The Safety of Light: A Short History of Light in Public Spaces

The simple activity of taking a walk in the evening can easily turn from a relaxing leisurely activity to a dangerous endeavor by removing just one element from the streetscape: public lighting. While not often recognized as defining aspect of urban environments, artificial illumination has played an essential role in defining the character of modern cities. Crime control, the appeal of nightlife, the rise of the shop window, revolutionary movements, utopias, and ideals of social equity are all concepts whose development is tightly linked to the history of public lighting. Technological advancements over the past centuries have continuously shaped the appearance and symbolism of streetlamps. Still, the this element has remains a constant throughout its history.

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Private Lights for Public Spaces

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Street in Prague, Czech Republic. Image © Radoslaw Maciejewski via Shutterstock

Most civilizations understand the night as a realm of mystery, dreams, the hidden, and the occult. During Medieval Europe, cities prepared for nightfall as they prepared for a battle or a storm at sea: city gates were locked, and all residents were to retreat indoors. City-wide decrees, such as the 1380 one in Paris, stipulated that all houses must be locked at night, and the keys must be deposited with the magistrate to ensure added safety. Meanwhile, the night watch, armed with torches and weapons, patrolled the streets. Similar regulations were in effect in Berlin and Vienna until the 19th century, according to Wolfgang Schivelbusch.

The 15th century brings the first attempts in Europe to install public lighting on a large scale. A decree in London required inhabitants to hang lanterns outside their homes as a means of identification. Similarly, in the 16th century, Parisian residents were compelled to hang lanterns beneath their street-facing windows as an extension of an older law that mandated that all residents walking the streets at night must carry torches to make themselves visible. This concept inverts the usual role of windows, using them to bring the light from the private home onto the public street.

While the idea was novel, the technology of torch and candle-based lighting used during these times was not new. Greek and Roman civilizations document the use of candle-based lamps since antiquity. On a similar note, researchers discovered Chinese records dating back 1700 years indicating the use of natural volcanic gas transported via bamboo pipes to illuminate and heat private homes.

Police Controlled Lighting

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Rear view of adult man walking on street with light of street lamp at night. Shot in Madrid, Spain. Image © WK Lai via Shutterstock

During the late 17th century in Paris, lanterns attached to cables strung across the streets gradually replaced the lamps mounted on the walls of private homes. The French absolutist state implemented this more public version of lighting, tasking local police with tending to public lights. Seen as a measure of control, the police used 15% of its budget on public illumination. This was just part of a new set of urban regulations aimed at sanitizing the urban environment. Other laws ordered the removal of large and intrusive medieval shop signs and the installment of uniform pavement. Towards the end of the 17th century, other large European cities followed.

People submitted to it because it promised to guarantee stability and security. But although public lighting was welcomed as holding out the promise of security, it was also a police institution and, as such, attracted all the hostility traditionally directed at the police. - Wolfgang Schivelbusch in the book Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, page 97

The new lighting system, made possible by the innovation of glass cases, was met with some opposition. Lantern smashing became a popular activity, despite the harsh punishments dictated by the law. The beginning of the French Revolution intensified these acts of vandalism in Paris. Writers like Victor Hugo describe areas of the city wholly hidden in darkness as safe places for revolutionaries. In an escalation of the conflict in 1789, two representatives of the old regime were captured and hung from a gallows-shaped lantern fixed on the front of Hotel de Ville, once again changing the symbolism associated with the street lamps.

Gas Light and Nightlife

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Passersby marvel at new gaslighting (London, 1809)"A Peep at the Gas-lights in Pall Mall", a humorous caricature of reactions to the installation of the new invention of gas-burning street lighting on Pall-Mall, London. Dialogue in caricature: Well-informed gentleman "The Coals being steam'd produces tar or paint for the outside of Houses -- the Smoke passing thro' water is deprived of substance and burns as you see." Irishman "Arragh honey, if this man bring fire thro water we shall soon have the Thames and the Liffey burnt down -- and all the pretty little herrings and whales burnt to cinders." Rustic bumpkin "Wauns, what a main pretty light it be: we have nothing like it in our Country." Quaker "Aye, Friend, but it is all Vanity: what is this to the Inward Light?" Shady Female "If this light is not put a stop to -- we must give up our business. We may as well shut up shop." Shady Male "True, my dear: not a dark corner to be got for love or money.". Image © Public domain via Wikipedia

Gas lighting was pioneered in Britain, with the Mall in London becoming the first urban area to be illuminated by gaslight in 1807. The innovation, a result of the Industrial Revolution, was first used in factories to prolong working hours and increase efficiency. Once it was adopted in the streets, the new light system, which shone more brightly compared to previous lamps, encouraged the development of a night-time economy. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the baroque culture of the night spawned modern-day nightlife.

Court society took advantage of the new technology to push social activities further into the night as a symbol of one’s social rank: the later one began the day, the higher the rank. Public light also gave way to commercial light. Window shops became larger, and sales rooms were slowly turned into reception rooms. Gas lights, still requiring an open flame, were fixed outside the shops in London with reflectors installed to throw a strong light upon the commodities on display. Before the introduction of electrical light, gas light was a symbol of human and industrial progress.

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In 1878 the Victoria Embankment (near Westminster Bridge), which was previously lit by gas, was illuminated with Jablochkoff Candle arc light alternating with the original gas standards to show the difference. Supply came from Gramme AC generators. The prime movers were steam engines made by Ransomes, Sims and Head of Ipswich. In June 1884, gas lighting was re-established as electricity was not competitive. The original lighting standards are still in situ.. Image © Public domain via Wikipedia

Still, compared to the illumination level we are now familiar with, gas lights still provided a small amount of light, a fact further proven by the continued use of linkmen, or torch bearers, in London and Paris until the early 19th century. People walking on the streets during night-time could hire linkman to help light the way home. As a perversion of this custom, in New York City, 18th-century laws demanded that black, mixed-race, and Indigenous people carry lanterns with them at night if they walked unaccompanied by a white person.

During this period, lights were also not used throughout the night. Like oil lighting systems, gas light illumination closely followed natural rhythms. During summer months, few hours of the night, if any at all, benefited from artificial lights on the streets. Lighting schedules, used until the end of the 19th century, considered the time of the year and moon phases to dictate the necessary amount of artificial light in certain areas.

From Street Lights to City Lights

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Downtown Detroit, Michigan (1900s), Showing Campus Martius Park, Detroit City Hall, and a Moonlight Tower.. Image © Public domain via Wikipedia

The 19th century brought the revolution of electric lights to the streets of major cities across Europe. The first experiments using this technology for public lighting took place after 1850. Newspapers of the time reported the stark difference between the new system and the old gas lamp, once heralded for turning night into day: “The light of the gas lamps appeared red and sooty, while the electric light was dazzlingly white.” Between the 1870s and 1880s, several European capitals installed arc lights, the first practical type of electric lights, along some of the main shopping streets. The technology would remain in use until the early 20th century, when it was slowly replaced by incandescent lights. The high cost of electric lights meant that only a few significant streets benefited from this innovation, with adjacent streets still using gas lights, which further emphasized the difference between the two systems.

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New Orleans, 1883. A levee at night - electric light illumination. Sketches on the levee, New Orleans, by J. O. Davidson. Illustration showing the New Orleans riverfront at night, crowded with people and steamboats, and showing electric lighting. Sketch by J. O. Davidson, published in "Harper's Weekly", v. 27, no. 1367 (1883 March 3), p. 133. Via Library of Congress. Image © Public domain via Wikipedia

Besides the cost, arc lights were criticized for dazzling pedestrians, creating more light than the street could absorb. Therefore, replacing the old streetlights with arc lights was not an option. To hang the lights outside the standard field of view meant that the new taller posts needed to be installed. The brightness of this new technology gave rise to new utopic ideas: what if the whole city could be lit, no more dimly-lit streets, just a few city lights set high above the city fabric, illuminating everything uniformly? Ideas of light towers are documented in the early 1800s in the French Republic, but the concept found a more receptive audience in the United States.

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"Moonlight tower" arc light tower, San Jose, California, December 1881, Engraving. Image © Public domain via Wikipedia

Many American towns, especially in the mid-West, installed towers or masts 50 to 150 meters tall (about 150 to 450 feet), from which powerful arc lights flooded the entire town. Soon after, Detroit became the only large city in the world lighted wholly by the tower system. Installed every 350 to 400 meters in the city center, or 1000 meters in the periphery, these towers created belts of light covering entire districts, a “Utopia of equality.” Marely thirty years after its installation, Detroit’s tower lighting system was replaced by regular “streets light,” as one commentator describes it to have been “more spectacular than efficient.”

Light as an Instrument for Placemaking

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Cityscape Bangkok downtown at night, from the top of tower BAIYOKE Sky, Thailand.. Image © JoeZ via Shutterstock

In contemporary cities, public lighting still plays a crucial role in defining and describing urban environments, reflecting our ideas of security, surveillance, urban aesthetic coding, and social equality. Lights provide a sense of safety and security, making streets more inviting at night time and contributing to place-making and the identity of urban spaces. Lights can also reveal discriminatory practices, with disadvantaged communities having either restricted access to adequate light resources or being imposed harsh and bright lights to impose surveillance and public order.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Light in Architecture, proudly presented by Vitrocsa the original minimalist windows since 1992.

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Cite: Maria-Cristina Florian. "The Safety of Light: A Short History of Light in Public Spaces" 23 Mar 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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