Home / History / Forgotten Occupations of New Bedford’s Yesteryear; Of Lamplighters, Milkmen, & Town Criers
Pinsetters or Pinboys - A Forgotten Occupation of New Bedford's Yesteryear

Forgotten Occupations of New Bedford’s Yesteryear; Of Lamplighters, Milkmen, & Town Criers


Keeping the City of Light lit: Lamplighters
In addition to being known as the Whaling City, New Bedford was also known as the City of Light for the sheer amount of lamp oil it produced in the 19th and 20th centuries from the whaling industry. This oil not only lit homes for practical and obvious reasons, but miner’s headlamps served as added security within the streets, allowed mills and businesses to extend their hours of operation and increase revenue, and spurred progress. Originally these lamps used simple animal fat before being replaced with kerosene, gas, then electricity. Whale oil being the one that burned the best, with the least smoke and bad odor. Luckily for New Bedford, there was a whale ship or two putting around.

Coopers Hard At Work- Courtesy of the N.B. Whaling Museum

An hour before dusk or dawn a crew of men would set out with ladders or long poles, whistling as they went, and would light all of the lamps in the city. In many cases -the less trafficked areas – the lights would have to be extinguished a few hours later. In rather remote locations, more than basic tools and a ladder or pole would need to be carried. The lamplighter would have to carry the fuel himself. A simple task that had a massive, widespread effect.

While it seems this is hardly a “job” since it took only a few hours a day, the lamplighters had to do this regardless of weather and had many related tasks to do turning it into a full-time occupation. Within the specific lighting itself, there were a number of tasks. Many lamps had automatic clocks that would regulate the intensity of the light and they would need to be set and maintained. If the lamp needed painting, scraping, or repair it got it. Often there was a build-up of waste that would need to be scraped, removed and carried off.

In addition to their regular duties, many would make extra money by doing small tasks on their route, like delivering letters, dropping off shoes at the cobbler, relaying messages, or acting as a Caller-Up – an occupation we’ll flesh out later in the article. Lamplighters also acted as a night watchman and crime deterrent. They would sound an alarm or report any criminal activity. For this reason lamplighters were thought of in a fond way by the community, for their specific contribution in lighting the city and for their presence period. Lamp-lighting was a coveted enough job that it was passed from father to son and in some cities formed a union. By 1897 New Bedford had 525 gas lamps and 200 arc lamps that needed to be attended to.

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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  1. I remember the typesetters using Linotype machines at the Standard-Times when I worked there in the 1970’s. It was still on Pleasant Street then. I also set pins at the Boy’s Club. They had four lanes in the basement next to the woodworking shop. You had to set pins before you could bowl. Setting was easy. Dodging the pins as they flew up was not… I can add one more, coal man. My grandparents used to have coal delivered down the chute for the stoves. They used the stoves to heat the house and cook at their place, 44 Reynolds Street.

  2. Great stuff Len! Thanks for reading AND sharing!

    • one of My husband Jim Heys’ first jobs was a pinsetter at a small bowling alley on Rodney French Blvd in New Bedford

  3. Was told when I was a baby was a man named al Deneault who would wash baby diapers and return them next day all over the city

  4. My father was a pin setter as a boy. Another of his jobs was to blow out the gas lamps in the morning. He also worked at a livery stable, running the horses to make sure their wind was sound. As for me, I ran a switchboard one summer. It was an experience. One time I was trying to connect a call for a man who seemed to think all he needed to tell me was a person’s first name, and I’d miraculously know who he meant. He didn’t realize I could hear him when he told someone else I was stupid. Another time, I was the one who forgot that someone could hear me. I accidentally disconnected someone and swore. Fortunately the person of the line thought it was funny. Dealing with people can be, well, intersting.

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