Digest>Archives> October 2009

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Massachusetts Humane Society

By Jim Claflin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

You may be wondering — are we talking about dogs and cats this month? No, not this month. One of the least known life-saving organizations is the Massachusetts Humane Society.

In 1785, before the inception of the U.S. Life-Saving Service or later Coast Guard, a group of Boston citizens met several times to consider the formation of an organization modeled on the British Royal Humane Society. They were concerned about the needless deaths resulting from shipwrecks and drowning and wanted to find ways to save lives.

By 1786, they had formed an organization to be known

as The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and elected James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts and the founder of Bowdoin College, to be its first president.

From the outset, The Humane Society focused on recognizing selfless lifesaving rescues and preventing such tragedies. It established an awards system with a financial stipend for those who risked their lives to save others and presented its first award in 1786. Andrew Sloane received this first medal, for saving a boy who broke through ice on a mill pond. He was given 28 shillings. The program evolved into three medal categories based on the severity of the rescue situation: silver, bronze and certificate. The Trustees continue to make a large number of awards for rescues from drowning, but today they also consider a variety of emergency situations such as vehicle and airplane accidents, and fires where life is at risk.

By sponsoring public lectures and publishing research studies, the Society encouraged innovative lifesaving techniques and resuscitation measures. From the beginning, The Humane Society recognized that improved methods were needed to resuscitate drowning victims and to treat survivors. Through its efforts and research, the Prone Pressure Method of Resuscitation was developed and publicized as early as 1800, a procedure that in time evolved into today’s CPR.

The Humane Society’s role in saving lives along the Massachusetts coast is a unique and compelling story. Its work served as a model for the US Life-Saving Service and ultimately the US Coast Guard.

When The Humane Society was founded, survivors of shipwrecks who might reach shore often perished because the isolated beaches lacked any protective shelter. To address this problem, The Humane Society established huts and outfitted them with firewood and provisions to sustain survivors until local townspeople came to their rescue. The first hut was placed at Scituate Beach in 1787. By 1806, there were 18 huts along the coast and on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

The Humane Society recognized that even more people could be saved if boats could be launched to go through the surf. Intrigued by a new design for a lifesaving boat, the Trustees provided funds for the construction of the first lifeboat in America. It was completed in 1807 and housed in Cohasset. With additional funding provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the number of lifeboats and boathouses along the coast expanded.

By 1871, when the US Life-Saving Service (U.S.L.S.S.) was created, The Humane Society was responsible for 78 lifeboats and 92 huts, boathouses and other structures. Volunteers manned these facilities. Many of these volunteer leaders would be the first to be hired for the new US Life-Saving Service in later years. During major storms, their joint efforts meant that more lives were saved because neither organization could respond to all of the needs.

In 1915, the U.S.L.S.S. and the Revenue Cutter Service were merged to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The Humane Society continued to maintain lifeboats and lifesaving stations along the Massachusetts coast through the 1930’s.

In later years, the Humane Society continued its focus on preventing water tragedies, shifting its attention to lifesaving needs at rivers, ponds and beaches. They provided life-buoys that could be thrown to individuals who had fallen in or were in distress, sponsored swimming instruction for children working with the Red Cross and YMCA’s, and provided grants to Hurricane Island Outward Bound to build search and rescue craft for use in their youth training.

Society resources financed a number of firsts in the country: lifesaving huts (huts of refuge) and rescue boats along the coast, swimming instruction for Boston public school students, instructional posters on resuscitation methods and funding to help establish a number of hospitals in Boston including Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Dispensary (a foundling hospital), McLean Hospital and the Boston Lying-In Hospital.

Antiques from this Society have become quite desirable and include of course, their medals and awards, photographs and reports, life-saving apparatus and equipment, small boat equipment and more. Like the other services, most items were marked and are quite sought after by collectors.

Today, The Humane Society continues to carry on the mission envisioned by its founders. For more information, take a look at the web site of the Massachusetts Humane Society at www.masslifesavingawards.com , a great resource. Much of the above historical account was compiled from their web site as well.

For additional historical information, you might like to take a look at Farson, Robert H., TWELVE MEN DOWN — Massachusetts Sea Rescues. Yarmouth Port. 2000. 246p. 191 photos and illustrations.

This story appeared in the October 2009 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History