From its earliest years, New York was too bustling a city to stay dark when the sun went down.
In 1697, the Common Council mandated that every seventh house “cause a lantern and candle to be hung on a pole during the dark time of the moon,” reports a 1930 New York Times article.
Sixty years later, officials levied a tax for “installing lamps, paying watchmen to attend them, and purchasing oil,” according to a 1997 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.
Gas street lighting replaced oil lamps in the 1820s, starting at Broadway and Grand Street. And in 1880, the first electric street lights arrived along Broadway between 14th and 26th Streets—as seen above in this sketch from the April 1881 cover of Scientific American.
This was the leading entertainment and shopping district of the city at the time. Having electric lights from Union Square to Madison Square was described by one visitor as reminiscent of “pale moonlight.”
“By October 1884,” according to the LPC report, [a visitor] could write of “the brilliantly illuminated avenues of New York,” on which he “drove from the Windsor Hotel, NY, to the Cunard Wharf, a distance of about four miles through streets entirely illuminated by electricity.”
Within a few decades, electric incandescent lights were installed on the streets, bridges, and in buildings, and New York became known for its enchanting nighttime glow.