Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Life-Saving Service Pennant

By Jim Claflin


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Most of you are aware that the Lighthouse Service had an ensign or pennant for identification of their vessels, but did you know that the Life-Saving Service also had one? Considerable research by Jeff Shook of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy and by writer Alison W. Ewing brings to light a little known station identification system used by the Life-Saving Service.

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The Life-Saving Service was divided into twelve administrative districts, from Maine to the Pacific coast including the Great Lakes and navigable rivers. The districts were numbered from 1 to 12, and each station within the district was given a number as well — station number one being West Quoddy Head in Maine, and by the Coast Guard era in the 1920’s, station number 325 being in San Francisco, California.

A need had been recognized to communicate both between stations (to summon additional assistance, etc) and from shore to ship or ship to shore. By 1873, Superintendent Sumner I. Kimball included in the Life-Saving Service Regulations a section entitled “Signals for Life-Saving Stations” that instituted a series of simple flag signals (for daytime use) and Coston night signals or rockets (for use at night), to both enable surfmen on patrol to receive communication from stations, and to allow communication between stations to summon additional assistance.

In 1878 additional signals were instituted to allow for communication between stations and passing vessels. Such communications could be used to warn vessels away from dangerous shoals, as well as to pass on weather or other needed information. In addition, it was necessary to be able to identify the station for passing vessels, so that they could then confirm their position and adjust their navigation.

For this purpose the Life-Saving Service instituted an identification pennant. The pennant was divided into three vertical sections: a blue section at the hoist with a single white star in the upper half, followed by a white section and a red section at the tip. These pennants were quite large, many measuring up to twelve feet long or more, so as to be easily seen from sea.

At the same time, Kimball designated a unique flag to denote each district, which was to be flown above the Life-Saving Service pennant. The district flags were square or swallow-tailed, and were of one

or two colors. The pennant and flag

designs were published for mariners in the

U.S. Coast Signal Service Official Danger and Distress Signals, as well as in the

Rules and Regulations of the Life-Saving Service. Below the pennant were flown a series of number flags, in the International Code of Signals, to indicate the station number for identification purposes. Occasionally, a large number was attached to the body of the district flag to indicate the station number.

Note in the c.1880 photo of the Port Marblehead Life-Saving Station, you can readily see the pennant. Look closely and you may be able to make out the district flag with number above.

Although we have found many early photographs of Lighthouse Service vessels flying the Lighthouse Service pennant, we rarely see photographs depicting the Life Saving Service pennant in use. On occasion we do see the LSS pennant hung on the front of the station as a banner for identification rather than on a pole hoist.

We have yet to find such a pennant but hope someday that we will be able to add this piece as well to our list of finds.

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 Jan/Feb 2008 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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