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Street Lighting History collection

Identifier: 5030.003

Scope and Contents note

This collection documents the activities of the Boston Public Works Department’s Street Lighting Division. Materials consist primarily of administrative records including contracts, logs, repair orders, lists of lamps, and correspondence. Records also include an information file on street lighting in general, photographs of lamps in Boston and surrounding towns, a scrapbook, and lamp drawings and schematics.


  • 1902-2001


Historical note

Prior to 1828, the City used oil lamps to light Boston’s streets. In 1828, the Boston Gas Company installed a coal gas lamp in Haymarket Square. This lamp was the first gas lamp in the city and served as a demonstration lamp. Six years later, the city installed the first gas street lamp in the Faneuil Hall area.

In 1882, the city installed the first electric street lamps in Scollay square. Shortly after, during the 1890s, the city began to convert oil lamps to gas lamps. These converted lamps used naptha gas, a derivative of gasoline.

In 1909, the city began installing tungsten electric lamps. Three years later, in 1912, tungsten electric lamps began to replace existing naphtha lamps. By 1913, all gas lamps in Boston proper had been converted to electric lamps. The following year, all lamps in lower Roxbury were converted to electric lamps.

Although the city used electric lamps in Boston Proper and areas of Roxbury, it continued to use gas lamps in its residential districts. The last gas lamps were installed in residential districts in 1948. During the 1940s, mercury vapor electric lamps were also installed on many major Boston streets.

During the first half of the 20th century, outside vendors maintained the city’s gas lamps, but in 1958, the City took over gas lamp maintenance. Four years later, the city began to change electric lamps in historic neighborhoods back to gas lamps. Electric to gas changeovers continued into the 1990s.

By the 1960s, Boston was actively engaged in urban renewal. As streets in areas such as Roxbury underwent reconstruction, the number of city-owned street lights increased. In addition, city-owned street lights increased through the early 1980s. During this period, the city’s Street Lighting Division grew rapidly as the older and more expensive Boston Edison lighting system was replaced by a system owned and designed by the City.

Street light installations continued through the 1990s. During the 1990s, the city also rebuilt some street lamps installed in the 1970s, often replacing cobra head style lights with period style designs.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the city continued to reconstruct major streets. As a result, the number of city-owned street lights continued to increase. Additionally, in 2002, the city bought 23,000 street lights from Boston Edison. By 2010, the city owned approximately 67,000 street lights.

Compiled using material from the Public Works Street Lighting Timeline (


5.0 Cubic feet

Language of Materials


Guide to the Street Lighting History Collection 5030.003
Marta Crilly
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
With grant funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)

Repository Details

Part of the City of Boston Archives Repository

201 Rivermoor St.
West Roxbury MA 02132 United States
617-635-1194 (Fax)