The Traveling Lighthouse Library

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It’s National Library Week in the United States, and I’m pleased to join the celebration by sharing a part of our library history I recently discovered on a visit to the Heceta Head Lighthouse near Florence, Oregon.

That’s the lighthouse pictured above, viewed from a highway lookout point. While easily accessible by car today, you can imagine its remoteness from the time it began operation in 1894 to the time modern transportation and technology made it no longer a solitary outpost inhabited by hardworking lighthouse keepers and their families.

Many U.S. lighthouses were similarly isolated, with difficult access to the outside world and few options for leisure and entertainment. For lighthouse keepers and their spouses life was constant work — a serious, often monotonous regime of maintenance, watching for something to happen, and meticulously recording events.

Heceta Head light and its surroundings are striking. Some say it’s the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S., and I was lucky to capture it on a bright sunny day in a week of rain. Here is a closeup among the trees:

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When I’d taken full advantage of the photo opportunities and needed a break from the brisk sea wind, I took shelter in a small building with various lighthouse history exhibits. A set of books in a hinged wooden case labeled “Replica Lighthouse Library Box” caught my attention, and I learned about a special library system I’d never come across before.

Circulating Libraries Created for Lighthouse Keepers

Small portable libraries like the one below in the Heceta exhibit were distributed to lighthouses across the U.S. in the 19th century. Used to improve morale at solitary stations, they became an important part of life for keepers and their families. 

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As Natalie Zarrelli speculates in an article for Atlas Obscura (cited with link below), one of these sturdy wooden boxes filled with books was “possibly the most awaited item” when a boat arrived with a shipment of supplies. Her article tells us the boxes were made of thick, heavy wood and, as you can see in the exhibit, did double duty as carrying cases and bookshelves.  

Each library box could hold 50–60 books. The contents varied with a box’s origin. At least some of the books were bought or donated by private groups.

The Heceta exhibit indicates the steady growth of these mini libraries: In 1876, 50 were created. By 1885, more than 400 were in circulation, with 40–60 volumes each. By 1893, over 700 boxes were in transit along U.S. coastlines, delivering much-appreciated reading material to lighthouse families.

Per the exhibit, the libraries moved from station to station via lighthouse inspectors who exchanged the boxes during quarterly inspections. According to Zarrelli, these district inspectors coordinated among themselves which library went to whom. As they swapped one library for another, the libraries traveled the entire circuit of U.S. lighthouses. 

How Did These Lighthouse Libraries Arise?

Clearly, lighthouses and their keepers were crucial to safe navigation, and keeping them both in good condition was important. Accordingly, in the mid 19th century, the United States Lighthouse Board (USLB), the federal agency  responsible for lighthouse construction and maintenance, began improvements to stations around the country.

Along with changes like new, more powerful Fresnel lenses and fresh paint, came amusements to help lighthouse keepers handle the monotony and isolation of the job. Most significant were the traveling libraries which appeared around 1876.  

By then, portable libraries for naval and merchant ships had existed for decades. A religious organization –– the American Seamen’s Friend Society –– provided many library cases for Navy vessels, and they worked with the USLB to bring books to lighthouse keepers as well.

The End of the Journey

The lighthouse libraries were widely used until the radio, telephone and improved transportation made them less important. Most were phased out by the 1920s as the stations became automated.

What special or unusual libraries have you discovered? Please share one of your favorites.

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References and Resources

Zarrelli, Natalie (2016, February 18). “The Most Precious Cargo for Lighthouses Across America Was a Traveling Library.” Retrieved on April 11, 2019 from:

Zarrelli’s article provided much useful background for this post.

Heceta Lighthouse and Bed & Breakfast:

Copyright M. Vincent 2019.  All photos copyright  M. Vincent 2019.


Limericks: Can You Write Just One?

Limericks remind me of that brilliant Lay’s® potato chips slogan launched in 1963: “Betcha can’t eat just one.”

Here’s an ad from Lay’s marketing campaign with the slogan, featuring actor Bert Lahr (perhaps best known as the cowardly lion in the film, The Wizard of Oz):

Lays Chips Lahr Devil Ad

Like eating that first chip, composing limericks can be devilishly difficult to stop. They’ll pop into your head at the slightest provocation, and if family or friends are fond of them too, you can find yourself caught up in a lively spate of limerickal exchange. But why not? It’s food for the brain and calorie-free.

A Little Limerick History

A poetic blog post I read this week and a St. Patrick’s Day-inspired limerick contest that later arrived in my email sent me down the green limerick road for a bit of research as well as writing:

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I knew some limerick history, but was curious to find out more – including whether the city of Limerick in Ireland gave the limerick its name. From a recent article in The Irish Times, it appears that question is unresolved. The author presents various theories, as well as other historical tidbits from his book, The Curious Story of the Limerick.

One sure connection between poem and city is the annual Bring Your Limericks to Limerick international poetry competition organized by the Limerick Writers’ Centre. The 2018 event will take place from August 24 – 26.

Mention limericks and most people will think of Edward Lear, the English artist and poet who’s been called the father of the contemporary limerick. Here is a well-known example:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.”

While Lear popularized the form, beginning with his illustrated A Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, he didn’t invent it. I was interested to find that the form emerged earlier than I imagined and well before Lear’s time.

In an article about famous limericks, Allison Vannest says the form probably came to life on the streets and in the taverns of 14th century Britain, which seems a likely time and venue. Others say it debuted as early as 1260, though it wasn’t called a limerick until the 1890s.

The limerick has been used by a range of writers, including James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, and even Shakespeare. It appears as a drinking song in Othello, Act II, Scene III, for example:

“And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span,
Why, then, let a soldier drink.”

Guidelines for Composing the Limerick

Here is the basic structure for this humorous five-line rhyming form:  

  • The last word in lines 1, 2 and 5 must rhyme
  • The last word in lines 3 and 4 must rhyme
  • Lines 1, 2 and 5 should have 7–10 syllables
  • Lines 3 and 4 should have 5-7 syllables

My St. Patrick’s Day Limerick

When the limerick challenge appeared in my email, I was thinking about Irish soda bread, which I like to bake for St. Patrick’s Day. As a result, this limerick popped into my head:

Keep Calm and Cut a Slice
Some look upon carbs with a loada dread
But why be afraid of this soda bread?
It’s low sugar, whole wheat
And a fine Irish treat
So grab butter and jam, and full speed ahead.

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And so it begins. Now, I can’t help but take on that challenge … 

Ready to create your own limerick?  Betcha can’t write just one. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

Lay’s is a registered trademark of Frito-Lay North America, Inc.

The Lay’s “Betcha” advertisement is intellectual property of Frito-Lay, and not to be reproduced for commercial purposes.

Green limerick road photo copyright Brad Nixon 2018, used with permission.

Going to the Dogs

Readers Respond, But “Thurber” Remains Inscrutable

Recently I wrote about writer-artist James Thurber and his famous cartoon dogs. I introduced my china Thurber hound look-alike, “Thurber,” and asked readers to submit their captions for this photo of the contemplative canine: 

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What is Thurber the hound thinking as he ponders the upcoming lunar Year of the Dog? Here are the responses from readers, ranging from a Zen koan from “Tom Tzu” that perfectly fits the context, to a question that suggests more than one meaning:

“As long helps define short, dogs define years. Dogs are now. They have no time, except that assigned by others.”  — Tom 

“While every dog has its day, now we have an entire year.” — Brad

“Get your own ball. I’m not a working dog.” — Gloria

“(Sigh) Why don’t they just sit down?” — Brian

Regarding Brian’s question, who are “they”? The ever-scurrying humans Thurber finds around him? The dogs becoming over-excited by thoughts of a year devoted to them? Or, … ? 

And yes, Gloria, the Thurber bloodhound is not a ball chaser. When he is working, he’ll be out doggedly tracking something or someone.

Thurber hound tracks (640x480)

Re Brad’s caption, it’s likely that Thurber is having long thoughts about a whole dog year: Just a lot of hoopla? A chance to make progress reforming humanity? …

My thanks to all of you for stopping by and taking the time to submit a caption.  Whatever he’s thinking, Thurber is not saying.

Thurber Discoveries

As I wrote in my prior Thurber post, my youthful introduction to his work was The Thurber Carnival, which made a lasting impression. When I started that post, I hadn’t read Thurber for several years. Revisiting favorite stories like “The Night the Bed Fell,” I found myself laughing as much as ever.

At the same time, I discovered Thurber books and stories I hadn’t seen before as I focused on his dogs. One of the books was The Dog Department, cited below. Another was Thurber’s Dogs, the master’s hand-picked collection of his dog stories and drawings.

The recent writing of other Thurber fans, including some like me who’d grown up with his work, was another pleasing discovery. I especially enjoyed this post by Devi Norton who grew up with a Thurber-quoting dad and is now sharing the joy of The Thurber Carnival with her sons.

Thurber Dogs in Advertising and Apparel

In reading The Dog Department, I was interested to learn that in his heyday Thurber’s art was featured on ties, scarves, dresses and tableware, as well as in product ads.

I found a few of the advertisements online, including a couple for Bug-a-Boo insect spray that are delightfully Thurberesque in more ways than the drawings. Michael Maslin wrote about this one on his website, Ink Spill, devoted to New Yorker cartoonists:  

Thurber Bug-A-Boo Ad 2-Blog

Maslin said the ad appeared in 1935, but he didn’t know if Thurber wrote or had any involvement in the copy.  

I’m disappointed that my research so far has not turned up a single image of the apparel, at least some of which appeared in the 1950s and featured the distinctive Thurber hound. If you have any information, please let me know.

Fitness with Fido?

In my latest auto club magazine I came across a short article entitled “Fitness with Fido.” It was accompanied by a photo of a small white terrier in an orange life-jacket adrift in a rowboat on a large lake.

The writer opened with an observation that made me wonder how James Thurber would respond: “Like their human family members, dogs like their routines shaken up every once in a while.” 

She went on to describe a business that offers doggie-and-me fitness activities, such as group hikes and runs, a boot-camp class and yoga. The owner didn’t want to leave her terrier behind when she went to work out , so she came up with ways for humans and their dogs to exercise together.

I leave it to all of you Thurber fans to visualize the results of this concept, drawing on the observations of the master. The potential humor is inescapable.   

Thank you, Mr. Thurber, for your captivating canines. May we all keep going to the dogs. 


Drawing of bloodhound tracking footprints copyright Estate of James Thurber.

The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, edited by Michael J. Rosen, copyright © 2001 by Rosemary A. Thurber (art, texts, compilation) and Michael J. Rosen (compilation, introduction).

“Fitness with Fido” can be found in the Out & About section, Westways magazine, March/April 2018 issue, published by the Auto Club of Southern California.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

Thurber Contemplates The Year of the Dog. What Is He Thinking?

Growing up in a house filled with books, I became an avid reader and book lover early in life. The varied collection of hardbound editions was a magnet for a curious child, and exploring the shelves I never failed to discover something fascinating. One of my finds was The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber, which held two attractions for me: short stories, which I quickly got into and found hilarious, and a cartoon section with riveting line drawings of people, dogs and various other creatures such as seals and rabbits.

As a kid, I loved the facial expressions of Thurber’s cartoon characters and the wacky world they inhabited, and they still make me laugh. Here are a couple examples of the cartoons:

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Thurber rabbit 2 (640x502)

This post was inspired by Thurber’s dogs; specifically, the hounds or “blood hounds,” with their intelligent, generally dignified, and contemplative demeanor. Keep this image in mind:

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About James Thurber (1894–1961)

For those not familiar with Mr. Thurber, we’ll detour for a brief biography: One of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century, Thurber was a prolific author, journalist and cartoonist whose work spanned many genres. He’s best known for his cartoons and short stories, which were featured regularly in the New Yorker magazine, where he was on the staff from 1927–1933. All his life Thurber owned, admired, drew and wrote about dogs. In 1926, he published Thurber’s Dogs, a collection of the dog stories and drawings he personally selected as his best. His distinctive canine characters appear throughout his work.

 A Surprise Discovery

Now, fast forward several decades from my youthful discovery of Thurber to the laden shelves of a large antique mall where my partner and I are searching for additions to our midcentury modern dinnerware collection. As I scan an overloaded display, something surprising catches my eye; the Thurber hounds etched in my memory leap out and I reach for the startling object:

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Remind you of anyone?

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I’m holding what looks to be a 3-dimensional version of one of those Thurber Carnival bloodhounds with wrinkled brow and unperturbable expression. Of course, I take him home and name him “Thurber.”

 A Lunar New Year Inspiration

I recently learned that in his heyday Thurber’s art was featured on ties, scarves, dresses and tableware, as well as in product ads. (Michael J. Rosen refers to this in his introduction to The Dog Department, cited below.*) Perhaps someone commissioned a Thurber hound figurine? No markings indicate who made my china “Thurber,” but he was a fun find –– and this year, a photo inspiration.

I enjoy creating stories in photography, and “Thurber” inspired a Year of the Dog photo from the dog’s perspective. I envisioned him relaxing in a cartoon setting, reflecting on this momentous year for dogs. A little Asian vase I had was the perfect centerpiece for making it a living room, keyed to the thoughtful, discriminating Thurber hound.

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What’s Your Caption for this Photo?

I’d love to hear from you. Channel your inner James Thurber, consider what your own dog might be thinking, or draw on whatever fuels your imagination. Have fun, and submit a caption during the February 16–March 2 new year celebration. I’ll feature the responses in a future post. Happy Lunar New Year!

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

All James Thurber cartoons copyright James Thurber Estate.

*The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and Talking Poodles, Michael J. Rosen editor – Copyright © 2001 by Rosemary A. Thurber (art, texts, compilation) and Michael J. Rosen (compilation, introduction).

New Booklist Time! What Are You Reading in 2018?

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It’s that time again for avid readers to be working on their new year’s booklists, or at least seriously contemplating the direction they’ll take.

Maybe some of you have already composed your  complete list. Others may be just starting a draft, to finish or to use as the base for a work in progress, a list that develops as your interests develop in the coming months. While approaches vary, I’m sure the happy anticipation is the same.

My own approach is mostly freewheeling with a bit of structure. The list develops as I go along, but I start out with some titles and some objectives that will guide me. One continuing objective is to read more works from other countries with other cultural points of view. (My 2016–17 lists held authors from France, England, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Canada, Italy, Japan and Tibet; also, several Native American authors, citizens of their own sovereign nations as well as of the United States.)

Other objectives for the year may be: reading more work by writers of long and amiable acquaintance (my 2016 list, for example, included a Graham Greene fest), exploring writers new to me, or pursuing specific topics, themes or historical periods. Positive works of humor, humanity, inspiration, and pure enjoyment are always among the choices.

As you might expect, I end up with an eclectic mix of fiction, nonfiction, “classic” and contemporary:  mysteries, memoirs, short story collections, poetry … Even cookbooks.

I find the books on my list in various ways. Sometimes, I just choose a shelf in a section of my local library and wander down it, running my fingers over the spines, looking for a title that leaps out; stopping in my tracks at those slender volumes with a patina of age that might hold something intriguing by a writer who can bundle impressive storytelling into a small package.

I found High Bonnet: a Novel of Epicurean Adventures by Idwal Jones on one of those library strolls. Written in 1945, the book follows Jean-Marie Gallois, the protagonist, on his journey to win the “high bonnet” of chefdom, with many madcap episodes along the way. It was fun to discover this engaging Welsh writer, adept at drawing characters and scenes.

Sometimes the books are gifts from two delightfully “bookish” friends who worked for years at Powell’s City of Books in Portland. My first book of 2018 – I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn – is an example. Other selections derive from discussions with my very well-read partner, who devours literature ravenously and thoughtfully.

Fellow bloggers who share their love of reading, their booklists and comments are also a welcome resource. I love to hear what others are reading. If you do too, here are a few books on my list for this year:

Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time” by Eric Karpeles.

Unbowed – A memoir, beginning with childhood, by Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan political activist, environmentalist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. (Reading in progress)

Frankenstein The classic tale by Mary Shelley. (This English major has never read it!)

Not Without Laughter – The debut novel of Langston Hughes. Perusing his poetry available at our library, I realized what a range of other writing he produced and put this novel on my list. By coincidence, I found this New York Times review the next day.

My Brilliant Friend – My first novel by Elena Ferrante. It chronicles the decades-long friendship of two girls who grow up in a poor Naples neighborhood during the sweeping changes of post-WWII Italy.

What’s on your 2018 list so far? Please share a few of your choices.

Note: High Bonnet (1945) was reprinted in 2001 as part of the Modern Library Food Series edited by Ruth Reichl. That’s the edition I found at the library.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018