CRM Journal

Media Review

Lighthouse Postcards
[updated address:]

Maintained by the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, Behring Center; accessed  August 30-31, 2006, and September 6, 2006.


Because museum curators cannot collect lighthouses and other buildings and structures in the same way they collect household furnishings, textiles, or pottery, they look for other means of documenting them. Models, drawings, photographs, and postcards are among the architectural and engineering records that are collectible and can be used to interpret these buildings and structures to the public. The Lighthouse Postcards online exhibit showcases some of the records in the engineering collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It includes digitized images of 272 postcards depicting lighthouses in 25 U.S. states and Canada, along with general information on the lighthouses and nautical charts provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Visitors can navigate the postcard collection using regional maps that show the name and approximate location of each lighthouse, state lists arranged by region, or an alphabetical index of lighthouse names. The site also includes tips on browsing the site, detailed information about the collection, some lighthouse history, and a glossary of technical terms used in the exhibit. Each postcard page shows a reduced image of the front and back of the postcard, as well as basic data about the lighthouse, including the date it was established, its longitude and latitude, and the characteristic of the light. Links lead to external sources of bibliographical and other information about the lighthouse. By clicking on the postcard images, the visitor can open another window containing a scale image of both sides of the card. The postcard pages also feature links to pop-up windows showing the location of the lighthouse on a current nautical chart; some even show the lighthouse's position on historical nautical charts. Not all of the lighthouses featured in the postcard collection are in use today, and some are no longer extant, so the current charts are color-coded to show whether the light is active, inactive, or no longer standing.

The postcards, like photographs, capture a "moment in time" image. If the lighthouse still exists, it probably does not resemble the image on the postcard. It might be surrounded by modern development or missing its auxiliary buildings. In the case of Thimble Shoal (Virginia), the lighthouse shown on the postcard has been replaced by another structure, which can be seen by following one of the "more information" links.

With the exception of Boston Light (Massachusetts), none of the active U.S. lighthouses are maintained by resident lighthouse keepers. They are now automated, and they are often powered by solar energy. The postcard of Bear Island Lighthouse (Maine) shows the curtains drawn in the lantern room, something a visitor would not see today because no one is there to pull the curtains back at night when the light is lit.

The watercolor postcards of the early 20th century, which make up the majority of the collection, most often present a romanticized view of the lighthouses with calm waters and beautiful skies, but a few tell a different story. The postcard of the Erie Land Light (Pennsylvania) shows a boarded-up stone tower without its lantern (the light was deactivated in 1899). One might assume that it was demolished at some point in time. However, the restored lighthouse is a tourist attraction in a city park in Erie. Ironically, very few of the postcards depict nighttime views of the lighthouses or show storm scenes like the one on the postcard of Grand Haven South Pierhead Light (Michigan). After all, it was at night and during periods of inclement weather that lighthouses were most needed to warn and provide direction to ships at sea.

Most of the postcards in the online collection were never inscribed or posted, but the ones that were are quite intriguing. While many convey the basic vacation greeting, "Wish you were here," others admonish their recipients to "write soon" or "come for a visit." A few refer to the picture on the front of the card. On the back of the postcard of the Beavertail Light (Rhode Island), for instance, the sender writes to the addressee in Kentucky: "Another lighthouse for your collection." On the back of the Lubec Channel Light (Maine) postcard is written, "I found this light for you… I have not succeeded yet in getting any of the Oregon lights." Others tell brief stories of vacation adventures. A postcard of the Plymouth (Gurnet) Light and shoreline (Massachusetts) recounts: "Lay off here hour & a half with engine trouble. All sick & awful rough. Had to be towed up by the Life Savers. Very interesting."

Hidden at the bottom of the page under "A Brief History of Lighthouses" is a noteworthy discussion about dating postcards. Postcard publishers seldom cataloged the cards, so exact dates are difficult to ascertain. Some of the postcards in this collection have been assigned dates because they are either postmarked or inscribed by their senders. Most of the dated postcards in the online collection were postmarked during the first two decades of the 20th century, with a few from as early as 1904. The museum uses a system based on the one used by postcard collectors for assigning date ranges to the undated cards. This system uses periods of time, or "eras," that are defined by the laws enabling the private use and printing of postcards and by improvements in photography and photo processing, printing technologies, and paper stock.

One minor criticism: The site is not easily accessible from the National Museum of American History's home page. Visitors can get to the postcard collection by searching on the terms "lighthouse," "postcard," or "lighthouse postcards," but it was difficult for this reviewer to find a link on either the "Collections" or "Exhibits" pages (there is no link under "Exhibits;" the link off "Collections" is another click beyond the header, "Engineering, Building and Architecture"). Furthermore, the search function on these pages generates no hits for "lighthouses" and irrelevant ones for "postcards." Site creation and launch dates would also apprise the visitor of periodic updates and other changes to the site.

Jennifer M. Perunko
National Cemetery Administration