Old Street Lights

Back in the 1950s, when I was growing up, parents used to tell their younger children, “Come inside when the street lights go on.” This was before Mayor Daley Sr. began installing the bluish Mercury vapor lights that hung over the streets.

Harp light on McVicker Avenue, 1959

Harp light on McVicker Avenue, 1959

Different parts of the city had different styles of street lights.  In Portage Park we had harp lights.  At least that’s what the older people called them, referring to the distinctive curved metal arms that held the lamp fixture at the top.   Our neighborhood was settled in the 1920s, the era when this style became popular.

The vertical light pole was usually made of cement.  However, some harp lights had a metal pole.  I suspect the city discovered that metal poles were cheaper, and switched over to them at some point.

These harp lights were in place mostly on side streets.  On streets that had streetcars, the poles supporting the trolley wires were commonly used for street lights.  The only arterial streets with the harp lights were those with motor buses, such as Addison or Austin.

Mercury vapor lights replacing harp lights on Harlem Avenue, 1960

Mercury vapor lights replacing harp lights on Harlem Avenue, 1960

The first hint that the Mercury vapor lights were on the way was city crews digging trenches along the curbs to carry the underground electric wires.  Everyone on our block was eager to be rid of the old incandescent lights.  It was 1961, and led by our dynamic new president, we were moving forward into modern times.

In parts of Chicago, some people actually preferred the old street lights.  I remember reading that the residents of Jersey Avenue petitioned the city to keep theirs.  I don’t know if the Jersey Avenue lights were harp style or something else, but the petition didn’t work.  They got the Mercury vapor lights anyway.

By the mid-’60s the harp lights were gone.  Chicago’s streets were much brighter.  And that was a good thing, as anyone who’s driven through Evanston after dark knows.

In recent years Chicago has been putting up retro-style lights on many major streets.  Perhaps the harp lights are due for a comeback.  But only if they are brighter than the originals.

—30—

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10 Responses to “Old Street Lights”


  1. 1 Evan December 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Unfortunately, the mercury vapor lights were then replaced with the nasty orange sodium vapor lights. The City has started to replace even those now, as evidenced by driving Western Ave at night. I’m not sure what the plan is to rolling those out across the city, but it won’t be soon enough in my opinion. Man, I hate those orange lights…

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt December 31, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Evan–
      I’ve noticed that the retro-lights being installed on major streets do not give off that unearthly orange glow. Whatever the city is using on them, it’s definitely an improvement.
      –JRS

  2. 3 Ralph January 3, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    The new lights are ceramic metal-halide lights.

  3. 5 James F. O'Neil January 8, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    My Grandpa Schuma is on the 1940 census. They lived at 5644 South Seeley. He worked for the Park District. His occupation is listed as “lamp cleaner.”

  4. 6 Carol Anne January 18, 2014 at 7:43 am

    Where is the location on Harlem Avenue?

    • 7 J.R. Schmidt January 18, 2014 at 7:46 am

      That’s the 3200-north block on Harlem Avenue, looking south toward Belmont–before the White Castle was there.
      –JRS

  5. 8 andrew August 29, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I recently bought a lake home in Michigan that has this exact lamp post in the front yard, it’s really cool. The original owners were Chicago police officers that were allowed to purchase the lamp posts when the city was replacing them. Does anyone here know if there was a glass globe in the lamp, and of course where I could find one? Thanks, Andrew

  6. 10 Donald Doornbos September 4, 2014 at 9:45 am

    In the early 30,s , we used to watch joe the lamp lighter Stan on his bike an fill the lamps with oil in the am an come back an light them at dusk; on 93rd an Emerald , Chicago


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