Sunday, December 8, 2013

103. Lighting the City: Pushing Back the Night

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Gustave Doré: Let there be light.

     “Let there be light,” said God in Genesis 1:3, “and there was light.”  In myths worldwide, light is associated with life and good, whereas darkness is associated with death and evil.  Lucifer, the Light Bearer, rebelled against God and was cast down into hell to become the Prince of Darkness.  In many cosmic myths the forces of light and darkness are at war, nor is the victory of light guaranteed.  Prehistoric humans huddled around their fire at night, or used fire as a barrier at the entrance to their cave.  For them, darkness meant risk and danger and prowling wild beasts, whereas light brought at least relative security.  And without light there could be no life, so they worshiped the sun, the source of life and light.  (For more of my take on darkness and night, see post #64, A West Village Murder and the Fear of Night.)

     The story of lighting in the city of New York, like that of all cities, replicates these cosmic myths and beliefs, for it is the story of light versus darkness, of pushing back the frontier of night.  In our well-lit cities today, we have little experience of the night sky, the starry infinitudes of space – an experience both humbling and inspiring.  But back in the eighteenth century, before the coming of gaslight and electricity in the nineteenth, darkness was a part of people’s lives, something to wonder at, yet also something to be reckoned with, something to be fought.  And what means of illumination could they use, to fight back the darkness of night?  Outside, torches; in their homes, the fire on the hearth, candles, and lamps.

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What we have gained.

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What we have lost.
Michael J. Bennett

     The torch, dating from prehistoric times, has been called the first portable lamp.  The fabled lighthouse of Alexandria, one of Herodotus’s Seven Wonders of the World, was simply a soaring tower with a torchlike fire at the top, visible for miles at sea.  In this country, well into the nineteenth century torchlight parades honored visiting dignitaries like the Prince of Wales in 1860, and rallied supporters during political campaigns.

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A Byzantine oil lamp.
     Inside homes, the wood fire on the hearth was a source of light and warmth and, in the kitchen, the means for cooking meals.  Lamps too existed from prehistoric times: a small open or covered bowl containing some kind of inflammable liquid, and a porous wick that sucked up the liquid and could be lighted.  At first the bowls were improvised from rocks, shells, and horns; later they were fabricated.  The oil might be fish oil, nut oil, sesame oil, or any number of other plant oils, olive oil being the commonest in the Mediterranean countries.  These are the lamps mentioned in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. 

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A whale oil lamp.
     In the 1700s, however, the American colonists discovered that spermaceti, a semiliquid, waxy substance obtained from the head of the sperm whale, burned with a bright glow without any disagreeable odor.  It was therefore used more and more in both lamps and candles, and in street lamps as well, creating a profitable market that sent whalers out in great numbers to search the North Atlantic and later, in the nineteenth century, as the sperm whale population in the Atlantic declined, on voyages of several years into the far Pacific, as described in Melville’s Moby Dick.

     The candle is a relatively recent invention.  It was known in China and India before it was created in the West, where it was used by nomadic tribes in Europe in the late Roman period.  Beeswax candles were used in medieval church rituals, but since beeswax was expensive, ordinary people used tallow candles, which were smelly and smoky, dripped, and gave a feeble light.  (Tallow: a mixture of refined animal fats.)  Starting in the eighteenth century, for Americans who could afford them, candles using sperm oil were far superior.

An English Restoration theater, with
candle chandeliers and oil lamp
    But what about the interiors of large buildings like theaters?  The theaters of ancient Greece and Rome relied on daylight; night performances were unheard of.  But during the Renaissance, theater moved indoors into the great halls of the nobles, and then into theaters as such, which were lit from overhead by chandeliers with candles – not the ideal lighting, since they dripped hot grease indiscriminately on actors and audience alike, but the best that the times could do.  So let's count our blessings today; in our theater seats we're quite safe from drippy candles, and risk only a crashing chandelier, if a Phantom of the Opera is lurking overhead.

    So eighteenth-century New Yorkers fought the night with means of illumination that had been used for centuries, even millennia: torches, hearth fires, lamps, and candles.  All these involved flame and, when used inside,  had serious drawbacks: they had to burn right side up, be supplied with air, be distanced from inflammable objects, and be protected from drafts. 

     Another problem: these fires were hard to start.  What, no matches?  Not until 1827, when the first friction matches, called lucifers (that name again!), were invented in England; they soon appeared in New York.  But before that, how did people light candles and lamps?  From other candles and lamps, if available, otherwise from fire struck with flint and steel.  And yes, there’s the old joke about doing it by rubbing two Boy Scouts together, inspired by the Scouts’ practice of rubbing two dry sticks together to produce the friction that creates a flame.  But however it was done, it was a lot of work.

     The nineteenth century brought changes that revolutionized lighting.  Candle making by machine made mass production of candles possible, so that cheap candles became available to everyone, and with the introduction of paraffin wax in the mid-1850s, candles were made that burned cleanly without the smell of tallow candles.  But by the second half of the century candles were on their way out, replaced by competing illuminants.  First  introduced in London in 1814, gaslight came soon afterward to New York, where the Common Council granted charters to competing companies to lay pipes in different sections of the city, replacing the whale oil lamps then in use.  In 1824 a banker’s residence in Cherry Street became the first house in the city to receive gaslight.  (Bankers and their friends have a way of getting the latest improvements first.)  In the 1820s and 1830s gaslight lit more and more of the streets, with lamp lighters lighting the polished glass boxes of the lamps at dusk and snuffing them at dawn. 

     But gaslight was not for every community, as it had several requirements.  A plentiful supply of coal, from which the gas was manufactured, was needed, and the means of transporting it.  New York City’s coal was mined in the mountains of Pennsylvania and shipped by barge via the Delaware and Hudson Canal to the Hudson River and then on to the city.  Gas works were also needed: clusters of red-hot retorts, where the coal was burned to create gas, and of gas containers, big bulblike structures of iron where the gas was held, before being sent by underground pipes to the streetlamps, fancy hotels and stores, and well-appointed homes of the affluent.  Gas works were ugly and smelly, and therefore confined to the Hudson and East River waterfronts, well out of sight – and smell – of the fashionable sections of the city. 

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Inside a nineteenth-century gas retort.  Not something you would want next door.

     Gaslight needed big money and a lot of effort to put up all those smelly gas works, so it was confined to the big cities; small towns and rural communities were not accommodated.  But it transformed New York, providing lighting such as had never before been possible.  Hotel lobbies glowed, and the front windows of Fifth Avenue brownstones blazed with light as arriving guests mounted the steep front stoops, while theaters offered Spanish dancers, waterfalls, and naughty cancans in a stellar glare, and pickpockets worked overtime in the evening, though second-story men lamented the illumination, so inimical to their furtive operations.  (We'll learn more about second-story men in a future post about the so-called ladder of thieves; they were on a middle rung, far from the top or the bottom.)

     Another significant development came in 1859 with the discovery of oil in a farming district of northwestern Pennsylvania, which ended abruptly that region’s rural tranquility.  Oil rigs began drilling intensively, and kerosene, a petroleum derivative, became readily available and cheap enough to be widely used in lamps.  As an illuminant it quickly replaced whale oil, which could only be obtained in far distant oceans.  Characteristic of the kerosene lamp was a glass chimney that protected the flame and controlled the flow of air to it, and a knob that adjusted the size of the wick, and thus the size and brightness of the flame.  Kerosene lamps didn’t require the infrastructure of gaslight and so could be used anywhere.  My first awareness of these lamps came in the bad Westerns, often Saturday afternoon serials, that afflicted my childhood.  These were the “Meanwhile back at the ranch …” species, humdrum black-and-whites meant to lure their young victims back a week later for the next installment, which they rarely did.  Viewing them, I always knew that at some point a fight would erupt in the ranch house, a kerosene lamp would be knocked over, curtains would catch fire, and the whole place go up in flames; I was rarely disappointed. 

     Later I encountered the lamps in real life.  In the 1960s, when I first went to Monhegan Island off midcoast Maine, kerosene lamps were still in use there; I learned such niceties as how to refill them, how to light them, and how to trim the wicks of these rather cumbersome contraptions.  Schooled by those dreary old Westerns, I was careful to keep them away from curtains.  Only with the creation some years later of a local company to supply electricity to the island – first for only a few hours, then for more, and finally all day and night – were the kerosene lamps supplanted, thus repeating the progress of mid-nineteenth-century New York.  Progress may be long in coming, but come it does … finally.

     By the late 1870s gaslight, so wondrous at first, and hailed as a clean source of light, had worn out its welcome in the city.  Gas jets emitted headache-inducing fumes of ammonia, sulfur, and carbon dioxide, turned ceilings black, and defiled the parlor, that sanctuary of middle-class gentility, with, alas, soot.  In the land of Go Ahead, in this progress-giddy age, surely something better could be devised.

     It was.  On December 20, 1880, all of Broadway between Union and Madison Square was suddenly bathed in light.  New Yorkers were dazzled, amazed.  Projecting the light were a series of twenty-foot-tall cast-iron posts, one per block, each with an arc light that cast a brilliant glow.  Arc lights, powered by steam engines and electric generators, were cheaper to install than hundreds of lampposts, and were soon spreading illumination along the avenues and over markets, factories, railroad stations, and wharves.  But arc lights were too intense for use in homes, and they too gave off noxious fumes, and created power failures when assailed by storms.  (Sound familiar?)  Something still better was needed.

Arc lights along Broadway in 1880.

     In 1878 Thomas Edison, a young inventor already known for numerous inventions that included the phonograph, informed the press that was he going to develop an incandescent lamp suitable for homes.  Canny investors on both sides of the Atlantic perked up their ears, opened their wallets, and helped create the Edison Electric Light Company, of which Edison himself, wise now in the ways of Wall Street, retained significant control.  Vast sums and great hopes were invested in this ingenious experimenter, who in this matter so far had produced only promises – brash, glowing promises, but promises only, mere words.  Supremely confident, he got to work in his research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. 

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A portrait of the young Edison.

     Months passed, progress was made.  Aldermen and councilmen were invited to Menlo Park for a gala demonstration of the new lights.  Edison established his power station on Pearl Street, had armies of workmen dig trenches to lay subterranean wires in massive insulated power mains, and installed powerful generators in the power station.  Then, on September 4, 1882, fifty square downtown blocks housing the city’s key financial, commercial, and manufacturing establishments were suddenly illuminated.  If gaslight had been a wonder, and arc lights magic, this was a miracle.  

     J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts (those bankers and their friends again!) immediately installed incandescent lights in their mansions, and within a year over five hundred wealthy homes were electrified.  The Stock Exchange followed, then office buildings, machine shops, piano factories, sugar refineries, department stores, and theaters, and middle-class homes as well, though tallow candles were still used in tenements.  People in New York, and then the world over, marveled: with a flick of a switch, there was light.  No lamp to fill, no wick to trim, no fumes, no flickering, just bright, steady light.

     Night life intensified, as hotels, restaurants, and shops, and brothels and gambling parlors too, turned radiant with light, and customers flocked.  By the mid-1890s people were beginning to call a stretch of Broadway blazing with illuminated signs the “Great White Way.”  The New York of today was coming into being, to be further enhanced in the 1920s and 1930s by the advent of neon lights, first developed commercially by the French engineer and inventor Georges Claude.  Today, if in our cities awareness of the night sky has all but vanished, no one seems to care, since there is so much to do at night down here.  Yes, darkness has been vanquished.

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Times Square at night, the ultimate in neon lights.
Boris Dzhingarov
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Witch hazel in Central Park.
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An eighteenth-century dowser.

     A note on witch hazel:  A short article in last Sunday's Times reminds me that even this late in the autumn, with snow predicted, this strangest of plants is blooming.  I have seen it on Monhegan Island in Maine, and down here in Central Park, though you can easily pass by this ribbon-petaled, spidery yellow flower and not even realize it's a flower.  Yes, this is the source of the astringent sold in pharmacies as a remedy for itching (it works!), bleeding, inflammation, acne, bruises, and other skin conditions.  And yes, it was once used for "water witching": a dowser or water witch would hold a forked branch of the plant and traipse an area where underground water might be found, until the stick was tugged or bent downward, indicating the source of water; a well would then be dug.  Skeptical?  Well, I haven't tried it myself, but there are those who insist that it works.  Try it for yourself and report back to me.

     Coming soon:  The Beauty and Danger of the Palisades.

    ©  2013  Clifford Browder

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