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Architecture and Philately: Lighthouse Postage Stamps

Author: Emil Drkusic
Date: 01/02/2020

When in the Ancient World trading ships were first built, they enabled people to sail long distances to buy and sell goods. But those first ships were wooden with sails so the wind and waves could easily push them against the rocks and wreck them. And so, the need for something as a warning signal at sea arose. Today, we know those buildings as lighthouses.

"Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other." - Virginia Woolf

We all have an idea what a lighthouse is – a tower with a bright light at the top, located at an important place regarding navigation at sea. Lighthouses serve as a navigational aid and to warn boats of dangerous areas.

First lighthouses were actually provided by nature – sailors used landmarks such as glowing volcanoes to guide them. But it wasn't long before people started building them and they have definitely come a long way since.

Below we bring you 5 important and interesting facts about lighthouses - maritime „road” signs.


The first known lighthouse was the Pharos of Alexandria in today’s Egypt. Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II constructed it between 300 and 280 B.C. and it stood about 450 feet high.

This lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was destroyed in stages by invaders and earthquakes by the 1300s.

A Byzantine eunuch spy has been responsible for the final destruction of the lighthouse of Alexandria while searching for hidden treasure.

lighthouses stamps


Lighthouses of the Black Sea and Azov Sea (1982), Lighthouses of the Baltic Sea (1983) and Lighthouses of the Pacific Ocean (1984)

The world’s oldest existing lighthouse obviously isn't the famous Pharos of Alexandria. It is the Tower of Hercules, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that marks the entrance of Spain‘s La Coruña harbor.

This lighthouse, which was erected in the first century, is still operational.

"The lighthouse does great service to humanity; yet it is the slave of those who trim the lamps." - Alice Wellington Rollins


The world's most famous lighthouse in the world is also the first U.S. lighthouse to use electricity – the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. From its opening in 1886 until its deactivation as a lighthouse in 1902, its torch carried an electric light that was visible for 24 miles. The Statue's current replacement torch, added in 1986, is a copper flame covered in 24K gold.

lighthouses stamps


Brunsbüttel Mole 1, Westerheversand (2005/07/07)

Neuland, Hohe Weg (2006/08/10)

What’s interesting is that The Statue of Liberty was originally designed to look like as an Arab peasant located in Egypt and serve as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal.


These days, lighthouses are run by machines and remote monitoring. Automatic sensors and radio signals are used to communicate with the ships. But when the technology was not so advanced the lighthouses were run by lighthouse keepers.

Originally lighthouses were lit with open fires, later progressing through candles, lanterns and electric lights. So, before the days of electricity, the keepers had to light the lamp at sunset and put it out at sunrise. Considering the conditions, they had to work in we can definitely say that the keepers were among the most dedicated civil servants, often performing in extreme hardship.

lighthouses stamps

USA – 2013/07/13 - New England Coastal Lighthouses

Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portsmouth Harbor, New Castle, New Hampshire

Point Judith, Narragansett, Rhode Island

New London Harbor, New London, Connecticut

Boston Harbor, Boston, Massachusetts

So, were they paid well? Not exactly.

Keepers were paid a lower middle-class wage. George Worthylake, the first lighthouse keeper in the US served from 1716 until 1718 when he drowned, along with his wife and daughter, when returning to the lighthouse. He received 50 pounds ($250) a year. By today’s standards that would be the equivalent of $16,000.

Particularly interesting is the fact that lighthouse keeping was one of the first U.S. government jobs available to women, but mostly they took over when their spouses or small relatives died or became unable to continue.


To begin with, to help the sailors determine their location each lighthouse (geographically close) is painted in different colors and/or designs.

But what about the night, when you can't really see the design on a lighthouse? At night a group of lights on a rotating framework made it possible to produce a special pattern of light for each lighthouse. Later, the invention of the Fresnel (pronounced “Frey Nel”) lens in 1822 enabled men to produce an unlimited number of flashing combinations and it also intensified the light so it could be seen at greater distances.

The individual flashing pattern of each light is called its characteristic. Sailors often have to look at a light list that tells what light flashes that particular pattern.

lighthouses stamps

Australia – 2018/10/23 - Lighthouses of Sydney

Hornby Lighthouse, Robertsons Point Lighthouse, and Macquarie Lighthouse

But… what happens in fog when the light isn't visible?

"A fallen lighthouse is more dangerous than a reef." - proverb

In situations like this, there is another method of notifying the mariner, using sound. It is called a foghorn. The first one was, of all things, a cannon, then fog bells, steam whistles, and reed trumpets and sirens. The sounds they gave out were generally low – pitched and very mournful – almost like a wail – I think we can all imagine it. Each one emitted a specific number of blasts every minute so it could be told apart from all others.

"Lighthouses are more helpful than churches." - Benjamin Franklin


To begging with, increased mechanization and improved technology have made keepers unnecessary. Today, most of the lighthouses have been automated, and the ones who are not are like that for sentimental reasons only.

Also, many of the lighthouses are no longer needed due to advances in technology but it is important to keep them in good condition for future generations to learn about their place in the history and it is also a special experience to be able to climb the stairs just as the keepers did and picture what life was like in times past.

Many enthusiasts yearn to experience the life of a lighthouse keeper. Ohio woman Sheila Consaul paid $71,010 for Lake Erie's Fairport Harbor West Breakwall Lighthouse in 2011 and has been fixing it up ever since.

There is also a lighthouse in North Carolina which, after being decommissioned, was bought by a private individual and made into a bed and breakfast.

"I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve." - George Bernard Shaw

AND SOME FUN FACTS TO FINISH OFF WITH (also known as bonus facts 🙂

The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Mystery is the mystery where all three Lighthouse keepers on a remote island vanished. The logs found to reference a brutal storm that lasted days, even though a neighboring island that had a view of the Lighthouse reported calm weather.

The border between Finland and Sweden crosses through a small island in an unusual way because back in 1885 the Finns accidentally built a lighthouse on the Swedish side of the island.

There is a tradition that dates back to 1929, known as “Flying Santa”, where gifts are dropped from planes to lighthouse keepers across the New England coast.

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