Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 3 of 3)

Alternative Title: The Street Lamps of the City of Lights

The Faubourg Saint-Germain, the quarter of Paris where Adam Smith resided for most of 1766, not only enjoyed a daily system of garbage collection (see my previous post), this neighborhood was also a well-lit one. In fact, Paris was nicknamed La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Lights”) because she was one of the first European cities to adopt comprehensive street lighting. An ordinance of Louis XIV in 1667 increased the number of lamps in the streets of the metropolis and ordered that they should be lit even in moonlight from November 1 until March 1.[1] Initially, the lamps were hung from ropes that stretched across the cobblestone streets and were contained in iron-framed glass boxes with tallow candles.[2] The cost of lighting the city eventually became a part of the police budget in 1704, and soon thereafter, the police of Paris installed lanterns on almost every main street.

At the time of Adam Smith’s stay in Paris in 1766, over 6,500 lanterns hung above the streets of the French capital.[3] In order that the entire city might be wholly illuminated within half an hour, each individual lamplighter had charge of no more than fifteen lanterns, and given this limitation on the work of a single lamplighter, it must have taken a corps consisting of over 400 men to light Paris in 1766.[4] The lighting of Paris, like her system of daily garbage collection, was thus a major logistical operation, one that also poses a fascinating problem of political economy, a theoretical question that Smith himself addresses in The Wealth of Nations: who should pay for these public works, the people of France as a whole or the people of Paris locally, who, after all, are the direct beneficiaries of these police services?

Specifically, in Chapter 1 of Book V of The Wealth of Nations, in the subsection titled “Of the Expense of Public Works and Public Institutions,” Smith poses the broader question of whether local public works–i.e. public goods whose benefits are confined to a local area–should be financed at the local or national level, and he uses the example of street lamps to make his point:

Even those public works which are of such a nature that they cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves, but of which the conveniency is nearly confined to some particular place or district, are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local or provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state, of which the executive power must always have the management. Were the streets of London to be lighted and paved at the expense of the treasury, is there any probability that they would be so well lighted and paved as they are at present, or even at so small an expense? The expense, besides, instead of being raised by a local tax upon the inhabitants of each particular street, parish, or district in London, would, in this case, be defrayed out of the general revenue of the state, and would consequently be raised by a tax upon all the inhabitants of the kingdom, of whom the greater part derive no sort of benefit from the lighting and paving of the streets of London.”

In the case of Paris, however, what Smith may not have been aware of was that the labor required to light the street lamps of the city was unpaid at the time. Although the cost of this pervasive Parisian infrastructure–candles, glass, iron–had been a part of the police budget since 1704, and was thus financed by the crown at the national level, the labor required to light the lamps was a public service that was exacted without remuneration.[5]

But in fairness to Smith, he was not in Paris to study her methods of garbage collection or lamp lighting. Instead, he was in the middle of Duke Henry’s “Grand Tour” and was thus responsible for his pupil’s moral formation and education during their travels. So, what was Smith doing in Paris during this time? What people did he spend time with, and what places did he visit? Stay tuned. These are the very questions I shall address in my remaining blog posts in this series.

Paris Street Lighting
Credit: Sheila Terry, via the Science Photo Library (see here)

[1] Nature 1933, p. 888. By way of comparison, London did not adopt a modern system of street lighting until 1736. See de Beer 1941.

[2] Herault 1932, p. 7.

[3] Mildmay 1763, p. 121, cited by Williams 1974, p. 174 & n.150.

[4] See Williams 1974, p. 174. By 1769, three years after Smith’s sojourn in Paris, Antoine de Sartine, the royally-appointed Lieutenant of Police from 1759 to 1774, had introduced a new and more effective street lamp that burned oil rather than candles and that employed multiple reflectors to intensify the light each lamp cast. See Manuscript No. 1421 at the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Orleans, p. 599, cited by Williams 1974, p. 175. With this innovation, the total number of street lamps in Paris was more than halved, to about 3,000, and each individual lamplighter now had charge of up to 20 lanterns, reducing the total number of lamplighters to 150. See Almanach Parisien, p. 13, and Manuscript No. 1424 at the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Orleans, p. 104, both cited by Williams 1974, p. 175. Smith, however, did not stay in Paris long enough to see the results of Sartine’s innovations first-hand.

[5] See Williams 1974, p. 175. The lamplighters were chosen every August, when the residents of each Parisian district would gather at the home of a commissioner of police to select those who would have charge of the district’s lanterns. Mildmay 1763, p. 121, cited by Williams 1974, p. 175. According to Williams (ibid.), all Parisians were subject to this obligation, though this chore would be delegated to a household servant.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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