Lighthouses and House Insulation

These two seemingly unrelated items from different QBO sales actually have something sweet and natural in common. This 4″ x 4″, gently-scented sachet commemorates the Marshal Point Lighthouse and Museum in Maine, a tourist attraction that draws thousands every year. The first Marshall Point Lighthouse was built in 1832, with the current tower being built in 1858. In 1935 the lard (ewww…) oil lamps were updated to electric. In 1971 automating the light eliminated the job of lightkeeper. In 2018 the Coast Guard upgraded the light to LEDs with a battery back-up for power failures. 

The 3-color silkscreen shows the current lighthouse, walkway and keeper’s house. Neither the comically squat tower, nor its base hunkering directly on the stony beach, nor the almost-perilous, near-shoreline location of the keeper’s house are artistic exaggerations – this petite lighthouse is only 24′ tall, holding its light just short of 30′ above sea level. A tsunami would be problematic! In contrast, the Heceta Head Lighthouse here on the Oregon coast is 56′ tall and is perched atop 1,000′ tall Heceta Head, considerably higher and thus visible over 20 miles away. The Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum was opened on the first floor of the Lightkeeper’s House in 1990 and it is from their gift shop that this sweet-smelling little sachet comes.

In contrast, this comical bit of advertising ephemera for Balsam Wool comes from the 1920s – 40s. At first glance it seems to be selling union suits, but no, it’s house insulation! (Your home needs a cozy layer of warm underwear, get it?) This type of insulation was used in American home-building from the 1920s – 40s, a 1″ thick compacted cellulose blanket sandwiched between two sheets of 24″ wide black paper and sold in long rolls. The paper was often treated with oil to make it waterproof and the cellulose filling with borax to make it fire resistant. 

Another 1928 ad boasted that “Balsam-Wool is a blanket of fluffy wood fiber that looks and feels like sheep’s wool and is its practical equivalent in insulating efficiency. Balsam Wool is windproof, water-proof, fire-resistant, sanitary and durable.” Oh, and also “flexible, insulating and sound deadening.” Impressive! 1″ of Balsam-Wool insulation had an R value of about 2 – 3.5 compared to today’s pink blown fiberglass at R 3.1 – 3.4 and closed cell spray foam at R 6, so not bad. And, if you find it in the walls of an old home you’re renovating, rest assured Balsam-Wool didn’t contain asbestos. Other than the relatively non-toxic Borax used to treat it, the stuffing chemically most closely resembles a Rayon or bamboo textile. 

Which brings us back to the lighthouse pillow as both it and the insulation contain materials from the balsam fir tree (Abies balsamea). The small conifer’s native range is the north-eastern U.S., home to both the lighthouse and The Wood Conversion Company (a division of Weyerhaeuser Forest Products, Inc.) which made the insulation. Balsam firs are also native to central and south-eastern Canada and are prized by First Nations and Native American tribes for their soft, aromatic needles. The pillow is filled with dried needles, while the insulation was filled with compacted by-product timber milling sawdust and finely-ground scrap. Balsam fir is a soft wood ideal for pulp, paneling, crates, and plywood. They also make a favorite Christmas tree because they resist dropping needles indoors and smell heavenly. If you’d like to sniff one in person, try the Oregon Garden or Hoyt Arboretum which maintain conifer reference gardens, or wait until Christmas when you may find a few Balsams lurking in amongst the Noble Firs.