We recently obtained some rare items that I thought might be of interest including a Lighthouse Service wood-bound gimbaled small boat compass.
This is the first Lighthouse Service compass that I have found and likely was used by a light keeper on a fairly remote fog-bound island location to aid him in his trips to the mainland for supplies. The compass was manufactured by E.S. Ritchie & Sons, Boston at about 1915. The E.S. Ritchie Company is still in business and fortunately they have retained their sales records, which indicate that the compass was sold to the U.S. Lighthouse Service on October 14, 1915. The compass is marked “U.S.L.H.S.” at the center of the compass rose. On the brass bezel is marked “E.S. Ritchie & Sons, Boston” and serial number #44393. Also marked “Ritchie Boston U.S.A.” within the compass rose. The compass was liquid filled (half denatured alcohol & half water) and is gimbal mounted in its original 8” x 8” oak box.
Ritchie began making marine bearing compasses for the U.S. Navy before the American Civil War. At the time, British Admiralty dry-mount nautical compasses were considered by all navies and merchant shipping companies as the technological standard of the day. Ritchie thought they could be improved upon, and by 1860 had received a U.S. patent for the first successful and practicable liquid-filled marine compass suitable for general use, a development that has been described as the first major advance in compass technology in several hundred years. With the damping provided by the liquid, together with a gimbal mounting, the floating indicator or card of the Ritchie compass remained relatively stable even when a ship’s deck pitched and rolled during periods of severe weather. Ritchie liquid-filled nautical compasses soon became a U.S. Navy standard, and were also widely used by American merchant mariners. The business he began in 1850 became E. S. Ritchie & Son in 1866 and E. S. Ritchie & Sons in 1867, and moved from Boston to Brookline in 1886. Following Ritchie’s death in 1895, his sons transferred the scientific instruments to the L. E. Knott Apparatus Co., while retaining the nautical instrument line, which was renamed E.S. Ritchie & Sons. The firm was incorporated as E.S. Ritchie & Sons, Inc. in 1939 (thus confirming the date of this piece to the 1895-1939 period), and continues operations to the present day.
Another compass that we just found is a bit different – a wall-mount “compass”. This rare piece is labeled “U.S.L.H. Establishment Mariner’s Compass” and is dated Feb 1908.The back is marked “U.S. Light-House Establishment. Office Eng;r 10th. District”. The “compass” is mounted on 12” x 12” rigid board with a hole for hanging. I suspect that this was hung on the wall in the Lighthouse Engineer’s office and used to provide quick conversion between compass direction and compass degrees (ie. South equals 180 degrees, SSW ½ W equals 212 degrees, etc.) An unusual piece and quite decorative.
Finally, in an early lot of large Nantucket glass plate negatives I found a number of Life-Saving Service views and this view of a Nantucket lighthouse keeper. From the period 1870-1890’s, this extremely rare view provides great detail of a the keeper in his fresh, possibly new uniform. Note the early brass lighthouse with crossed buoys insignia on his hat .
Very few keepers wore that insignia. The Light-House Establishment uniform regulations state that this insignia was intended for use by the watchmen at the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island on their helmet. However, over the years we have found a number of images of early light station keepers with this insignia on their hats, indicating that despite the regulations, it was apparently in use for keepers at some time.
The view is a studio portrait, possibly done on the island of Nantucket by Freeman and is unusually clear and close. We are not yet sure which keeper this is, but he may be Keeper Andrew Jackson Sandsbury. Born in 1830 in Nantucket, Sandsbury served on a whaler out of New Bedford in the 1850s. His career in the Light-House Establishment began in the late 1860s on the South Shoal Lightship and by the 1890’s he was Keeper at Brant Point Lighthouse. He passed away in 1902. There are very few views of Nantucket Keepers and this is an early, crystal clear image.
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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
Nov/Dec 2013 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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