Before evolution hit a snag, and we reverted to slouching and staring at our phones, human beings walked with their eyes up, observing things. In the countryside, people contemplated church steeples, maple trees, clouds. In cities, they looked at the neon — and it was everything.
Between the 1930s and the 1970s, neon signs were a potent American symbol for both glamour and depravity, hope and desolation. In movies, how many star-struck ingénues have gazed up at the bright lights of Broadway? How many down-and-out characters have checked into a seedy hotel and found a malfunctioning sign buzzing like a bug-zapper outside their window?
“I love the chaotic nature of a street full of different lights,” Anna Castellani, managing partner of DeKalb Market Hall, told The Times in 2017 during a neon revival. “You feel like you’re in the city.”
Something about the audacity of that light has always seemed uniquely urban. It’s glow big or go home in the neon wilderness.
In 1898, the Scottish chemist William Ramsay was collaborating with an English colleague, Morris Travers, when he discovered an inert gas, naming it “neon” after the Greek word for “new.” He went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work, though it did not occur to him to use his discovery to sell theater tickets or beer. It was the French inventor Georges Claude who sensed a new industry in the offing. Mr. Claude unveiled a neon light at the Paris Motor Show in December 1910, and went on to create all manner of signs for clients.
By the 1930s, New York was ablaze with color, and Times Square was an enormous flame toward which countless moths fluttered. “Visitors, too, arrive in New York to witness the nightly Vesuvius-like eruption of light,” Richard F. Shepard wrote in The Times decades later. “They may patronize the theaters, movie houses, restaurants and bars, or they may not, being content merely to walk between 42nd and 47th Streets taking in the brilliant show only a tilt of the head above them.”
Though it’s often associated with size and spectacle, neon is a craftsman’s medium: Glass tubes are warmed so that they can be shaped by glassblowers. Later, they’re filled with gas, which glows when electrified. Different gases (neon, argon, mercury, helium, etc.) produce different colors, giving sign-makers a palette to choose from.
During its heyday in New York, neon signage made people long to chew Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, to smoke Camels, to put on a tuxedo and have a cup of Maxwell House coffee poured for them by a butler who was also wearing a tuxedo. Las Vegas didn’t fully embrace neon until after World War II, but made up for lost time quickly: Nobody had to tell them not to be subtle.
Neon’s greatest selling point — that it could shout so much louder than anything else — ultimately made it seem a little desperate, a little tacky. As the 20th century rumbled on, the signs became synonymous not with the boldness and variety of cities, but with their supposed dangers and temptations. Maybe anything that wanted your attention that bad should be avoided? In the 1960s, with the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, urging “beautification” of the nation, some towns passed anti-neon ordinances. Even more damaging for neon was the fact that backlit plastic signs were being manufactured cheaply by that time.
On January 4, 1966, The Times ran a sort of obituary for the neon Camel billboard that had been blowing smoke rings at Broadway and 44th Street since 1941. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” it read. Was it really possible to mourn the passing of a cigarette ad? It was — because everything about the billboard was redolent of an era. It was a time when neon was king, a time when it apparently didn’t occur to anyone that if you were that dependent on Camels you might not be able to walk a mile. Douglas Leigh, who had designed and owned the sign, said he rented it to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for about $10,000 a month. “It breaks my heart to lose this one,” he told The Times. “That sign was a tradition. People went out of their way to see it.”
That’s the way it was with neon. While it burned, it burned brightly.