There was a policy with regard to lighting at the very beginning of modern urban society. Police regulations stated that “anyone encountered at an unusual time, in unusual places, and without light”, “will be subject to the strictest of searches”. For Paris, a decree passed in 1551 stipulated that “a lantern be hung so visibly from the first-floor window sill that there is sufficient light in the street”. The emergence of the absolutist state saw the private domestic lantern become “a standard lantern, a rectangular glass case, in which a candle burned”, as the German publicist and historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch recapitulates in “Lichtblicke”, his cultural history of “artificial brightness”. And as if that were not enough: The new lanterns were attached to a rope suspended across the street, right in the middle – little suns that represented the Sun King. As such, lanterns were destroyed in the French revolution and their gallows-like mounting converted for “lanterning” purposes, i.e., executing unpopular representative of the “ancien régime”.
Just like, as of the 19th century, new technologies for providing urban illumination were celebrated, and those previously regarded as innovative were dismissed as being old-fashioned and out of date, Schivelbusch’s work states: “A gas candelabra gives more light than twenty standard oil lamps. The light is wonderfully white and bright,” a London chronicler judged in 1807. As early as 1850 there were new visual standards in force in Saint Petersburg: “The light from the gas lamps seemed harsh and rusty, whereas the electric light was a dazzling white.” The advent of electric arc lamps changed things yet again: “In the middle of the night there is bright daylight”, an 1880 report read, comparing how the eye adapted to lighting that differed on wide boulevards and side roads and alleys, lit as these were by “feeble and dull gas lamps”. Nonetheless, for a long time both technologies developed in parallel and (depending on the purpose of their use) were considered as being particularly economical. The yellow light given off by electric sodium vapor lamps was hardly a hindrance on busy intersections and roads; though the color reproduction was not exactly true it did offer good contrast vision. Even in the present day gas lamps fulfill a certain function, mainly in residential areas in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt/Main.