The Light Fantastic

When neon was the new new thing.

Illustration by Jeff Zwirek.

If you’ve flown through O’Hare on United you might have walked through the tunnel connecting Concourses B and C, with its abstract neon patterns on the ceiling that change in time with the music. I think of it as the “disco tunnel,” and it always makes me smile as I pull my case behind me under the glowing canopy. But it shows neon used as a purely decorative form, a long way from its high point as an advertising medium. Flickering Light, Christoph Ribbat’s intriguing history of neon, explores neon’s use in art, its value in advertising, and its cultural legacy.

In his London laboratory in 1898, William Ramsay isolated neon and discovered its eerie glow when electrified, naming it after the Greek word for new. For Ramsay and his colleagues, the discovery was the point, not development. “Neon,” Ribbat writes, “discovered during the golden age of chemistry, was sought after and not theorized, discovered and not developed.” It was French entrepreneur Georges Claude who saw its business potential, and displayed the first neon lamp in Paris in 1910. Soon his company, Claude Neon, was selling signs in all kinds of design, from glowing glasses for an optician to a pig or duck for a restaurant. Claude expected churches to be early adopters, and offered pink and blue crosses in the 1920s. 

In 1923, the first neon signs in Los Angeles belonged to Earle Anthony, who paid Claude $24,000 for twin orange-and-blue signs that read PACKARD to promote his auto dealership. They immediately caused traffic problems as people stopped to wonder at these illuminations, but within four years neon had become commonplace. It was on the East Coast that neon first came into its own. The 1930s were the high point for neon creations in New York City, many built by Artkraft Strauss, who also created the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. In 1933 real steam rose from the neon sign for A&P Coffee, and the cup released a coffee aroma to passers-by. Another showed an illuminated bottle of Bromo-Seltzer pouring into a glass. In 1941 the Camel sign arrived, showing a man blowing smoke rings (made of steam). The Camel man lasted for 24 years (although his face was repainted, making him a GI, a war pilot, or a civilian, at different times).

One of Artkraft Strauss’ creations hung on even longer. Flickering Light details the dismantling of the Pepsi sign in Queens in 2004, which was documented in daily photographs by Vera Lutter. The sign, which had been on the roof of the Pepsi bottling plant since 1936, had lingered after the factory was closed. It was finally taken down when the building was sold for redevelopment. After some lobbying by locals who wanted to save it, the sign was placed atop a nearby apartment building.

Neon use grew in the 1930s as it was fairly cheap, and desperate businesses wanted to drum up whatever customers they could. It was a cultural attitude, too: “New York’s lights were seen as symbols of democracy, as opportunities not just for big business but also for small business people as well, for traders and craftsmen, to bring their services before a wider public.” In 1936, Los Angeles Times newsboys wore aprons with flashing neon signs. This served as advertising and helped the boys stand out in traffic when they sold papers to passing drivers. Neon also led to other novelties: cocktail glasses with stems that lit up when they were put down on the bar.

Of course, neon had more serious uses. During the World War II, a network of lights was created above Lake Michigan, carefully replicating the lights of Chicago. This was intended to trick German or Japanese bombers into dropping their bombs into the lake, rather than the real city, which was under blackout. Whether the deception was effective was not put to the test.

In the 1930s neon epitomized glamour, but by the late 1940s and ’50s it came to be associated with seediness and urban decay. As Ribbat reminds us, in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), when George Bailey sees his town as it would be if he had never been born, Bedford Falls is a riot of neon advertising, marking the town’s descent into crass commercialism and corruption. Neon had become a shorthand for sleaze. It didn’t take much for the glowing modernity to tip over into tawdriness, as neon went from being a novelty to something used by the most downmarket businesses.

But after the war, as neon was fading elsewhere, Las Vegas was entering its neon heyday. Vegas Vic was installed on the awning of the Pioneer Club in 1951. This lanky 40-foot cowboy waved to visitors, and a recorded voice greeted them every 15 minutes with “Howdy Pardner!” Sadly, he no longer speaks, but still smiles out at tourists on Fremont Street. (He was joined in 1980 by Sassy Sally—aka Vegas Vicky—the high-kicking cowgirl representing the strip club across the street. When they were taken down for renovations in the ’90s a marriage celebrant joined the two in neon matrimony.)

As Ribbat points out, neon has often become the site of dispute between those who want to celebrate modernity and those who resist it. Its bright glow screams artifice. However, the paradox is that neon lightmaking is an artisanal craft. “Neon” signs are not just made of neon: To produce colors other than neon’s natural pinkish-red, argon, mercury, and phosphor are added to the mix. From the 1920s, the Egani school in New York trained those who wanted to work in neon, teaching glassblowing and light design. (It closed in 1971.) There are few today with the skills to make neon signs by hand. According to Ribbat, the loss of neon skills meant that by the late 1980s in Philadelphia there were only six specialists left, five of them old enough to be retired. Trying to save these skills led to conservation groups taking over neon workshops. This has allowed neon to be preserved as an artifact, but not for it to be developed in new ways.

Although Ribbatt doesn’t mention it, the adjustment of civic regulations in many towns put paid to neon. Many cities have moved to limit or ban projecting signs that hang over the street, on grounds of public safety or aesthetics. This change streamlined our streetscapes and reduced the three-dimensionality of business signage. Neon was largely replaced by Plexiglass shadow boxes, lit from behind with fluorescent tubes (neon’s mainstream cousin). These could be easily mass produced: perfect for chain stores, restaurants and hotels.

Flat lighting is designed to be read by those passing by, often in a vehicle; the writing faces the street but the driver has to turn her head to read it. Symbols hanging outside businesses date back to a preliterate age: a striped pole for a barber, three balls for a pawnbroker. Neon could be a glowing version of this older type of advertising. Projecting neon signs face the direction of travel, so the pedestrian can look straight up, not sideways.

Author Christoph Ribbat
Author Christoph Ribbat

Photo courtesy of A. Rutenburges.

As I drove home from work the other night, I tried to count the number of neon signs I passed. There were only a few: a couple of bars, a sex shop, and an OPEN sign in the window of a Subway sandwich shop. Neon tends to mark the unique, the quirky—the handmade sign to match a logo or fit a window. Its loss has contributed to the homogenization of cities, reducing the visual “clutter” of streets. This move has been strongest in car-based urban centers, where the motives have been to reduce driver distraction, while ignoring the human-level, pedestrian street experience. It’s worth noting that neon has lingered in the kind of businesses that depend on passing foot trade.

Neon was one of the ways businesses personalized their identity, but our retail landscape is now dominated by chains, whose business model depends on replicating branches across the country without individualization. Perhaps the reason people felt so strongly about losing the Pepsi-Cola sign was that it was a lingering remnant of an age of urban decoration now lost. Video displays like those in Times Square offer us television in the street—but old neon signs became part of the street. We are now so often surrounded by moving images they can no longer draw us in, but neon still offers a distinctiveness that we could see and hear, its faint buzzing giving it a tactile there-ness that technologies ever newer and newer can’t match. Compared to LED and video, gas in glowing tubes feels real.

Flickering Light: A History of Neon by Christoph Ribbat. Reaktion Books.

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