The lighthouse occupants renewed their appreciation for print media last month after the dredging operation knocked out the underwater telephone line, cutting off phone and Internet for several weeks. Moreover, the power was shut off daily as a precaution while the dredge operated in the vicinity of the Lighthouse’s underwater electric cable. Email, streaming music and movies, social media—kaput! Oh, the hardship! Fortunately, the lighthouse bookshelves are stocked for such emergencies. In the absence of digital media, the pages of books and magazines filled the void. No plug-in adaptors or lithium batteries required. Plus, if the in-house offerings were stale, our local public library was just a short trip up the hill, not to mention the two well-curated bookstores downtown.
This brief hiatus from 21st-century technology was an introduction to what it must have been like for lighthouse keepers prior to the 1940s when telephone and electricity were first installed in the Saugerties Lighthouse. What could a keeper and family do for entertainment in the off hours? In the warmer months, the river itself offered enjoyment. Fishing, rowing, swimming. But what about the colder months, when the sun set early and the evenings grew dark? For residents of an isolated station, this was a certainly a conundrum. Curling up with a good book next to the parlor stove—this seems obvious enough now. Once upon a time, this simple pleasure was not so easy to come by.
In the latter half of the 19th century, a lighthouse officer noticed the eagerness by which keepers latched onto any reading material, anything to relieve the monotony. A dog-eared dime novel or yesterday’s newspaper was like gold. The officer started gathering extra books and magazines from friends to put into the hands of isolated keepers. Gradually, the effort grew, and in 1876, it became official. For the “edification and entertainment” of lighthouse keepers, the plea went out through the press for donations of books, magazines and paperback novels. Old volumes were rebound by the government. The U.S. Lighthouse Board allocated funds from its furniture budget to construct sturdy portable bookcases.
Predating the rural bookmobile for several decades, these traveling libraries were distributed to the most remote stations. The stocked bookcases were usually delivered by the lighthouse superintendent during quarterly inspections and rotated among stations to regularly refresh the reading material available to keepers. By the end of the century, several hundred of these bookcases were in circulation among the lighthouses.
The portable bookcase did double duty, serving as carrying crate and display case. Two ft. square and 3/4 ft. deep, the box was built of thick pine. Laid flat, it had brass handles for easy lifting. Stood on end, a pair of brass-hinged doors swung open to display two shelves, one for books and the other for magazines. A slot at the top was reserved for the Bible and a prayer book. Depending on the thickness of the volumes, the crate held 20 to 40 books and dozens of magazines.
The shelves were filled with a mix of fiction and nonfiction of assorted genres, such as novels, science, biographies, adventures and poetry. The reading list might include a Scandinavian historical romance in translation, a volume or two from a world history series, military memoirs of a decorated commodore, an astronomy guide, travel sketches, a few recent National Geographic magazines, the latest civil service periodicals and a selection of literary classics such as “Robinson Crusoe” or “Treasure Island.”
Little money was spared for the purchase of books, so the Lighthouse Board continued to rely on donations of reading material to refresh the contents of these bookcases. The journal of the American Library Association often echoed the request for help to its members, advising that the “average light keeper is on a plane, as to taste, education, and culture, with the average mechanic.” Such was an opinion shared in The Library Journal in 1885. Of course, this begs the question, what are the literary preferences of the average mechanic?
The effort was not always consistent, and the books were not always the best quality. In 1919, The Library Journal, again renewing the call for support, noted that “the stock of books at some stations is 30 years old and not well selected.” If the books were often outdated, the magazines available to keepers must have easily surpassed those we find in the waiting rooms of doctors offices. Imagine the disappointment opening one of these treasure chests of literature to find, instead of golden inspiration, leaden titles as the second novel in a trilogy, Volume III of a four volume series on naval history and decades-old popular science books about the “latest” discoveries. Or maybe it didn’t matter so long as the box contained a few of the enduring classics.
Apparently, any scrap of literature was worthy of the keepers, like the “pile of old magazines” in the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, “to give to those poor fellows who must be bored to death sitting all day with nothing to do but polish the lamp and trim the wick and rake about on their scrap of garden, something to amuse them.” Such was the caricature of loneliness and isolation.
The Saugerties light station may not have been remote enough to qualify for one of the traveling libraries, but one could easily imagine the neighborly charity by which a townsperson might bestow a favorite book or last month’s issue of a magazine to the keeper. Among the provisions ferried from the village, the keeper might slip the newspaper and a dime novel. Of course, the keeper also had the benefit of the Saugerties Public Library, which is commemorating a century at its current location.
What an opportune time to celebrate libraries, big and small. Nowadays, pundits often lament the decline of print media. That may be true. Yet, as temperatures grow colder and the evenings grow darker, I instinctively start to compile a winter reading list and look forward to cozying up with a book by the parlor stove.
Patrick Landewe is keeper of the Saugerties Lighthouse. His column appears monthly.