Like the skyscraper, the automobile, and the motion-picture palace, neon signs once symbolized popular hopes for a new era of technological achievement and commercial abundance. From the 1920s to the 1950s, neon-lit streets pulsed with visual excitement from Vancouver to Miami. Large-scale spectaculars—tropical fish up to forty-three feet long hypnotically swimming past the Wrigley Spearman, or acrobatic Little Lulu lighting up each letter of a giant Kleenex box as she tumbled across it—provided free entertainment, while the humblest shop signs turned the urban night into well-lighted public space.
Neon’s glowing colors and sinuous shapes haven’t changed significantly since the 1920s, but the medium’s meanings, and its fortunes, have shifted dramatically over the decades. The history of neon signs suggests how thoroughly entangled memory, identity, and hope are with even the purest sensory pleasures—and how truly subjective are the clashing tastes that shape aesthetic regulations.
In their heyday, neon signs “were very much a symbol of modernism,” says Adolfo Nodal, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. “They became a symbol of the new age, the Jazz Age, the new era that was sweeping the country.” Nodal spearheaded a campaign that over the past decade has restored about 130 of the city’s historic signs, mostly the long-neglected rooftop markers of apartment buildings and hotels. “They’re beautiful objects in their own right,” says Nodal, “and lighting them brings back … a more beautiful time.”
Neon inspires passion. It still exists today largely because of the efforts of enthusiasts, mostly older baby boomers with fond memories of roadside America. They nurtured the craft back to life and preserved the “garish” signs that zealous civic beautifiers had tried to wipe out. In the late 1970s, neon “was a little bit like the last buffalo tied up outside the Indian gift store somewhere—almost extinct, certainly thirsty and hungry,” recalls the artist Rudi Stern, whom many neon lovers credit with saving the medium. In 1972, Stern founded Let There Be Neon, a gallery and workshop in New York, which trained artists to use neon and promoted it as an artistic medium. “I wanted to turn people on to the beauty of it, to the creative, expressive possibilities of it.”
Today, neon signs are treasured by collectors, displayed in museums, and encouraged, even subsidized, by towns hoping to add zip to districts that go dark at 5 p.m. When the automotive specialist RM Auctions held a memorabilia sale this past June, a Thunderbird Motel neon sign fetched $27,600, one for the Cloud 9 Motel went for $21,275, and just the star from atop an old Holiday Inn neon sign brought $3,220. “These things that formerly had no value are now seen as folk art,” says Len Davidson, a sign maker and the author of Vintage Neon.
In 1983, Davidson gave up an academic career in sociology to pursue his love of neon. He has turned his vintage-sign collection into the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, which displays signs in businesses around the city. Elsewhere, neon has found permanent quarters, notably in the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, founded in 1999, and Los Angeles’s Museum of Neon Art, founded in 1981 to preserve old signs and exhibit fine art that incorporates neon. All this neon appreciation represents a major change in attitudes. Beginning in the 1960s, neon signs were persecuted throughout the United States and Canada—torn down and outlawed by city officials determined to avoid the “carnival atmosphere” and “visual clutter” of such blatant commercialism. “The signs and the billboards are bullying you thousands of times a day,” Alderman Warnett Kennedy told the residents of Vancouver, calling on “the more thoughtful citizens” to “become nuisances on the subject of ugliness.” Soon enough, Vancouver’s streets, formerly awash in color, started to go dark. The anti-neon movement reflected both elite taste and consensus ideology. The bright colors and pulsing animation of the signs defied the formal geometry of aristocratic modernism and the tidied-up corporatism of the Galbraithian “New Industrial State.”