The history of street lighting in New York, as in other major cities throughout the world, closely parallels that of the development of lighting technology. From candles and oil, through gas, to electricity, street lights have always reflected the technology and tastes of their time.

Candles and Oil
The first efforts at coordinated street lighting in urban settings appear to have begun in the seventeenth century, although some attempts at lighting for feast days may date to medieval times. Between 1667 and 1763, Paris had as many as 6,500 candle lanterns suspended fifteen feet above streets and installed fifteen yards apart. Pulleys at each side allowed for servicing from adjoining buildings. The candles were lit twenty nights per month (moonlight provided sufficient light on other nights) and from October through March.

Amsterdam streets were lighted by oil lamps in 1669, those in Hamburg in 1675, and those in Vienna in 1687. In London, a 1694 licensing arrangement called for oil lamps to be lighted at every tenth house from 6:00P.M. to midnight between Michaelmas (September 29) and Lady (Annunciation) Day (March 25). The City of London took over the job in 1736 and installed 5 ,000 lamps in the streets, five times the previous number. By 1738 there were 15,000 oil lamps lighting the streets of London.

On November 23, 1697, the Common Council of New York, “having considered ‘the great Inconveniency that Attends this Citty being A trading place for want of having lights in the Darke time of ye moon in the winter season,’ it is ordered ‘that all and Every of the house Keepers within this Citty Shall put out lights in their Windows fronting ye Respective Streets.”‘ Shortly thereafter the requirement was changed to every seventh house, and this method of street illumination continued for over 60 years. In 1762, the city was authorized to levy a tax for installing lamps, paying watchmen to attend them, and purchasing oil, 6 apparently representing the city’s first attempt at municipal street lighting. Contemporary illustrations depict polygonal lanterns atop plain wood posts (figs. 1 and 2).

Gas Gas lighting was first exhibited in London’s Pall Mall for the King’s birthday in 1805. In 1809 this street was the first in the world to be permanently lighted by gas. By 1823, 215 miles of London streets were lighted with over 39,000 gas lamps.

Shortly after Baltimore became the first city in the U.S. to introduce gas street lighting in 1817, the New York Gas Light Co. was incorporated on March 26, 1823. A few weeks later, it was awarded the first franchise to supply the city with “buildings, works, and apparatus for the preparation and manufacture of gas; cause the necessary pipes to be made of cast iron, and to be laid; and manufacture and supply in the most approved manner sufficient quantities of the best quality gas … for lighting Broadway from Grand Street to the Battery.” This work was completed on May 11, 1825. The next year the city contracted with New York Gas Light to extend its system of gas lines and cast-iron lampposts to all streets between the East River and the Hudson River south of Grand and Canal Streets, with 2,400 posts spaced 100 feet apart to be installed by May 1828.

The post design that became standard for gas lights was introduced around 1860. Its simple, fluted eight-foot base and shaft were topped with a short, horizontal bar used as a ladder rest and surmounted by an eight-paned, polygonal lantern, or luminaire. These posts quickly became ubiquitous. Two of these posts have been located-one at the foot of Patchin Place in the Greenwich Village Historic District has a modern electric luminaire (fig. 35), and the other at the northeast corner of 211 th Street and Broadway has no luminaire.

The technology of gas lighting changed little until 1893, when a gas burner incorporating an incandescent mantle was developed. The “Welsbach” mantle produced a gas light three times as bright as previous burners (thirty-five to forty candlepower as opposed to thirteen candlepower). A woven ceramic mantle, or shroud, placed over the gas flame produced a bright, white light. New luminaires were developed for the new gas mantle burner. Two types of luminaires, both cylindrical in form, were retrofitted to existing gas posts. In 1904 “a great improvement” was made when 16,000 old gas lamps in Manhattan and the Bronx were changed to mantle lamps.


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