A Keeper’s Life

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Uniform

The lighthouse keeper wore a double-breasted sack coat, vest and trousers of navy-blue cloth in winter, or navy-blue serge or flannel in summer.  The coat had five large regulation triple gilt buttons on each side, all placed exact to regulation; two inside breast pockets and two outside hip pockets. Each sleeve had two small buttons on the cuff seam, 1/2 inch apart, with the lower button 1 inch from bottom of cuff.

Uniform Coat

Uniform Coat

On each lapel of the keeper’s sack coat an embroidered gold loop was added with the letter K, for keeper, within the loop. The first assistant keeper had the figure 1  embroidered within the loop. The second assistant keeper had the figure 2 embroidered within the loop.


Hat Emblem

The lighthouse keeper’s cap was designed in the Navy pattern with an adjustable chin strap. On the front of the cap a gold embroidered wreath enclosing a silver embroidered lighthouse and a black mohair braid an inch wide to be worn around the cap.
Regulations of 1912 prescribed similar uniforms for lighthouse keepers and officers of lighthouse tender vessels. This included a single breasted, fly-front coat, fitted closely to the body and similar to the Revenue Service uniform coat authorized in 1891. Collar ornaments for lighthouse tender officers and engineers were embroidered anchors and three-bladed propellers, respectively.
Light station personnel wore embroidered loops on the collars, enclosing either the letter K for the keeper, or the numbers one to four, depending on their ranks as assistants. Lighthouse personnel did not wear sleeve ornaments.


Uniform of 1912

To indicate longevity, lighthouse personnel wore gold service stars and bars on the lower sleeve. Each five years up to 20 years was represented by one embroidered bar. A star designated 25 years and bars were added beyond that for each five years.


Lighthouse Keepers in the Nineteenth Century

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, keeper appointments and dismissals were approved by the President, and choices were often political. Keeper’s had no formal instructions, but a certain level of efficiency was expected.

With a few exceptions, only one keeper was appointed per station; however, some keepers took it upon themselves to hire an assistant. The keeper’s routine was to light the lamps at twilight, then trim the wicks between 11 and 12 at night. I. W. Lewis, engineer to the U.S. Light-house Survey, remarked that it was not uncommon for a light gradually to disappear between 3 and 4 a.m. Mr. Lewis felt “the best keepers are found to be old sailors, who are accustomed to watch at night.”

Keeper salaries were not high. Many keepers supplemented their incomes with other activities. Many a widow replaced her husband as keeper who died in service of the Lighthouse Board.

As early as 1809, keepers were expected to keep records of their oil usage. Used to keep the lamps lit, oil was a precious commodity.

To The Keepers of Lighthouses Within the U. S.:

In April 1835, the first official List of Instructions was issued to all United States Light Keepers and read as follows:

1. You are to light the lamps every evening at sun-setting, and keep them continually burning, bright and clear, till sun-rising.

2. You are to be careful that the lamps, reflectors, and lanterns, are constantly kept clean, and in order; and particularly to be careful that no lamps, wood, or candles, be left burning any where as to endanger fire.

3. In order to maintain the greatest degree of light during the night, the wicks are to be trimmed every four hours, taking care that they are exactly even on the top.

4. You are to keep an exact amount of the quantity of oil received from time to time; the number of gallons, quarts, gills, &c., consumed each night; and deliver a copy of the same to the Superintendent every three months, ending 31 March, 30 June, 30 September, and 31 December, in each year; with an account of the quantity on hand at the time.

5. You are not to sell, or permit to be sold, any spirituous liquors on the premises of the United States; but will treat with civility and attention, such strangers as may visit the Light house under your charge, and as may conduct themselves in an orderly manner.

6. You will receive no tube-glasses, wicks, or any other article which the contractors, Messr. Morgan & Co., at New Bedford, are bound to supply, which shall not be of suitable kind; and if the oil they supply, should, on trial, prove bad, you will immediately acquaint the Superintendent therewith, in order that he may exact from them a compliance with this contract.[6]

7.  Should the contractors omit to supply the quantity of oil, wicks, tube-glasses, or other articles necessary to keep the lights in continual operation, you will give the Superintendent timely notice thereof, that he may inform the contractors and direct them to forward the requisite supplies.

8. You will not absent yourself from the Light-house at any time, without first obtaining the consent of the Superintendent, unless the occasion be so sudden and urgent as not to admit of an application to that officer; in which case, by leaving a suitable substitute, you may be absent for twenty-four hours.

9. All your communications intended for this office, must be transmitted through the Superintendent, and through whom the proper answer will be returned.

Fifth Auditor and Acting Commissioner of the Revenue

Fifth Auditor’s Office
April 23d, 1835

Excerpt from National Parks Service©   http://www.nps.gov/history/maritime/keep/keep19th.htm

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