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Glow, Glow Lost, Glow Regained



Rob Hardy


It is hard to imagine our cities without neon lights; everyone is familiar with the neon glow in the hand-blown glass tubes. They are still around, but they are of another age. In movies, shots of neon signs of nightclubs date the film to the 1930s. Neon was ultramodern, and then became passť, and has now had a boom in nostalgia and avant-garde light art. Flickering Light: A History of Neon (Reaktion Books) by Christoph Ribbat, a professor of American Studies in Germany, explores the use of neon in art and advertising and its surprisingly widespread cultural legacy. Neon is showy, but Ribbat's book (translated from the German by Anthony Mathews) is a sensible and, well, enlightening view of neon's many facets.  




The noble gas neon was discovered in 1898, by chemistry professor William Ramsay, who had already discovered argon, helium, and krypton. He gave his new discovery its name from the Greek for "new." Ramsay had extracted the gas from suspension in liquid nitrogen. It was colorless and odorless, and although he found it had a particular emission spectrum, he had not expected what happened when he put it into an electrically charged tube and threw the switch. The red glow was so surprising and so beautiful that he and his assistant called other colleagues working in the lab to come see it. Not all neon signs have neon in them; the gas produces a lovely red, but to get other colors other gases (like violet from argon and pink from helium) are used, along with coloration of the containing glass tube. 




Though Ramsay compared neon's glow to the natural phenomenon of the northern lights, artificial lighting was already taking over cities. In London electrical bulbs spelled out "Edison" sixteen years before neon glowed in Ramsay's tube, and in cities all over the world colored bulbs often with flickering animation effects were used to get attention and boost sales. In Paris, the chemist Georges Claude was inspired by the fictions of Jules Verne to apply discoveries beyond the merely scientific. He began to experiment with tubes of different diameters and coatings, and he made an electrode that did not corrode, so neon was ready for everyday use. He installed neon at the main entrance of the Paris Opera, for instance. His friend Jacques Fonseque marketed his illuminated tubes shaped like letters, and "Cinzano" was spelled out over a Paris roof in 1913; the next year there were 160 neon signs over Paris, and by 1927, over 6,000. The firm "Claude Neon" became a worldwide phenomenon, with many people thinking a Mr. Claude Neon was at its head. Claude became a prominent political figure on the right wing, and was to become a collaborationist with the Nazis, imprisoned after the war and dying mostly forgotten. 




Claude had had a near monopoly on neon advertising worldwide. In the US, neon started in Los Angeles in 1923 when a car dealer purchased neon signs spelling out "Packard" in Paris for his store back home. It wasn't long before the roofs of service stations and other businesses were sporting neon. Neon crosses were erected over churches. Even small businesses in small towns could afford the new signs, some of which were produced by graduates of Egani (Eddie's Glass and Neon Institute) in New York. In big cities, there were huge, animated signs like those by Douglas Leigh, who became famous for his neon advertisements over Broadway (including the famous Camel Man who also blew smoke rings).  




Then the glow faded. Ribbat draws on an astonishingly broad range of neon in popular and artistic culture. He reminds us that in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), when George Bailey gets his vision of Bedford Falls as it would have been if he had never been, it is far from the little town heavily scented with sweet Americana. It is, instead, a riot of neon outside of bars and other stores eager to take the citizens' money. The signs that used to mean good times and modernity and that beckoned with their fashionable glow had instead come to convey sleaze. Every scuzzy tavern could have a neon sign, and such signs broke and never got repaired. The decline of neon was part of the decline of the centers of cities everywhere, and was reflected in literature; Ribbat pays special attention to the marginalization described by Nelson Algren in The Neon Wilderness and other works, and in John D. MacDonald's The Neon Jungle. Plastic took over, glowing boxes with the lettering and artwork on the surface outside, lit from within by neon's humble cousin, fluorescent tubes. Such advertising could easily be mass produced, while forming neon signs remained a handmade craft. Egani closed its doors in 1971, and neon artisans died off. 




Not completely, of course. Neon found a new home in the revitalized Las Vegas, where it can still be found in profusion, although the old neon signs get taken down all the time; the good ones go to the Museum of Neon Art. New Journalist Tom Wolfe was excited by all the glow, describing the colors in the neon palette as "tangerine, broiling magenta, livid pink, incarnadine, fuchsia demure, Congo ruby, methyl green, viridine, aquamarine, phenosafranine, incandescent orange, scarlet-fever purple, cynic blue, tessellated bronze, hospital-fruit-basket orange." There was also a "new sculpture" movement in the sixties and seventies that relied on neon's electric glow. Artists sometimes made pictures with the tubes and sometimes frankly spelled out aphorisms or platitudes the way signs used to advertise beer. Neon, surprisingly, figures strongly in country music, part of the "honky-tonk" scene found in the city. A startling reflection: "There are two genres of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in which neon has really prospered: one is light art, the other is country music." 




This sort of synthesis is what Ribbat is good at, calling on connections from Kraftwerk, Simon and Garfunkel, Nabokov, Chinatowns, Blade Runner, and much more. His chapters are essays on different aspects of the subject, with good illustrations (of which, of course, there ought to be more). Ribbat clearly shares the sentiments of neon fans, such as those in Queens who saved a huge 1936 Pepsi sign when it was dismantled in 2004. They lobbied successfully to have it put on top of a nearby apartment building, just because the glow of the neon meant something to them. Reading the essays here, teasing out all sorts of layers of meaning, that isn't at all surprising. 




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