Streetlights: Photos from the Archives

How have streetlights in Chicago changed over the years? Let’s look at some historic photos from the archives and find out.

Gas-lit streetlights were introduced in Chicago in 1850. Here is a photo of a gas-lit streetlight in Ravenswood from the 1890s.

How did these streetlights work? Each night a lamplighter walked from lamp to lamp to light them, and then returned each morning to extinguish them.

Lamplighters were given timetables that specified when to light and extinguish the streetlights. The timetables were based upon the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In the mid-1870s, lamps were not to be lit during the 4 days surrounding the full moon. Why? City officials needed to cut costs. They argued that the full moon provided enough light, making it unnecessary to light the gas-lit streetlamps.

Many visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition saw light produced from electricity for the first time. The fair stayed open after dark to showcase the brightness of the electric lights. Buildings, fountains and the fairgrounds were lit up. Lampposts line the walking path in this photo of the Statue of the Republic and the Peristyle from 1893.

Community groups and business organizations advocated to get more streetlights in their neighborhoods. This photo from 1948 shows members of the Rogers Park Businessmen’s Association posing next to one of four new streetlights on Clark Street near Lunt Avenue.

Lamppost designs changed over the years. Two-pronged modern-looking streetlights flank S. Halsted Street in Englewood in this photo from 1968.

Lamp fixtures also changed. This photo taken in 1985, shows Lincoln Avenue, looking south from Lawrence Avenue. In the 1970s, Chicago switched to high pressure sodium lamp fixtures to save money on energy bills. One of the most talked about effects of this change was the orange-colored light that the lamps produced.

This photo from 2023 shows a streetlight on S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive with a new energy-efficient LED lamp fixture. It was one of over 270,000 light fixtures updated as part of the City of Chicago’s Smart Lighting Program which began in 2017.

Want to see more historic photos of Chicago? Check out CPL's Digital Collections.

Photos in this blog are from the following digital collections:

Want to know more about gaslight technology? Check out this CPL blog post: