From oil lamps to LEDs: City street lighting through the ages

December 19, 2020
Municipal services

In December 1730, the Senate of the Russian Empire decreed the production of glass lamps to light Moscow during the winter. On 25 December 1730, city streets became slightly brighter. Natalia Potapova, Director of the Moscow Lights Museum, discussed the development of the city’s lighting system over the decades. Find out more from and their ten interesting facts on the subject.

Empresses cared about street lighting

European capitals started installing street lighting in the 17th century. The first lamps were lit in St Petersburg during the reign of Peter the Great. However, the reformist-minded Emperor did not have time to install such lights in Moscow, or, maybe, he didn’t want to do this. Russia’s Old Capital received lampposts under Empress Anna Ioannovna. Unlike her predecessor, she liked to visit Moscow.

L. Karavak. Detail of 1730 portrait of Empress Anna Ioannovna

The first oil lamps were lit on 25 December (Julian calendar) 1730 in honor of the arrival of members of the Royal Family. The lights shone brightly in the Kremlin, Kitai-Gorod, the Bely (White) and Zemlyanoi (Earthen) towns and the German Sloboda. The glass-enclosed lamps were filled with hemp oil. Glass was rare and expensive at that time.

In the mid-18th century, Moscow had about 600 street lights, and their number reached 3,500 under Catherine the Great. She decided to improve the first Russian capital in the 1770s. Urban development was streamlined during her reign, and they started building houses along preset red lines. Before that, urban development remained sporadic, the streets were crooked, and their width varied from place to place.

Festivals first, calendar second

Moscow’s street lighting was not switched on during the short summer nights and also when the Moon illuminated the city.

“According to a source of that period, the lamps were first lit on holidays and festivals under special edicts of the Imperial Court. Later, they started lighting lamps under special calendars from 1 September to 1 May and 18 nights each month.

The Moscow City Duma approved a lighting calendar,” Ms Potapova said.

Varvarskiye (Varvarinskiye) Gates in Kitai-Gorod and the Bogolyubskaya  Chapel’s porch. Photo: P. Pavlov, the 1890s. Main Archive Department of Moscow

The situation did not start changing until the late 19th and early 20th century, with the advent of electric lighting. Only very wealthy people could afford such a luxury  at first and lit their restaurants to attract customers.

City dwellers paid for lighting

Before the advent of street lights, people in Moscow had to light candles in the windows of their homes every evening. Or they had to hang lamps on their fences. While going out at night, the locals had to take hand-held lanterns or torches with them.

Anna Ioannovna did not bother to invent any complicated plans for maintaining and financing street lighting. It was installed at the expense of the city budget, and city residents were ordered to pay for its maintenance.

F. Alexeyev. View of Voskresenskiye and Nikolskiye Gates and Neglinny Bridge from Moscow’s Tverskaya Street. Detail, 1811

“Moscow residents had to maintain street lighting, initially paying preset sums. Lamp-lighters were selected from among local dwellers,” Ms Potapova explained.

In the early 19th century, soldiers unfit for active duty lit the city lamps and each of them received a pitiful 13 roubles annually.

The lamp-lighter’s profession

The first street lamps had the following structure: A metal lantern with glass windows and a small door was fastened to a low wooden post. A lamp filled with hemp oil was located inside. The lamps were placed 20 metres from each other, and each lamp-lighter had to tend to 20-30 lights each evening.

“A lamp-lighter had a ladder, a pitcher filled with oil and a lighting lantern because matches were still unknown, as well as fuses, scissors and other tools. He had enough oil to keep the lamp burning until midnight,” Ms Potapova added.

L. Solomatkin. Near a restaurant. Detail, 1865

Initially, the lamps used the mild edible sort of hemp oil. Crooked lamp-lighters used it for cooking, and the lamps therefore went out long before midnight. Later, they started added turpentine to the oil.

The city also employed lamp inspectors who roamed the streets to see whether they were bright enough.

Firemen took over as lamp-lighters in the early 19th century.

Muscovites feared gas lamps

Alcohol-turpentine lamps were installed in the mid-19th century, followed by kerosene lighting. Local streets became brighter each evening, and shop windows looked more attractive and enticing. People in Moscow started wearing fancier clothing in the evenings.

In 1865, the Moscow City Duma signed a 30-year contract with the United Kingdom’s Bouquer & Goldsmith Co. for installing gas lamps. The company built the Moscow Gas Plant, laid a gas pipeline and installed 3,000 gas lamps. The British partners accomplished its task but started taking losses some time later. Initially, the company charged only 14.50 roubles per street lamp, a very low price.

A gas lamp with a heat-resistant grate on Tverskaya Street in the early 20th century

“The British believed that there would be many private consumers, and that they would help the company cover its street lighting expenses. However, they were wrong because Russians were so afraid of gas. They thought it would explode or poison them. Some Muscovites simply could not understand how the air could burn without a fuse. Consequently, very few people were willing to install gas lamps at home,” Ms Potapova noted.

Applauding electricity

Street lamps mostly aimed to ensure public safety in the evening. Before their advent, locals seldom ventured out at night. Their work schedule depended on how soon night would replace day and vice versa. People started feeling more comfortable and safer on well-lit streets.

“Tverskaya Street where the house of the Governor-General stood (Editor’s Note: The building now accommodates the Moscow City Hall) and Kuznetsky Most with many French shops were considered the best-lit city streets. To lure customers, their owners tried to light up the street as much as possible,” Ms Potapova said.

In the second half of the 19th century, lamps were on until 2 or 3 am. They also started lighting up boulevards and parks.

Electric arc lamps on Red Square in the early 20th century

“Muscovites were delighted to see electric lighting. Earlier, lamp-lighters had to climb up each lamppost in order to get it to light. All of a sudden, the lamps lit up one after another and dazzled everyone. This was real magic. In 1880, 100 privately-owned electric lamps were installed all over Moscow. Their owners were wealthy people who could afford to buy equipment and illuminate their parks or restaurants. The Hermitage Garden had 24 lights, with people gathering below them each evening applauding the electric lighting,” Ms Potapova explained.

The city’s last kerosene and gas lamps were extinguished in 1932.

Soviet leaders decided to install electric lighting under the GOELRO state plan for the electrification of Russia.

A plan of Moscow with planned lighting systems in the 1910s. Main Archive Department of Moscow

Complete blackouts

In the 1930s, electric lights were still switched on manually. Electricians moved from central Moscow to the outskirts via special routes and pulled the switches one by one. A centralised electricity grid for switching off all lighting in just a few seconds was created only a few months before the Great Patriotic War.

City authorities introduced complete blackouts after the war began. People in Moscow had to cover the windows of their buildings. Traffic lights were camouflaged, and city lighting was switched off. During the war, dispatch controllers did their best to prevent any wrongdoing and saw to it that no one turned on the street lights. Provocations were staged from time to time. Dispatch controllers handled telephone calls, allegedly on behalf of Joseph Stalin or General Georgy Zhukov, asking them to turn on lamps on certain streets. They did not comply. Sometime later, German bombers would attack the very same districts where the electricians had been asked to switch on the lights. Blackouts were cancelled completely only on 30 April 1945.

Pennywise lamp “transplants”

The first electric lamps used incandescent bulbs that lit up the streets brightly, almost like solar rays. However, they used  too much electricity.

After the war, the city tried various energy-saving options. In 1954, energy-efficient luminescent lighting was installed on two local streets. However, the experiment proved unsuccessful because the lamps could not withstand subzero temperatures and tended to dim out. In the 1960s, mercury gas-discharge lamps appeared on city streets and emitted a bluish-white light. In 1975, the city installed high-pressure sodium-vapour lights with an unusual golden glow. They shone brighter than mercury lamps and saved more energy, but their colour hues proved even worse.

Some Muscovites thought they looked ethereal when they were lit. In the long run, everyone got used to these lamps, and they no longer paid any attention to such trifles. Sodium-vapour lighting continues to light the city streets.

An unusual attempt to economise on street lighting was made during the Khrushchev Thaw years.

“Nikita Khrushchev decided that there should not be too much light in the city, and that this was far too extravagant. Street lampposts were “transplanted” or placed further apart from each other. However, this project proved rather expensive; and it appears that these expenses exceeded the amount of money saved. Districts with Khrushchev-era quick tenements virtually had no street lighting at all,” Ms Potapova said.

LED lighting has been illuminating Moscow since 2010. It helps save electricity and creates natural colour hues.

Moscow among the five best-lit cities of the world

Today, Moscow ranks among the five best-lit cities, together with Tokyo, London, New York and Paris. Almost one million electric lamps are switched on each evening. In all, 350,000 lights illuminate architectural landmarks and parks. LED lamps account for 80 percent of this number. Only 30 percent of energy-efficient LED lamps are used for functional street lighting. Their service life exceeds that of conventional lighting several times over and makes it possible to save up to 30 percent electricity, as compared to high-pressure sodium-vapour lamps.

The city has been installing lamps with special remote control systems since 2018. These systems can adjust their intensity, check the lighting voltage and monitor their operation.

“In the past ten years, over 26,000 facilities have received additional outdoor lighting. The number of buildings and structures with architectural-artistic illumination  has soared four-fold and totals over 2,000. Local streets have acquired a unique appearance, transport interchanges and radial routes have become safer, and courtyards and playgrounds are more comfortable and alluring. Moscow now ranks among the five best-lit cities in the world and always boasts leading positions, as regards urban environment quality, in international ranking surveys,” Pyotr Biryukov, Deputy Moscow Mayor for Housing, Utilities and Amenities, noted.

In 1980, the Moscow Lights Museum opened in Armyansky Pereulok and in a 17th century Boyar mansion. Its collection includes archival records and printed matter on the history of lighting, photos and technical drawings of various lighting systems and pictures on the history of Moscow. Exhibits include hand-held lanterns and street lamps, various lighting and street lamp control consoles. An entire section deals with electric clocks.


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