A Chicago City Lamplighter in 1903

Charles Driscoll, the Young Lamplighter

  • The pay was lousy, and so were the hours.
  • We had to go out twice a day, once to light the lamps in the evening and then to put them out in the early morning.
  • I had as many as 120 lamps to light, and my pay was between $12 and $16 a month, which the boss gave to my mother.

One time it was 18 below zero for a full week. "I was bundled up as if I was going to the Klondike."  Charles Driscoll (1960)

Charles Driscoll, who was born in Chicago in 1891 and died in Florida in 1980, spent three or four of his teenage years as a lamplighter, working with gas streetlights on the west side of Chicago. His career was ended by his need for better paying work and also by the installation of electric lights. He tells of his experiences as a lamplighter in a recorded interview, which is available at the Chicago Historical Society library or at the University of Illinois (Springfield) in its Oral History collection.. The interview was conducted in 1973 by his nephew, Thomas Driscoll, of Peoria , IL. The drawing is reproduced by courtesy of the St. Petersburg, FL, Times, which published a story about Charles Driscoll in 1977, when he was living in Gulfport, FL. The drawing was made by Times artist Jack Barrett.

The Interview
     When Charles Driscoll gave this interview in Florida in June, 1973, he was 81 years old, but still active and vigorous. A widower without children, he had moved to Florida in 1969 with his brother, Edward, and Edward’s wife, Helen. Until then he had lived in Chicago, where he was born in 1891. Before he retired he did office work for several different employers, including the Continental Bank in the Loop and Harold Pitman Co., a producer of engraving supplies, in Cicero. During his lamplighting years he lived at 3006 W. Fillmore St., near the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento Blvd. The text of the interview has been lightly edited to eliminate duplication and enhance clarity.

Q. When were you a lamplighter in Chicago?
A. From 1903 to 1907.
Q. How old were you then?
A. I was between 12 and 15.
Q. How big an area did you have?
A. I had about half mile east and west and a quarter mile north and south.
Q. On what streets?
A. Madison, Monroe, Wilcox and Adams - north and south. And from Rockwell street to Sacramento avenue. On the west side of Chicago.
Q. How did you get a job like that?
A. The man I worked for was a friend of the alderman. And the alderman let out these contracts to fellows, and they would hire kids to light the lamps.
Q. Would you have asked him for a job?
A. No, he would come around the neighborhood to find kids maybe that had paper routes or something, who were out early in the morning, who were maybe working milk trucks or something like that, figuring that they wouldn't mind getting up early in the morning to put the lights out.
Q.You didn't have to be a good Democrat or Republican?
A. Oh, no. Politics had nothing to do with it.
Q. Did any of your brothers have a lamplighting job?
A. Yes, Pat, Frank and John. They were my older brothers. Frank lit about five years, that was the longest, and I lit about four and a half.
Q. Is that the way you talk of it - I lit for so many years?
A. Well, I'm talking about lighting and putting them out or extinguishing them. Lighting them and putting them out. That was the terms used.
Q. Did you take over the job from Frank?
A. Yes. Or if the boss had more lights and a bigger route, and some kids weren't reliable enough, he'd ask us if we'd take over that kid's route. And he'd let that kid go. He'd fire him. If we were good workers he'd always want to add on 30 to 40 more lamps, which meant a little more money.
Q. How much was your pay?
A. The highest was $16 a month, and the lowest was about $12.
Q. How many lamps would there have been on your route?
A. Well, the most lamps I lit was maybe 120, and the least number about 80.
Q. So it varied?
A. Yes. An 80 lamp route paid $12 a month, and 130 or 140 lamps $16. I never heard of anybody making more than that. That took care of lighting them and putting them out.
Q, How did that compare with other jobs, like a paper route? Did it pay better or about the same?
A. About the same, I would say.
Q. It wasn't an especially high-paying job then?
A. No, no. It was a very poor paying job. You had to pay for your own wicks that you burned in your torch, and you had to buy your own kerosene to put into your torch.
Q. Where did you get that stuff?
A. First, we started out by using that material that's used in mops, used to mop up floors and so on. Then we found out that that stuff wore out too fast. Then I used to buy the wicking at the Fair Store downtown in Chicago. We'd get wicks seven or eight inches long and get a little piece of piping from a hardware store and put that into your thing and screw into your torch. And that would make the light last a long time. Sometimes you wouldn't have to put a new wick in for six months. Just pull up the wicking every once in a while. You didn't have to have it up too much or it would burn the wicking out too quick.
Q. When you lit lamps was your torch burning all the time?
A. Yes. You had your torch burning all the time.
Q. And then how did you turn the gas jet on in the lamp?
A. There was a cross T up inside of the head in the lamp posts. Some of them were square and others had a round, more up-to-date, shade on them. But most of them were square. But they had a key in there. And you'd come along with your torch and you turned your key up there. And it'd go poof as soon as your light came in contact with the gas.
Q. In other words you'd turn it on and light it all in the same motion because your torch would be lit?
A. Yes, just like you were turning a key on your gas stove. And you'd get your torch up there and shove it up that way. And as soon as you did that the gas would come up the pipe and poof and light. And put it out in the morning you'd get your stick in there. You didn't have your lighted torch then. You had a stick. You'd come along in the morning and get ahold of this end of the key and push it up this way, and that'd shut the lamp off.Q. And then when did you have to light them, what time of day?
A. You had a timetable. And in the wintertime you had to be out at about a quarter to four, about 3:45 because you know it gets dark early in the winter. You had to be out on your route about 3:45 at the earliest. And you'd be through about 4:15 or 4:30, something like that. You weren't supposed to go out and light the lamps when the sun was shining. The sun was supposed to be down, almost all the way down.
Q. Otherwise you'd be wasting gas, right?
A. Yes. That's why you had the timetable. In the summertime the days were longer. Of course daylight saving wasn't known then. And in the summertime you'd go out as late as a quarter to seven at night, 6:45. That would be three hours later than the winter. That would be your earliest to go out. A quarter to seven, and get them out anywhere from 7:15 to 7:30 in the wintertime. And in the summertime you'd be out earlier in the morning to put them out. You went out at 3:30 in the morning. You leave the house about 3:30 in the morning in the summertime. In the wintertime you left about 5:30.
Q. How long would it take you to do the whole route?
A. From the time you leave the house and be back to your route, sometimes your route was anywhere from a half a mile to a mile away from your house. And by the time you got back you were gone from an hour and a half to two hours.
Q. Was the gas flame all that there was to provide the illumination?
A. Well at first, but they improved the lamps by putting the Welsbach mantles in them. But they were very delicate. You had to be very careful to put your stick up because if you were very rough at all you would break the mantle.
Q. Did the mantle give more light, was that the idea?
A. It was a much whiter light. Before that, when you had only the flame, it was a fiery color. Before the Welsbach came, you had different tips that went on the gas pipe. First they had a bone tip that went in, and then they came in with an aluminum tip. Then came the Welsbach mantles. And then, after that they put in the electric lights. That knocked the gas guys out of a job. Madison street was the first one to knock me out.
Q. What year was that?
A. Oh, that was 1903 of 1904, something like that. I was born in 1891 so nine more years would make it 1900, and I was lighting lamps when I was 12 years old or 11. So it was somewhere around 1903 or so, 1904, 1905, 1906.
Q. Were there a couple of lamps in every block, or just on every corner, or what?
A. On the corner and in the middle of the block. Say this is a street here. Here's a corner. There's a lamp here, and here's an alley going through here. At this alley here's another lamp. And then down here is another street and there's a lamp here. So there would be three -- corner here on this street, corner this street, and at the alley over here.  And then, in addition to lighting and putting the lamps out, I had to make a report of any broken glass in lamps. And in the wintertime they'd freeze. Frost would get down in those gas pipes and freeze them.
Q. What would you do then?
A. Pour alcohol down there.
Q. Did you do that?
A. No, the boss did. But he wanted me to carry the ladder around. Or if I didn't carry the ladder, to carry three- to a five-gallon can of alcohol with a little cup on it. And he'd put the ladder up the thing and I'd pour out the alcohol and he'd unscrew the cap of the lamp and pour the alcohol down it.
Q. What would that do?
A. Yes. If there was any ice down in that stem, why it will thaw it out. Sometimes the lamp didn't thaw out the first day. Sometimes it'd take two days before that alcohol took effect. And you'd be surprised. You'd go along there the next night, sticking your torch up. No light. And then all of a sudden you'd go along some night and touch it and whoof! One time the whole thing blew up. It was an eruption. There was a leak somewhere. The whole top blew off.
Q.The glass and everything broke?
A. Blew the whole top of the lamp off. Once there was some tomboy girl who wanted to around the route with me  -- Liz Kelly. And the first lamp was like in the middle of the block, like in an alley. I gave her the torch. I said, "All right, there's the lamp." She said she knew how to light lamps. It was one of those lamps; she stuck the torch and the explosion blew up the lamp. She dropped the torch and ran home. That was the last I saw of her.
Q. Would you ever miss a day of lamplighting? I mean, you'd have to light every day of the week, right?
A. Yes, every day.
Q. What happened if you were sick?
A. You had to get your brother, if you had a brother who knew something about it, or report it to the boss. He'd have to go out and hire somebody. Every kid didn't know how to light lamps. But the boss was supposed to know something about it. Some of them didn't know a damn thing.
Q. They were just political appointees?
A. Sure. It would be nothing for those guys to get two or three hundred dollars from the city hall, from the alderman, and they'd pay us kids anywhere from 12 to 16 dollars a month, and the rest was shoved in their pocket. The city supplied them with glass, but they'd have to install it in the broken lamps. And they supplied them with the alcohol to thaw the lamps out. That's about the extent. They were supposed to go around and clean the windows.
Q. What else do you remember happening?
A. Drunks would be out in the morning, especially on Saturday night or Sunday morning. They'd be walking home with their girls, and you would be putting the light out, and they'd say, "Don't put that light out." Otherwise, they'd say, they couldn't find their way home. "If you put that light out we'll get you." I put it out anyhow. Some of them were too drunk to chase you.
Q. What about bullies? Any other kids picking on you?
A. No, no. Nothing like that. Nobody was out that early in the morning.
Q. But what about in the afternoon when you were lighting?
A. No, nobody. Lots of the kids would like for you to let them take a torch and light a lamp. That'd satisfy them. That was great to have the honor of sticking a torch up there to light a lamp. But the people all along the route would speak to you. Many a time a person would ask me to come up on their porch and have a big glass of lemonade or some homemade root beer or something like that.
Q. Were there streetcars running in those days?
A. Yes, there were. In the early morning hours they had horses pulling the streetcars. Horses. Until five o'clock in the morning. And then the cable cars came on.
Q. Did you ride any of them?
A. Sometimes in the wintertime. I'd get in there. They had hay. The motorman would be driving those teams of horses, and they had hay on the floor. I'd go get on the back end and sit down and ride a half a mile on the thing, riding home. That was on Madison street. That's the only street that had cable cars or the horse cars.
Q. What else do you remember?
A. Oh, there were lots of stories connected with the lamplighters. I was putting out one of my last lamps one time when a picture frame factory on Polk Street and Washington Avenue caught fire. The whole roof exploded. Boy! A saloon keeper on the corner came out in his pajamas. "What was that?" he said. I said, "The picture frame factory; the whole roof exploded." It was a half hour before the first fire department came. I stayed around there for a while. I had to get back and get some sleep. I had to go to school.
Q. Oh, so you went home and went back to bed?
A. Yes. It was kind of hard getting up early in the morning at three o'clock, three thirty.
Q. Did you have your own alarm clock?
A. No, my mother was the alarm clock. She had the clock. Otherwise we'd never get up. She used to say that she was the alarm clock. I remember my father saying he wouldn't get up for any amount of money. She said, "Well, that's the difference between you and me." She said, "You'll never have the debt paid off on the house if I don't have the boys out lighting lamps."
Q. So she got the money you were paid?
A. Yes, the fellow we worked for, he wouldn't give it to us. He'd come to the house and give the money to my mother.
Q. It was a hard job, wasn't it?
A. Well, especially the hours, the business of getting up at 3:30 or so. You don't have to get up that early with a paper route. And of course you have to do it every day of the week. And go out twice a day. It didn't make any difference whether the temperature was 99 or 100; you had to get out and light the lamps that night. And I had one week when it was 18 below zero for a full week.
Q. And did you walk your route even then?
A. Sure. I would be bundled up as if I was going to the Klondike. I'd have paper lined around my stockings, and then I had Russian boots on and underwear. Maybe two sets of underwear. Heavy corduroy pants, two pairs of mitts, a stocking cap, scarfs, mufflers. My mother fixed up a fascinator under my mouth. It just fit under your nose. And then the steam from your mouth would come out there and come up in your eyes and form icicles on your eyelashes.
Q. What caused you to give up lamplighting?
A. They put in electricity. It ran us out of business. It started on Madison street and then came to Monroe. And then one by one about every six months. First they put the poles in, see, and then they wouldn't be connected for three or four months. Madison was a very principal street, so naturally it was first. Then they got the other main streets like Kedzie, Halsted and so on. They were all electrified. And that was the end of lamplighting.


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