In the nineteenth century, American lighthouse keepers and their families faced a difficult existence, as they often lived in difficult and remote locations, without access to local stores and entertainment. As a result, they had to rely on the Light House Establishment, the U.S. agency in charge of lighthouse operations, to deliver them supplies via boats, called lighthouse tenders. Included in the list of supplies for light keepers were portable wooden library boxes, which contained a variety of books meant to help light keepers pass the time.
Portable libraries were first introduced by the Light House Establishment in 1876. Each library was contained in a portable, solid-wood case, and fitted with brass handles, as well as a printed listing of its contents inside the door. The books included in the cases were selected by public library personnel, and tended to be fiction, though technical books could be requested by the light keepers.
The library’s contents were frequently revised, in order to keep up with suggestions from library officials. Each of the selections were marked inside the front cover with a Light House Establishment bookplate, which contains images of a light ship (a ship which acts as a lighthouse), an iron pile lighthouse, and the likeness of the Minot’s Ledge Light, a lighthouse in Plymouth County, Massachusetts.
The University of Delaware Special Collections possesses an 1841 edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) The Pathfinder, which was included in the Light House Establishment’s portable library system.