By Kirsti Scott
Before the automation of lighthouses, the job of maintaining a light along dangerous shores was vital for saving sailors’ lives, and for keeping economies going. The life of lightkeepers—and their families—was often a lonely one, spent on small and often remote pieces of land, without access to services, shops, restaurants, theaters, and libraries. Because their jobs were so important, the American government provided supplies and equipment to keep them healthy, physically and emotionally.
In August of 1789, during George Washington’s presidency, Congress passed an act to support the 12 existing colonial lighthouses, along with the beacons, buoys, and public piers. The act created the Lighthouse Establishment in 1791, which became the Lighthouse Board in 1852, and the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910. These agencies oversaw lighthouse construction, hired lighthouse keepers, and maintained lightstation equipment and vessels. By 1800 there were 24 lighthouses in the U.S., all along the Atlantic Coast, and by 1900, the number of lighthouses in the U.S. grew to around 850. The first lightship station, a ship that served as a lighthouse, was authorized in 1822, and by 1900 there were 50 stations on the coasts and in the Great Lakes.
The Light House Establishment delivered supplies to these lighthouses and lightstations, including food, water, and other essentials. Lighthouse staff were starved for entertainment when they were off duty. Light House Establishment officers had seen how happy lightkeepers were when spare books and old magazines were included in the supply deliveries. In 1876, the Light House Establishment added a portable wooden library box to the list of supplies they delivered. The first 25 lighthouse library bookcases were funded through the Lighthouse Board as “furniture” and filled with donations from seamen: a mixture of theology, science, mathematics, novels, and magazines.
According to Melvil Dewey, author of Traveling Libraries: Field and Future of Traveling Libraries (1901) and founder of the State of New York traveling library system in 1892, lighthouse library bookcases were sent to light stations by the U.S. Lighthouse Board from a depot in Tompkinsville, New York. “The 3,759 volumes available are arranged in libraries of about 35 volumes, and each is packed in a brass-bound case containing also a written catalogue of contents and a charging book,” Dewey writes. “The principal keeper of each station acts as librarian and lends the books to all light keepers and members of their families resident at the station.” By 1893, over 700 of these boxes were in circulation.
U.S. Lighthouse Library Bookcase 739 courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society
Each book had a Light House Establishment bookplate (left) and lightkeepers were responsible for making sure books were loaned out to and returned undamaged by lighthouse staff. In the February 1885 issue of The Library Journal, Arnold B. Johnson wrote, “Among the smaller books is a little blank book. In this, when a library reaches a station, the name of each reader is entered at the top of a page, and under his name is entered the title of each book he takes out, and the date it is taken and returned. The case is examined by the Lighthouse Inspector on his quarterly round, and its condition is reported. Any reader who loses or injures a book is required to replace it, if possible, in kind, and it is one of the rules that the books shall not be lent from the stations, so that none but actual residents of lighthouses and lightships, the keepers and their families, shall have the use of them.”
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Library staff in the New York depot typically provided a unique selection of fiction books in each box, though individual lightkeepers could request technical books as needed. “As a matter of fact, many of these cases contain on the lower shelf ten volumes of bound magazines, and on the upper a judicious selection of biography, history, popular science, and good novels—from twenty-five to thirty volumes, according to thickness,” explains Johnson. “A little space above the second shelf, about an inch and a half high, is utilized on one side by a copy of the New Testament, with Psalms, the octavo pica edition of the Bible Society, and on the other by the octavo edition of the Prayer Book, with hymnal attached, published by the Protestant Episcopal Publishing.”
About every three months, the Lighthouse Establishment would pick up the box and bring a new one. A label inside each numbered box showed which lighthouses had already received a given box, so they didn’t get the same box back, again. Johnson continues, “When a library has spent three months at each station in a district it is transferred to the next district. So, under this plan, it is possible that a library may start from the light-station at Eastport, Me., and work its way clear round the coast, stopping at every large lighthouse in every Atlantic and Gulf State to the Mexican frontier; then, after visiting every large lighthouse on the Lakes, finally makes a tour of the lights on the Pacific coast.”
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pathfinder. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1841. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press, Newark, Delaware.
You can imagine how exciting it would be to open up the latest bookcase when it was delivered to see was inside. The rugged box served as shipping box and bookshelf, and delivered much-needed entertainment to the lighthouse staff. According to Arnold B. Johnson, “The case for the books is so arranged that it ‘has a double debt to pay.’ Let it be shut, locked, and laid on its back, and it is a brassbound packing-case, with hinged handles by which it may be lifted; stand it on a table and open its doors, and it becomes a neat little bookcase, two shelves high, each twenty-one inches long, one adapted to hold ten octavos of the size of a bound volume of the “Century,” and the other the right height for holding good-sized twelvemos.”
Lighthouse libraries were phased out of use in the late 1920s as radio and telephones made life in a lightstation less isolated. Like lighthouses themselves, these bookcases are a reminder of a way of life that has all but disappeared.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2022 issue.