Digest>Archives> September 2006

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lighthouse: “Establishment” or “Service”?

By Jim Claflin


Have you ever wondered why sometimes we use the term “Lighthouse” when at times we use “Light House,” or “Establishment” rather than “Service”?

We usually like to use terms in use during the period about which we are talking. Likewise, by recognizing when these terms were in use, we can sometimes use them to date items such as brassware, dinnerware, etc.

The history of the U.S. lighthouse organization dates back to the building and illumination of the first American lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716. During these early years Colonial

governments, local and even individuals shouldered the responsibility of providing what few aids to navigation existed. Following Independence, the newly-created Congress of the United States passed their ninth law, an Act 1 Stat. L., 53, creating the U.S. Light House note the spelling Establishment as an administrative unit of the Federal Government on August 7, 1789. This Act accepted title to, and joined jurisdiction over, the lighthouses then in existence, and provided for the

necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses, beacons, buoys, etc. in existence or in the future. During this period until 1792, the Secretary of the Treasury would direct personally all the details of lighthouse work in the country.

Beginning in 1820 the Secretary of the Treasury assigned the “care and superintendence of the Light-House Establishment” to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury who would closely oversee all operations and expenditures.

In 1845, the duties of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury as Superintendent of Lights was first put on a statutory basis by an Act of Congress 5 Stat. L., 752, 762, which prescribed that “the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, shall continue to superintend the several matters and things connected with the light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers, as heretofore, of the United States, and to perform all the duties connected therewith, under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, until otherwise ordered by law.”

However, by 1851 serious complaints were beginning to be voiced over the operation and quality of the U.S. lights. Finally, unable to ignore the problems any longer, Congress appointed a board to make a general investigation of the lighthouse problem. This “Light-House Board” would in 1852 submit an elaborate report of seven hundred and sixty pages, which led to the law creating the Light-House Board on a permanent basis. They would administer the lighthouse work for the next fifty-eight years.

In 1903, the Light-House Board was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor, and in 1910 when the Light-House Board was officially terminated, the governing body officially became known as the Bureau of

Light-Houses. In 1939 the Bureau would be transferred yet again, this time to the U.S. Coast Guard, under whose authority it remains today.

It is during the period from about 1890 to 1910 that we find the most confusion in terminology. Prior to 1890, the official name of the organization was the U.S. Light-House Establishment. All equipment was marked as such, uniform buttons were marked “U.S.L.H.E.” stationery and forms were so marked, etc. Such forms as Form 30 Receipt for Property Delivered by Supply Vessel 1890 and Form 32 Keeper’s Annual Property Return 1900 maintained the same format.

However, in 1890, the Light-House Board published a booklet entitled “The Modern Light-House Service,” authored by Arnold Burges Johnson, Chief Clerk and Light-House Board. In this detailed look at the entire operation and equipment of the organization, the author begins to use both “Establishment” and “service” apparently interchangeably however, he does not capitalize the term service and may be using “Light-House” service as a synonym for Light-House system,” as he uses both.

By late 1902 and 1903 we begin to see the term “Service” creep into a wider variety of

official forms and publications. In the 1902 Instructions to Light-Keepers we begin to see both terms in use, even in the same sentence. On page 12, para. 22, it is stated that “All persons interested in navigation shall be encouraged by the officers of the Light-House Service to give information of any neglect of duty on the part of those employed in the Light-House Establish-ment, as well as information generally tending to the improvement of the Light-House Service.”

From this and other references, I began to wonder if they used the term “Service” when speaking of people employed, and the term “Establishment” when referring to the organization, until I went on to read paragraph 54, referring to people: “…The attention of all officers of the Light-House Establishment is called to section 3...”, and paragraph 52, referring to the organization: “…any article of supply for the Light-House Service of the United States.”

One thought was that by 1903 when the Light-House Board was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor, the terminology was officially changed to “Service” but even as late as 1909 we still find the term “Establishment” on official envelopes, while we see the term “Service” on a 1907 Civil Service examination for Light-House Keeper. In addition, they continued to use the hyphenated “light-house’ in all writings. The Annual Report for 1909 continues to refer to the Light-House Establishment as well.

By about 1910, however, when the organization officially became known as the Bureau of Light-Houses [still hyphenated though] we begin to see the term “Service” used exclusively and by 1937 Commissioner Putnam drops the hyphen and begins to capitalize Service.

It seems clear that the change to the term “Lighthouse Service” was not an official change prompted by legislation, but rather was a gradual change in meaning and usage over a period of almost twenty years. As I continue to find additional documents and publications I continue to discover more interesting insights to the inner workings of this interesting organization and through these I hope to learn more about their terms and usage.

One benefit of our understanding such terms though, is the ability to date items based on this terminology. From the foregoing we can be confident that brassware marked “Light-House Establishment” was manufactured prior to about 1890, while if the term “Light-House Service” is used it is after about 1910, likewise with china, buttons, marked tools and a host of other items.

Finally, on July 7, 1939, the Bureau of Lighthouses went out of existence and its

personnel moved themselves and their equipment to Coast Guard Headquarters from the Commerce Department building. Thus did lighthouse operations once again return to the Treasury Department, where they had been for so long?

Next time we will talk about lighthouse paints, colors and mixing by the early lighthouse keepers.

This story appeared in the September 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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