Illuminating New York City for Celebrations

This post was written by Marion Holland, Intern at the Library Digital Project

Many present-day New Yorkers and visitors to New York City see the Empire State building, lit up with multi-colored electric lights to celebrate events from holidays to sports team victories, as a symbol of the city.  Even before there was electricity, special lighting for special occasions was a prominent feature of New York celebrations.  In 1825, during the Grand Canal Celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal, prominent buildings such as City Hall, Park and Chatham Garden Theaters, Scudder’s and Peale’s  Museum, Scudder’s Spectaculum, City Hotel, and Sykes Hotel were illuminated for the grand occasion. Unfortunately, as this illumination of the city took place before the advent of photography, we don’t have any pictures of the Spectaculum (a museum/performance venue located on Chatham Street) lit up, spectacular as it must have been.  We are, however, lucky enough to have images of some later celebrations, and the technology used to create the displays, in our library collections.

Hudson Fulton Program
Souvenir Book: Hudson-Fulton Celebration, Program and History (1909). F 127.
Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th St and Riverside Drive illuminated, PR129 (Box 1, Folder 11)

The New York Historical Society has, in its Photographs of New York City and Beyond digital collection, many stunning photographs of monuments illuminated for the Hudson Fulton celebrations in 1909.  These celebrations continued for more than two weeks, from September 25th to October 9 1909, featuring parades and spectacles, which aimed to honor the exploratory voyage of Henry Hudson and the achievements of the steamship inventor Robert Fulton.

The library also holds “The Program and History of the Hudson Fulton Celebration”, which has a very modern seeming glossy cover featuring  Henry Hudson with his ship the Half Moon, and Robert Fulton with his steamship the Clermont. Inside are biographies of the inventor and explorer and  a description of the highlights of each day of the celebration.  Included are many descriptions of planned illuminations, which started on the second week of the celebrations, from October 2 to October 9, 1909. For eight nights, New York City and all its boroughs were lit up between the hours of  6:30 and 12:30 in the evening . The Washington Monument, City Hall, Brooklyn Museum, many bridges over the East River and even fleets of ships were all illuminated and stood ghostly against the night sky. In addition to lighting which was already permanently in place,  between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 incandescent light bulbs were added .

City Hall Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations PR129 ( Box 1, Folder 12)
City Hall Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations PR129 ( Box 1, Folder 12)
Washington Square Arch Illuminated for Hudson Fulton Celebrations, PR129 (Box 01, Folder 15)

There were 14,000 electric lights on the recently completed Queensboro bridge and almost as many on the other bridges over the East River. Powerful searchlights illuminated the Hudson River. On the last night of the celebration, the length of the Hudson Valley, 170 miles from New York to Troy, was illuminated.

The New York Historical Society does not have actual records of the costs of the Hudson Fulton celebration, but we can get a ball-park figure by consulting the catalog “Something Electrical for everyone”, put out by the Manhattan Electical Supply Company in 1905, which offered 100 bulbs for $2.00. Using published conversion rates that is around 50 dollars in today’s currency. So, just getting light bulbs for the Queensboro bridge may have cost as much as$ 7,000 or about $140,000 in today’s currency. One could imagine this cost adding up over many bridges, buildings and monuments, the majority of which were being lit up especially for this celebration.

Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, ” Something Electrical for Everybody” catalog.  TK 455.M3 1906.
Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, ” Something Electrical for Everybody” catalog. TK455.M3 1906.

Expositions had impressive lighting as a major feature for a long time, but the Hudson Fulton celebration marked a moment of triumph for electrical lighting. Those interested in learning more can read an article written by Luther Stieringer in 1901 in the magazine Western  Electrician, which describes “The Evolution of Exposition Lighting.”  Written in response to the prominence of incandescent lighting at the Pan-American Exposition, the article traces the practice of lighting public events back many centuries to the Chinese, who used some early form of neon lighting ( illuminated gas) in stores and tea shops. The article goes on to describe the first use of electricity in exposition lighting in the New York area: the decorative lighting of the Turkish Pavilion at Manhattan Beach in the late 1870s ( a reproduction of a similar pavilion at the Centennial  Exposition of 1876), where over 200 small gas jets were electrically ignited. Sieringer ends his history of exposition lighting with the Pan American Exposition of 1901, only eight years before the Hudson Fulton Celebration.

Hudson Fulton Celebration Court of Honor Illuminated, PR129 ( Box 01, Folder 14)
Hudson Fulton Celebration Court of Honor Illuminated, PR129 ( Box 01, Folder 14)

These early expositions required onsite generators, and parts of the fairs themselves were “ power plants.”  The World’s Colombian Exposition, Pan American Exposition and Hudson Fulton Celebration were festivals that not only talked about and celebrated history and historic events — Columbus’s discovery of America, Hudson’s explorations and Fulton’s steamship — they created history themselves, particularly by exposing the public to developing technology. Companies and inventors would compete to present at the fairs, and the public would come to look at innovations, which might improve their own lives.  In the World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893,  for example, the fair was brilliantly illuminated by Westinghouse and Tesla  at a candlepower of 13,000,000, but the lighting did not extend to the fair’s host city of Chicago .

In contrast to earlier fairs and expositions, at the Hudson Fulton Celebration, the “power plant” provided illumination not for a separate fairground, but for an entire inhabited city, and soon enough this illumination would find its way into all aspects of daily life from hospitals to schools.



Those interested in reading more about  early electricity in Manhattan, can examine “Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s ‘first district.‘”  This 1985 brochure, published by Con Edison,  provides the patient pedestrian with detailed directions to all the important sites of early electricity in Lower Manhattan, including Edison’s Pearl Street  generator station. 

Illustrated recreation of Edison's Pearl Street Generation Station, created circa 1979 from the brochure  "Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s “first district”, in the Main Collection of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library
Con Edison, “Where they lit up New York : a walking tour through Thomas Edison’s ‘first district’.”  F128.18 1985.


“A full account of the celebration of the completion of the Grand Canal…along the line of the canal, and in the city of New-York, &c.”   New York : Printed for John Low ; 1825

“Electricity: a  popular electrical journal”  New York  : Electricity newspaper co.; 1891-1906

“Something Electrical for Everybody” Manhattan Electrical Supply Company, 1905

Western Electrician, Vol 29  Electrician Publishing Company,1901

” Where they lit up New York :  a  walking tour through  Thomas Edison’s “first district” ” New York, N.Y. : Con Edison; 1979


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