As with most antiques and artifacts of this and other services, the key to finding and building a good collection relies on a bit of study on the subject and on a good eye for detail. Whether visiting antique shops or yard sales or searching the W.W. Web, a good eye for detail can be invaluable in helping you to distinguishing new finds from recent replicas or reproductions. A good ear too can sometimes help you distinguish a “tinny” recent reproduction from a more sturdy original.
Before reading further, take a close look at the seven images shown. Which insignia do you think were used by the Light-House Establishment, Life-Saving Service or Coast Guard? How old do you think each might be?
In the last few years, with the increased interest in the subject, there has been a proliferation of replica and inauthentic insignia coming on the market. Collectors are beginning to purchase questionable insignia for hundreds of dollars, thinking them authentic. For this reason I thought that this month we should begin to discuss some criteria to help you in your choices.
In the last few years we have seen 30 or more designs of what are represented as Lighthouse Service cap or uniform insignia on the market, though in fact there were no more than three or four in use over the service’s 86-year history. In addition numerous Coast Guard and Life-Saving Service insignia have appeared as well that have begun to raise questions. Though there was some variation over the years depending on the manufacturer, the basic design and materials remained consistent. So how can we determine which are authentic?
First, in all of your purchases you want to keep one thing in mind: items produced by or for the Lighthouse Service were ALWAYS of the highest quality, of the very best materials, and markings were always absolutely straight and uniform. I once saw a copper teapot labeled on the bottom “U.S.L.H.E.” However, the letters were each not in a straight line, indicating that this was stamped using individual letter stamps. This would not have been done by the Lighthouse Establishment as all of their dies were of one piece and absolutely uniform. This sloppy marking indicates that these letters were probably added to this piece in recent times. Likewise, LHS insignia were absolutely uniform in shape and design and of gold plated sterling, or if embroidered, of the finest bullion threads. If you are looking at a possible insignia and see any defects in workmanship, solder joints, or an insignia that just doesn’t look uniform or “professional,” do seek further information before you buy.
One true way to authenticate a particular insignia style is to actually see it in a photograph, in use by a keeper or employee. In looking at the various lighthouse uniform regulations over the years, we find that all cap insignia appear to have been embroidered except for the USLHE crossed buoy design shown in to the right. (Yes, this one is authentic.) Therefore, any other metal lighthouse uniform insignia that you come across should immediately raise questions. Unless the seller can produce the uniform regulations showing the exact insignia in question, or photographs of it in use, you might consider additional research on the item before purchasing.
For years the use of the gilded crossed whistle and spar buoy insignia by light keepers had been questioned by authorities because the uniform regulations indicated that it was only for use on the watchman’s helmet at the General Light-House Depot in Staten Island. However, after accumulating numerous c.1880 photographs showing the insignia on the hats of lighthouse keepers, it has now been generally accepted that this was used by light keepers as well. Be careful though as these are now being reproduced as well. Check for the clasp type, back-marks, detail and workmanship before buying.
As for which of the insignia shown here were used by the services, only the lighthouse with crossed buoys insignia was used by the Lighthouse Establishment. To date we have found no regulations nor photographs to indicate that any of the other six insignia were ever used by the US Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service or Coast Guard. So keep in mind that research is the key to recognizing authentic items from recent products. Question collectors and dealers knowledgeable in the subject, look through your books for photos showing the men in their uniforms, and happy hunting.
In future columns we will talk more about back-marks and dating insignia, other questionable designs, replicas, and more. Next month we will take a look at collecting lighthouse postcards.
Please continue to send in your questions on the subject 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 specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 30 Hudson Street, Northborough, MA 01532, or by calling 508-393-9814. You may also contact him by email: email@example.com or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net
This story appeared in the
August 2001 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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