Lighthouse Photograph and Print Collection
Language of Materials
Collection of photographs and prints depicting lighthouses, light vessels, and related equipment, primarily in the United States, from about 1860 through 1938. A few views of foreign lighthouses and equipment are included, as is an album of lithographs of architectural plans, sections, and elevations for lighthouses, light vessels, lenses, and other equipment.
During the colonial period, American colonies each had individual financial and administrative control over their own lighthouses and other navigational aids. In 1716 the first American lighthouse began to guide sailors into Boston Harbor from its home on Little Brewster Island. By the time the colonies moved for independence from England in 1776, there were ten lighthouses in operation along the coastline. The newly-created Congress of the United States, meeting for its first session, recognized the important role maritime commerce played in the young nation's economy. In 1789, as its Ninth Act, the Congress provided for the federal takeover of all lighthouses and minor aids to navigation in its constituent states. This act also created the U.S. Light House Establishment and placed it under the administration of the Treasury Department. For the first few years many minor matters required review by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and signature by President George Washington. To simplify these processes, in 1792 the position of the Commissioner of Revenue was established to take over the leadership of the Light House Establishment. In the following years control would revert back and forth between these two administrators. Finally in 1820 superintendence was assumed by the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Department, Stephen Pleasonton, who would hold the command for the following thirty years.
Pleasonton's administration was notoriously resistant to change, and visitors from Europe commented on the poor state of the navigational aids of the United States. Although the number of lighthouses and lightships grew to 325 by 1852, many were not considered reliable. Although French inventor Augustin Fresnel developed lenses capable of gathering and focusing a central light into a beam visible from far greater distances than traditional lights in 1823, the lenses were not used in the United States until 1841 when an imported Fresnel lens was installed in the Highlands of Navesink Light (New Jersey) marking the approach to New York Harbor.
Until technological advancement made the construction of offshore towers feasible, light vessels were strategically placed in waters considered inhospitable for lighthouses. The first lightship off the coast of the United States was installed near Sandy Hook in 1823.
In 1852, Congress dissolved the Light House Establishment and organized the new U.S. Light House Board. The Board organized the country into twelve districts, each administered by an inspector appointed by the President. The Light House Board oversaw great changes in navigational aids. It immediately began installing Fresnel lenses in its lighthouses and oversaw the building of new screwpile lighthouses, as well as new types of fog signals and buoys. Under its direction, the first lighthouses and fog signals went up on the Pacific Coast. In 1886 the Light House Board tested a new light source, electricity, to illuminate the torch of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (which was then considered a key aid to navigation).
In 1910, the U.S. Light House Board was dissolved, and Congress established the Bureau of Lighthouses (better known as the Lighthouse Service). Finally in 1939, in the interest of efficiency, the Bureau of Lighthouses was integrated into the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard became responsible for the control and administration of approximately 30,000 navigational aids.
- Series I: Cyanotype Album
- Series II: Lighthouses
- Series III: Floating Aids to Navigation
- Series IV: Light Station Equipment
- Series V: Lithograph Album by Julius Bien
Scope and Content Note
The Lighthouse Photograph and Print Collection spans the period from about 1860 through 1938 and consists predominantly of photographs depicting American lighthouses, beacons, keepers' dwellings, lighthouse equipment, light vessels, and related subjects. The collection is arranged in five series: Cyanotype Album, Lighthouses, Floating Aids to Navigation, Light Station Equipment, and Lithograph Album by Julius Bien. Throughout this finding aid, names of lights have been standardized to those currently used by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. National Park Service. Alternate or former names which are in popular usage are in parentheses after official names; names which could not be confirmed have been written in brackets.
The collection consists primarily of photographs of lighthouses and stations along the eastern coast of the United States, but lighthouses in California, Puerto Rico and England are also included. Light vessels, tenders (ships responsible for tending to buoys), and lighthouse equipment, including lights, lenses, audible signals, and engines are also included. Miscellaneous materials include views of exhibition displays, two pamphlets, a letter, and a few mounted clippings. The collection includes an album of cyanotype views of lighthouses and associated structures (ca. 1884-1900) and an album of lithographs by Julius Bien (ca. 1860).
Materials in this collection originate from a variety of photographers and publishers, and as a result, photographic styles vary. The collection includes both detailed technical work and commercially-produced scenic views. For the majority of materials in this collection, the photographer is unknown. Professional commissions include photography by Underhill, Alexander & Tolman, and the Fairchild Airviews Company, all of New York. Other large-scale surveys may have commissioned lesser known professional photographers or assigned staff photographers to systematically document U.S. Lighthouses. Photographer's names occasionally appear hand-written on the verso; names have been given in parentheses in the folder listing when available. There are a few survey series, including those of West Quoddy Head Light Station in Maine and Devil's Light Station in Wisconsin, which show stylistic consistency; they are all 8 x 10 inch contact prints with similar numeration and descriptive information set on the negatives and printed directly into the photographs. These may have been done by the same person, but it is more likely that they reflect Lighthouse Service standards for photographic documentation.
Open to qualified researchers.
Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to 30 photocopies per day per person. Suitability of the original for photocopying is at the discretion of the staff. Neither blueprints nor tracings can be copied under any circumstances. Duplication of large-format items will be done by the house photographer. See Print Room guidelines for details.
Permission to reproduce any Print Room holdings through publication must be obtained from
Rights and Reproductions
The New-York Historical Society
Two West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282
Fax: (212) 579-8794
The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.
This collection should be cited as The Lighthouse Photograph and Print Collection, PR 038, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.
The bulk of the Lighthouse Photograph and Print Collection was acquired through two gifts. Admiral Edward H. Smith donated 335 photographs on July 19, 1946, on behalf of the Third Division of the U.S. Coast Guard, New York City. On February 10, 1953, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Library donated a series of 35 albumen photographs taken by the Halliday Historic Photograph Co. of Boston documenting lighthouses located in Maine and Massachusetts. A third component of this collection is a bound volume containing 150 lithographs by Julius Bien produced for the U.S. Lighthouse Service; the provenance of this album is unknown, but it may at one time have belonged to Brigadier General Richard Delafield, Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1864-1866.