Antique Street Lights: An Illuminating Collector's Guide

Street Lights of Venice, Italy

When you think of the Nineteenth Century, images of darkened streets with imposing street lamps and devious characters might come to mind. Unfortunately, for how innovative their purpose was, these antique street lights did very little to help 'light the way' for these past societies, as they only emitted a soft, fuzzy glow in their immediate vicinity. Take a look at where these still present architectural fixtures began and their unique evolution into the tools that we take for granted today.

Gas Street Lights Emerge

Surprisingly, by the early 19th century, both parts of western Europe and the United States had begun establishing gas lighting across their city streets, but the rudimentary lights only illuminated a few feet around the lamps themselves. Since these lights were powered by gas, some communities relied on lamplighters to ensure that their lights were all turned on at the same time and stayed lit throughout the night. Yet, British engineer Frederick Hale Holmes' 1846 arc lamp patent and Russian inventor, Pavel Yablochkov's, 'electric candles' brought the world into the age of electric street lighting.

Electric Street Lights Take Over

At the Paris Exposition of 1878, the 'Yablochkov candles' amazed the crowds, and soon Paris began converting its gas-lit street lights into electric systems. The western world followed, and with the introduction of Thomas Edison's carbon filament lightbulb, electric lighting became the customary lighting style used on city streets in the 19th century.

Street Light with Yellow Ribbons

Types of Antique Street Lights

Antique street lamps come in a wide variety of styles, but they generally come in about three different kinds of forms. If you were walking around in the 19th century, you'd find all of these forms mixed in with one another across the world:

  • Utilitarian: These lights were solely used for the purpose of lighting the streets themselves and hung from wires.
  • Electroller: This describes street lights which are built to be free standing and it embodies most of the lamps that people think of when they think of street lighting.
  • Wall Mounted: You could also find street lamps that aren't attached to a light pole, but rather have been mounted onto the outside walls of buildings lining the streets to help illuminate the areas that the street lights themselves couldn't reach.

Antique Street Light Designs and Styles

Over the course of a hundred years, street lights have undergone a multitude of changes. Advancing technology and shifts in design led to a wealth of varied looking street lights across the western world. Check out the street light's evolution from the mid-19th century through the rest of the century.

Victorian lanterns glow along a line of trees

1850s - 1860s

Early Victorian lamps were generally cast or wrought iron with elaborate curling decorations, and multiple panes that allowed light to shine from all directions. Lamp tops and caps were made of copper (pointed tops were "Holland" tops after the lanterns used by the Dutch to signal ships), cast metal or brass, and bases were ribbed or molded with designs.

A gas post, which could rise to more than 10 feet in height, featured a lamp topped with a small-paned glass and metal lantern with an eagle or other finial. These posts were used from the mid-19th century onwards in New York City and other urban areas. Short arms allowed the lamplighter to rest a ladder against the lamppost, but these arms disappeared once electric lights were introduced. If the post happened to be short and thick, it was called a "bollard," after the posts used to secure ships to the dock.

A few other styles from this decade include:

  • Boulevard lamps - These lights were especially popular for use along neighborhood side streets or parks. These shorter lamps had a "crown" top and a clear glass dome handing down from the crown, and were suspended by a lamp harp.
  • Shepherd's crook lamps - These lamps had a graceful and narrow post, which curved up into a rounded end like a bishop's crook. The lamps were suspended from the end of the curve.
  • Reverse scroll bracket lamps - These were cast iron lamps that had a bracket that turned up backwards, the opposite of a shepherd's crook.

1880s - 1910s

Late Victorian streetlights were called electroliers or luminaires, in part because electricity was now widely used in place of gas. The streetlights were still mounted on posts or stands, and could be either decorative and ornamental or plain and utilitarian. "Presidential" bases had garlands molded into the design, while an urn base may have had an urn and floral decorations. Common features of street lights from this decade include:

  • Globes lamps were generally made out of white glass, which was meant to emit light that resembled the moonbeams.
  • Twin posts or twin lights were streetlights with at least two lamps which were separated by a crossbar. Twin post streetlamps did not have two posts, but had lamps on either side of the pole.
  • Mast arm streetlights resembled the masts on a ship with crossbars. The bars could be on one side of the lamp, or both.

1900 - 1914

Streetlights from the Edwardian period often had curling designs inspired by the popular design style of the time, Art Nouveau, as well as classical designs based on ancient styles, like the Windsor Streetlight from 1914 Los Angeles. Lyre tops were one of these popular styles, and were decorated with a top that resembled a lyre or "harp". The shade was held inside the lyre, much like a bulb is protected inside a table lamp.

1920s - 1930s

The first quarter of the 21st century highlighted several new street lighting styles:

  • Five bulb streetlamps added both light and style to busy streets and were carefully designed to blend into a city's aesthetic.
  • Torchière style streetlamps entered the landscape with the advent of Art Deco. Some of the more elaborate stands had rose garlands molded into their post designs.
  • The Spanish Revival style, with hanging lamps in metal and glass, was known for its large lanterns of heavy, hammered metal.

Antique Street Light Values

Generally, there isn't a large collector's market for antique street lights given their size and rather specific purpose. However, there are a few different professions that look for these decorated lighting artifacts: historical preservationists, designers/contractors, and film studio props departments. While these groups all use street lighting for unique purposes, they also rely on finding high quality antiques or authentic reproductions for their respective projects when authentic street lights aren't an option. This professional-oriented collecting does make it difficult to give a proper estimate on these artifact's prices, as they vary wildly based on shipping costs, deterioration, decorative style, and so on.

Find High Quality Reproductions

While it may be difficult to locate the fully intact antique street light you want, and with very little basis for consistent pricing it'll be difficult to make sure you're getting a fair deal, you're best bet is to invest in sustainable, high-quality reproductions. Companies like Niland provide all the pieces you might need to build the exact street light that you see in your head with the long-lasting technology and sustainable materials offered with modern production methods.

Holy Cross Church and Academy of Sciences in Krakowskie Przedmiescie street at dusk

Don't Let the Lights Go Down

Like moths to a flame, humans have gravitated towards light for thousands of years, and antique street lights just provide an extra sense of ambiance to your already primordial need to flock to any beaming glow around you. Obviously, street lights remain an incredibly important aspect of planned city scapes, and while their antique cousins might not be as powerful as the modern ones are, they make up for it in character and style.

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Antique Street Lights: An Illuminating Collector's Guide