Light Over Darkness, Literally and Figuratively

Most accounts of San Diego history cite March 16, 1886 as the day the first street lights were turned on in the city of San Diego. In one particular area downtown, the new technology made a difference notable enough to rate an item on page 3 of the April 7, 1886 San Diego Union. The anonymous reporter found some measureable improvement, noting “on good authority it can be said that profanity has decreased at least one half, as has also the trade in court plaster and ointment.”

A court plaster, dear readers, as I just found out myself, was a piece of cotton or other fabric soaked with glycerin or a similar liquid to adhere to the skin and thus treat a wound.

How did street lighting save people medical expenses? Well, according to the Union, “By actual count, there have been but two people come to grief on the corner of Fifth and E streets since the light has been turned on, while during the time the streets were in darkness but few men of all that traveled past this locality in the night escaped from either a muddy splashing or a heavy fall.”

As for evidence of reducing profanity, the article stated, “During this dark period the air in that vicinity was absolutely blue with any but choice epithets heaped upon some unknown and careless contractor, while now the traveler nimbly picks his way around the bad crossing and says nothing.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers and the book, City of San Diego and San Diego County: The Birthplace of California, by Clarence Alan McGrew.

Also please note that I’ll be giving a history talk, “Picturesque San Diego: Images and Stories from the Past,” for San Diego Oasis on Wednesday, January 8 at 1 p.m. at the Serra Mesa-Kearny Mesa Branch Public Library. To register for the class visit and select class # 321.

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