Digest>Archives> July 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Lighthouse Brassware

By Jim Claflin


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An area of considerable interest continues to be U.S. Lighthouse Service brassware. A good variety of items were produced over the years by the General Light-House Depot at Staten Island. In addition to lamps and burners, brassware included oil measures in five marked sizes from one

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gill (1/4 pint) up to three quart. The three quart measure was made in both graduated and non graduated versions. These pieces were used to accurately measure the oil dispensed each day for use in the lighthouse lamp as well as in the other lamps in use around the light station. It was absolutely essential that the keeper maintain an accurate record of oil used in the lighthouse and for his personal use as the amounts were tallied quarterly and subtracted from the total on hand at the beginning of the quarter. The difference must match the balance remaining in the oil house or the keeper could be reprimanded or even dismissed. Every gill of oil had to be accounted for.

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Lovely brass lamp filling cans (looking like a teapot with a long slender spout) were filled using the measures with the aid of a brass funnel and were used to transfer the oil into the lighthouse lamps. All filling was done on a brass drip pan with tray, designed to catch any oil spilled for re-use. Of course, after use these cans would be wiped dry and periodically polished as required.

During the early days oil was often stored in the lighthouse. This ready fuel source often combined with the ignition source in the lantern with disastrous results. In the 1870's the Light House Establishment began an extensive program to equip every light station with an oil house separate from the light tower. These structures were generally built from

the same plans and built of brick, with a slate roof and trimmed in wood painted maroon (The Lighthouse Service trim color was maroon — the green that you see

so often today is the later Coast Guard trim color.) A few oil houses were unusual in that they were built of stone, iron plate

or concrete.

The oil was delivered and stored in the oil house in wooden casks called "butts". These were typical oak casks bearing an engraved brass tag identifying each as property of the U.S. Light House Establishment.

The 1902 Instructions to Light-Keepers stated: "All mineral oil belonging to the Light House Service shall be kept in an oil house or a room by itself. The oil house shall be visited daily to detect loss by leakage or otherwise, and every precaution taken for the safe keeping of the oil."

To bring the oil into the lighthouse from the oil house, larger covered brass cans were used including 3, 4 and 5 gallon sizes, each with a built in funnel on the top and a large pouring spout. For local storage outside the oil house the keeper might be provided with five gallon bulk storage cans. These were equipped with a slender pouring spout on the top and an operable vent. Some of these cans were equipped with a quarter-turn spigot on the side as well to facilitate filling oil measures directly.

As mentioned, these items were manufactured by the master metal-smiths at the lamp shop in the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot and were always of the finest quality. Each and every item issued by the Lighthouse Service was marked in some fashion — from paintbrushes to toilet paper holders, oil cans to reading material. Items issued to the stations were expected to be maintained in proper order and the keepers were held accountable yearly for each item used or damaged.

Cans and other brassware would be marked with one or two period markings. Prior to about 1900 when the term "Lighthouse Service" began to replace "Light-House Establishment", items would be marked using a horizontal "U.S." over "Light House" over "Establishment", or with one of two oval markings: "U.S.L.H. Depot Lamp Shop Staten Island" or "U.S.L.H. Depot 3 Dist. Lamp Shop Staten Island, NY" Often one finds the first marking and one of the oval markings on the same piece. After about 1900 we find pieces being marked using the terms "U.S. Light House Service", commonly in capital letters. Marking was always done using special dies before the pieces were assembled and soldered, so it is not uncommon to find it on the curved surfaces on the side of a can, as well as on the bottom. This marking, when found on the curved surface, generally confirms authenticity as it probably could not be properly reproduced today. Marking was NEVER done using individual letter stamps. Should you find brassware today marked with individual unevenly spaced letters, you can feel confident that it is not authentic.

A few items were purchased by the Lighthouse Service and thus could not be marked before assembly. In this instance an oval brass cartouche would be stamped with the oval "U.S.L.H. Depot 3 Dist. Lamp Shop Staten Island, NY" stamp and applied to the surface using solder.

Keep your eyes open, you can never tell what you might find at flea markets or those old barn sales. Next month I will show you my latest flea market find.

Photos courtesy of Jeff Shook

of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.

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 July 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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