Skip to content

Response to Review of In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City, 1820-1930

I would like to thank Joanna Marchant for the care she took in presenting a fine overview of the book’s argument and content. I would like to add a few words to underscore one of the points she makes: that the book differs from some previous works on the history of night in its skepticism about technology’s power to alter social relations.

Much of the previous literature on urban night, whether narrowly examining the history of public utilities or ruminating on the condition of ‘modernity’, has suggested a dramatic transformation of nocturnal life resulting from what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls ‘the industrialization of light’: the introduction of gas street lighting in the first half of the century and especially electric lighting in the closing decades. To use another example cited in the review, David Nasaw’s chapter and his later book-length study, Going Out, attribute the growth in commercial amusements to the clarity of vision and sense of safety produced by electric lighting.(1) I don’t entirely reject this interpretation – obviously, the city looked a lot different under the new street lights and a lot more people were out at night – but I caution that the change was felt most strongly by a minority of the population, affluent adult males. Women relied on male chaperones to protect them from harassment and assault by young men, who used their expanded freedom of the city to act out ancient cultural scripts of drunken revelry. The persistent dangers and moral transgressions of the night, minimized by some observers when cheering the growth of nightlife, were paradoxically cited as reasons for limiting women’s night work and imposing curfews on children. The liberating potential of the newly illuminated city was limited by class inequality too; increasing numbers of poorer men worked at night in factory shifts and in counter-cyclical jobs such as street cleaning, separating them from the lives of their families almost as effectively as if they were sojourning in distant regions. Illumination did not altogether transform traditional nocturnal patterns of city life, nor did it let people escape their own everyday identities. By comparing social experience in the city before and after the introduction of lighting technology, I think we can see the change as limited and contingent.

Notes

  1. D. Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (Cambridge, MA, 1999).Back to (1)