Who likes to wash windows? I do. I love a clean, sparkling window, but I get discouraged by the streaks. Is there a non-streaking window cleaner that really works? And that continuous motion of washing makes my right shoulder hurt a bit. It’s an old injury from a nasty fall I had about thirty years ago. Probably, window washing is good PT for it.
Yes, I do like a clean, shiny window...the kind you would have seen at a lighthouse a hundred years ago. Today, I’m reminded of that as the sun drops lower in the autumn sky each day and in October shines directly in the cathedral windows of my living room. Oh, those streaks! So many of them! They weren’t visible until the sun decided to shine a light on them. If only I had a real lighthouse keeper to wash my windows.
Lightkeepers were expert window washers. It was part of their job. The lighthouse inspector came as often as every quarter in some locales and put his white-gloved hands on everything. The windows—in the lighthouse and the lantern room, in the residence, storehouse, oil house, workroom, boathouse, and in all the buildings on station—had to be spotless, with no dirt or residue or streaks.
The cleaner of choice in the old lightkeeping days was vinegar diluted in water, or a concoction of salts of ammonia and water. Sometimes, keepers referred to the cleaner as “spirits of wine,” though it wasn’t really the ethanol we know it to be today. The recipe is actually a bit of mystery. I’d say "spirits of wine" wasn’t something to drink , but that it was relatively streakless when applied with a soft linen cloth and didn’t scratch. A drop of liquid soap would have boosted the cleaning power and made it slide smoothly over glass. That same cleaner might have been used on the lighthouse lens itself, an aggregate of delicate prisms and brass. But there was another set of cleaning rules for lenses--a topic for another blog post after I interview lens expert, Chad Kaiser, about it.
To do a “little light housekeeping” was a popular joke among lightkeepers, and it still is with groups that maintain old lighthouses. I have a cute collectible doorknob hanger in my office that glibly states: "Needed--A woman to do a little light housekeeping." It features a picture of man standing next to a lighthouse. It's a joke, yes, but lighthouse historians know women hired by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment were fastidious lightkeepers and housekeepers.
Check out some images below of window washing at lighthouses.
Beachy Head Lighthouse, England is pictured above circa 1940. You can see the side of the lens assembly on the left and one of the chariot wheels that made the lens revolve. (From Sheila Ryan's blog)
Here's some serious winter window cleaning in an illustration on the cover of the December 1876 Harper's Weekly. This situation is one of the reasons the British, French, and American lighthouse authorities began building handholds into the lantern windows. Cleaning windows on a day like this one was risky. Notice the keeper is standing on the icy gallery railing to reach the top of the lantern window. Yikes!
Irving Conlin, himself a California lightkeeper, snapped this photo of a keeper cleaning the lantern windows at Point Vicente Lighthouse about 1940. You can see the built-in handhold I mentioned in the previous caption just below his left hand. Notice the pretty bow windows. These allowed rain and snow to slide off easier than flat windows, and their diagonal astragals (metal frames) supposedly didn't interfere with the light as much as the horizontal type. (Nautical Research Center Collection)
This picture, courtesy of the Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association, has volunteers cleaning the windows on St. Helena Lighthouse. This station is a showpiece for the association and its education site.
In 2005 I visited Point Conception Lighthouse in California with a Coast Guard crew. While I poked around the site and took pictures, two of the Coasties cleaned the lantern windows and did some maintenance on the tower.
"I wanna be a lighthouse keeper, and live down by the sea," an old song goes. I got that chance! In 2004, during a week-long stint as keepers at New Dungeness Light Station in Sequim, Washington, Jonathan and I gave the lighthouse a little TLC--new inside walls, some paint, a fix to the lantern railing, and a good cleaning. This is me washing the windows of the lantern. I loved the job--such an honor to do the work I've written so much about!! (Photo by Jonathan DeWire)
And just for fun...
Click on the image to enlarge the cartoon.