a wonderful find and we thank Jeff for bringing it to our attention.

For more images and descriptions of the Lighthouse Service and Life Saving Service equipment, check out the extensive Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy website at www.michiganlights.com.

This story appeared in the April 2006 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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