Forgotten Crafts: Lantern Lighter

Several years ago, I had the privilege to travel to Australia's Outback. I remember gazing at the stars on a pitch black night. It is virtually impossible today to find a spot in the Netherlands that gets that dark at night. Here, civilization is never far away and with it street lighting is neither.

That makes it even harder to imagine that there was indeed a time that the Dutch night sky was as dark as that of the Australian Outback today. The reason for this was the absence of street lanterns. In the Middle Ages, street lighting was an unheard of commodity. As a result, the nights were dangerous. In the dark it was easy to assault a traveler unseen, and rob him of his valuables. The dark also made it hard to distinguish between the road and the many swamps just beside it, hence getting lost or drowning were real dangers too.

Thus the night was a scary time to be outside and people loved to frighten each other with awful stories by the fire about werewolves, vampires, evil elves and spirits that would lure you into the swaps and the like.

The first attempt to make the roads and streets safer at night, was made in the 1500s when larger cities as Amsterdam and The Hague first made it compulsory to carry a lantern at night and eventually decided to install public lanterns in their streets. These lanterns were fed with wax candles and later with oil. By the late 1700s, most big cities and smaller towns had followed the example and installed street lightening. With it a new occupation arose, that of the lantern lighter. The lantern lighter would come out at dusk to fill and light the lanterns and again at dawn to extinguish them. It was a part-time job that was often combined with another one such as night watchman, town crier, barber and so on.

Around the 1870s gas lighting was invented, easing the job of the lantern lighter. Now, he just had to light and extinguish the lanterns, since the gas lamps needed no refilling. The gas lanterns were an improvement for the general public as well because they gave far more light than an oil lamp or candle. However, they did not last long. Already by the late 1880s they were replaced by electric lanterns. It was a true revolution that the street lanterns could now be switch on and off all at the same time at the push of a button. The first city in the Netherlands with electric street lighting was, surprisingly, Nijmegen. Other cities and towns followed soon after, and with it the occupation of lantern lighter disappeared. The last Dutch lantern lighter retired in 1957. Most of his colleagues had stopped long before that.