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Bob’s Meanderings: The Old Lamplighter

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A chance hearing of the song, “The Old Lamplighter,” a Nashville favourite from earlier times, piqued my interest in the origins lamplighter’s. A lamplighter was a person employed to light and maintain the gas street lights.
Lights were lit each evening at intersections of city streets. The lamplighters turned night into day as dusk fell. At dawn, the lamplighter would return to extinguish the flame using a small hook on the same pole.

In a biased manner I too can identify somewhat with those early pioneers as I was a streetlight changer in Westmeath back in the late fifties.

History shows that in1807, coinciding with King George III’s birthday celebration, a Mall in London, became the first place lit by a gaslight. 10 years later the first gas lamp in America was installed on February 7, 1817 in the city of Baltimore.

A man, Walter Lindeman spent his adult life as their lamplighter. In 1978, at the age of seventy-eight, he was honored at the “Lamplighter’s Ball” as the oldest living lamplighter in Baltimore.

A lamplighter usually stood on his street corner, where he would watch the time. As dusk approached, he  hoisted the end of his staff to light the streetlamp overhead. Then walking quickly from one side of the street to the other, he would light the streetlamps as he went. When all the were lit, he was done for the night. As daybreak neared, he walked the streets once again, to extinguish the flames. Lamp lighting wasn’t considered a grueling job and most lamplighters were assigned routes of 70 to 80 lamps each, earning them about $2 a day. Unlit lamps immediately drew taxpayer complaints, so the pressure to keep them lit was there.

The amount of work required to do the job varied by season, more difficult in the cold/wet weather. The number of lamps rarely changed though, but the work required to complete the route and to light them did. After the lamplighters extinguished their streetlamps, they ate breakfast and then starting cleaning the light fixtures themselves. Cleaning was the most work.

Back to Westmeath and my opportunity. A teenager across the street who had changed the streetlights for some years, always utilizing a ladder, was winding down. When I took over from him, my father had already made me a hollow aluminum pole with a pocket on the end.

It fitted snugly around the 200-watt, incandescent (larger) bulbs. I was able to change burned out bulbs easily with that gadget – approximately 22 bulbs total. For the broken ones pliers and a ladder were necessary …… and someone to help with the ladder (at least the first year).
I was paid set amount for each bulb used at the end of the month – broken or not. I can’t remember how much money it was but as a 13-year-old kid I felt well rewarded. There were always some broken bulbs, especially in warmer weather. It was a sport for some to heave stones at the bulbs in hopes of shattering them. I had a few offers from others to share my income with those who offered to intentionally break them. The temptation was there but I declined of course.

I did the lights for a few years until the township converted over to light fixtures that now protected the bulb itself and so had to be changed by the township.

Looking at Lowell (USA) – a city of about 78,000 residents in 1890, the whole lamp lighting system worked a little differently. Until then the city’s fire department employed a supervisor, five other men, and 28 boys. The boys were to light all of the city’s 876 gas-powered lights. The police were required to extinguish all the lights each night.
With the coming of electricity, lamplighters began to disappear from the city streets, the task of lighting the roads depended more on someone flicking a switch at the electric company, rather than a team of men individually lighting each streetlamp. The number of gas streetlamps steadily declined as Lowell progressed into the twentieth century.

Another sort of romantic career has all but disappeared. The few municipalities that retained gas lighting found that it provided a pleasing nostalgic effect.