Neon

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Up to the beginning of World War II the demand for neon seemed likely to keep growing forever. But display artists like Leigh were too few to prevent the spread of poorly designed signs. Neon’s more affluent patrons, the large corporations, gradually withdrew their support as the medium started to detract from their public images. Smaller companies and stores could afford only the simplest of designs, and neon shops began to emphasize efficiency of production over good design.

As economy became increasingly important to the industry, maintenance began to suffer. Many street signs barely functioned, their units dim or sputtering. Eventually, some communities began passing ordinances restricting neon’s use.

Following the war, plastic- and fluorescent-lamp manufacturers started promoting plexiglass shadow boxes that held fluorescent lights behind lettering and graphics. Bypassing the electric-sign industry and selling directly to the customer, these manufacturers dealt an all but fatal blow to neon in the 1950’s. Stores with bland plexiglass fronts proliferated while neon was disparaged as crude and old fashioned.

 

Today, although clear tubing is still easily available, tinted glass becomes harder and harder to find. Several decades ago there were thirty colors to choose from; now there are scarcely fifteen. Ruby red, midnight blue, noviol gold, uranium green, and airplane green have disappeared from American production. Even in Las Vegas there are only two companies left that make tubing, and less than five per cent of their total sales is in neon. But the most significant loss has been in skilled craftsmen. The average glass bender today is over fifty, and few young people are taking up the art. In New York City, where there once were four hundred people bending glass, there are now about a dozen.

But whatever the future of neon sign making may be, the surviving examples are remarkably durable. A neon tube can live for forty years before it needs repumping, and then it’s good for another forty. So all across the country, old neon signs still throw their bright messages out into the night. Time, sleet, and general neglect may crack and darken parts of the lettering into what one novelist called “agreeable nonsense,” but the familiar images remain—the blue and red shoe, the fat green fish, the yellow cocktail glass. And as the examples on these pages attest, they are true examples of American folk art, crisp, precise, and vigorous.