History of Newburyport’s Colonial Street Lights

The use of street lighting was first recorded in the city of Antioch from the 4th century.   Later it was recorded in the Arab Empire from the 9th–10th centuries, especially in Cordova, and then in London from 1417 when Henry Barton, the mayor, ordered “lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide (First part of November) and Candlemasse (First part of February).” It was introduced in 1759  to the US by inventor Benjamin Franklin, who was the postmaster of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For this reason, many regard Philadelphia as the birthplace of street lighting in the US though New York City claims that a system of second story lighting introduced in 1697 was the first.

The colonial-era streetlights were lit by candles placed inside a glass vessel, which kept the candle from being blown out by the wind. Franklin’s design was four-sided, with four separate panes of glass, so that if one pane of glass was broken, the lamp did not need to be entirely replaced, and might not even blow out.     Later, whale oil was used to allow for a longer burn throughout the night.

Lamppost topHere in Newburyport, the creation of lampposts were based on the Newburyport Bollard, the lamp post was extended up and then supported by metal spindles.       The city’s unique bollard was originally cannon, turned upright and capped.   After the two wars, Revolutionary and the War of 1812, the city which was one of the major centers for privateering* found itself with an abundance of cannon.    It was decided to place them around the edges of wharves so ships could tie up.   To make the lampposts, blacksmiths simply took cannon, inserted at the upright end the post and then attached the distinctive lamp assembly.

A perpendicular post was centered near the top so that a lamp-lighter could attach a narrow ladder to maintain the lights.     In today’s Newburyport, these cross posts have become handy for hanging flowers to brighten up the city.

This lamppost design can be seen in historic pictures of Newburyport, especially the one that stood on Market Square as seen in this classic picture.

Market Square with Lamppost visible

As the city’s fortunes went sour after the Great Fire of 1811 and the War of 1812; most of the cannon on the wharves were melted down or sold leaving the lampposts to be the sole ambassadors to Newburyport’s proud privateer* history .

The lampposts were upgraded to gas in the 1850’s negating the need for a person to light them from below and they continued in persistent existence over the years.      When the downtown was restored, the colonial lampposts were re-instated all around the NRA-controlled area and paid for by HUD.

Streetlight amongst a forest taken 25 Oct 2014 by Chris Wren

As the city began to prosper once again, there became an increasing need to stimulate business by continuing the historic look  of the streetscapes to encourage consumers to lead into other areas.   A system was designed to help pay for additional streetlights to extend down Merrimac and Water Streets and other ‘historic areas’.    Businesses would be encouraged to sponsor the addition of lampposts.     As a memorial to their vision, I have given a few samples of these donations.

Donation by Hall & Moskow Donations for lampposts II Donations for lampposts

Spring City Ironworks produces the finest cast lampposts in the world and stands ready to continue Benjamin Franklin’s legacy and to sell more of them to Newburyport.      They have actually a page in their catalog that gives due honor to the city.

The Newubryport Series by Spring City Ironworks

They are located at One South Main Street, Spring City, PA 19475, and can be contacted at 610-948-4000.   Their website is www.springcity.com and they can be reached at sales@springcity.com.

Newburyport’s historic character is closely tied to our colonial lampposts.     When people come they note our Federal architecture, the brick sidewalks, the tree-lined avenues, they see our quite distinctive Newburyport lamppost.     At the first brainstorming meeting for the new Master Plan, it was clearly noted that right along with other distinctive points, the following was noted:

 “Many feel that it is not enough to simply preserve the City’s historical character. Enhancement and beautification of the community must also occur. This includes ideas like burying utilities, installing brick sidewalks, and installing the “Newbury-porter” style lamp posts.”

Now that the city owns the streetlights (though not the Adolphus Greeley-inspired wood telegraph poles), there should be a push to expand the use of our distinctive colonial lighting symbols.Screen shot 2011-10-06 at 7.54.02 PM

-P. Preservationist www.ppreservationist.com

* There were never any pirates in our history.    We had privateers instead.     Patriotic, noble crews who seized enemy combatant ships, returned them to Newburyport, sold the ships and goods and in which a sizeable percentage went toward the government’s treasury.   Pirates often murder seized crews but privateers would take them back to shore for imprisonment but more often left them to find their own way back to England.   As much as it was war, privateers had a certain air of legitimacy if they had a ‘mark’ or legal certificate from their government.   If captured, they would be treated as prisoners of war and open to some measure of civil treatment.     This was fine during the War of 1812 when Britain recognized the United States as a legitimate government but not during the American Revolution.     All combatants were considered rebels and the government not recognized.     Prisoners from Newburyport would often ‘disappear’ or be treated cruelly since they were considered worthy of death as traitors.      Regardless of this danger, Newburyport was considered a leader in privateering and held especially responsible for forcing the British to abandon Boston due to English supply ships being so successfully interdicted.


Spring City Ironworks catalog, 2014, page 15, www.springcity.com

Electrical Review & Western Electricians, Volume 15, Electrical Review Publishing Company, Chicago, Jan 6, 1912. (Available through Google Books)

The Newburyport Bollard, by P. Preservationist, June 10, 2011, Brick and Tree Blog, (https://brickandtree.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/the-newburyport-bollard/), Newburyport.

Master Plan Brainstorming Ideas, April 9th, 2014, “Newburyport’s Historic Character”

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, Downtown, Heritage Tourism, History, Planning, Restoration, Streetscapes, Tourism. Bookmark the permalink.

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