The history of street lighting in the United States is closely linked to the urbanization of America. Artificial illumination has stimulated commercial activity at night, and has been tied to the country’s economic development, including major innovations in transportation, particularly the growth in automobile use. In the two and a half centuries before LED lighting emerged as the new “gold standard”, cities and towns across America relied on oil, coal gas, carbon arc, incandescent, and high-intensity gas discharge lamps for street lighting.

Oil lamp street lighting

The earliest street lights in the colonial America were oil lamps burning whale oil from the Greenland or Arctic right whales of the North Atlantic, or from sperm whales of the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and beyond. Lamplighters were responsible for igniting the lamps and maintaining them. As early as the 1750s, inventor Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia introduced innovations in oil lamp design, such as using two woven wicks to siphon oil from a reservoir, and flat panes of glass which could be easily replaced and were cheaper than blown glass bowls.

In Boston, a citizens’ committee led by John Hancock installed more than 300 oil lamps from England in 1773. The year before, a newspaper editorial had called for a system of public lamps to prevent crime and protect citizens at night. The glass globes were placed on posts ten feet high and spaced fifty feet apart along the street, following the system used in London. These early street lights were “more suggestive than real”; in practice, pedestrians moved from one pool of light to another, walking through shadow in between.

In New York, more than 1,600 oil lamps were in use as city street lights in 1809. The city had started using spermaceti oil, which burned more brightly than candles, in its street lamps from as early as 1792. Philadelphia was close behind during this period, with 1,100 street lamps.

Gas street lighting

Gas lamps gradually started replacing oil street lamps in the United States, beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century. The first street in the world to be illuminated by gaslight was Pall Mall in London, starting in 1807. The first US city to use gas street lights was Baltimore, starting in 1817. In 1816, artist Rembrandt Peale had demonstrated the use of gas lamps to light exhibits at the Peale Museum in Baltimore, displaying what The Federal Gazette and Daily Advertiser called “the beautiful and most brilliant light”. The following year, a group of investors formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, which was authorized by the municipal government to lay pipes to use coal gas to light public streets.

Although both New York and Philadelphia experimented with gas street lighting around this time, the sophistication of their existing oil-based lighting systems meant that those cities were slower to replace the street lamps they already had with technology that was still unproven. By 1835, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had also built the requisite infrastructure of piped networks connected to manufacturing gas plants (MGPs) to supply gas light to shopping boulevards, wealthy residential neighborhoods, and major thoroughfares. That year, only 384 of New York City’s 5,660 street lamps were gaslights. Chicago turned on its first hundred-odd gaslights on September 4, 1850.

Gas light was up to ten times brighter than light from oil lamps, but by present-day standards, the lights appeared “distinctly yellow and not very bright”. In 1841, British author James Silk Buckingham observed that New York City’s street lights were inadequate: “The lamps are so far apart and so scantily supplied with light that it is impossible to distinguish names or numbers on the doors from carriages or even on foot without ascending the steps.” By 1893, New York City had 26,500 gas street lights and only 1,500 electrical lights.

Read more: History of street lighting in the United States

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