National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Lighthouse Postcards

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 About the Collection

The large size of civil engineering projects poses special challenges to museums. Curators cannot “collect” actual dams, bridges, tunnels, railroad stations, irrigation systems, and skyscrapers in the same manner they might acquire coins, musical instruments, household furniture, hand tools, or even the occasional locomotive. Museums interested in documenting the history of civil engineering—or other areas of life associated with very large artifacts—must turn to various types of representations: models, drawings, photographs, and the like.

The historic picture postcards of lighthouses showcased in this Web display exemplify just such an effort. Like museum objects of various sorts, these postcards can be understood and interpreted in a number of ways. What did these lighthouses, and the seascapes and harbors around them, look like 50 to 100 years ago? What materials were used in their construction? How did their architectural styles vary from region to region? Why have people found these structures so appealing?

This collection of postcards depicts lighthouses in 25 states and Canada. Most of the postcards were never mailed, and a number of the pictured lighthouses no longer exist. Of those cards that were mailed, the earliest was postmarked in 1904, while the majority were postmarked during the first two decades of the last century. But these cards merely continue a history of lighthouses and their mementos that extends back to the ancient world.

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