Decades before Hillary Clinton chaired a health care task force and Nancy Reagan urged new drug enforcement laws, Lady Bird Johnson declared war on neon lights. Specifically, she fought for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, lamenting what she called “endless corridors walled in by neon, junk, and ruined landscape.”
Today, neon signs may not seem like a first-lady-worthy scourge. After all, every city-dwelling North American can probably think of a beloved neon landmark, from Boston’s CITGO sign (which was replaced by LED lights in 2005) to the smiling pink pachyderm advertising Seattle’s Elephant Car Wash. At the time, though, Lady Bird Johnson was not alone in her views: Even before their exuberant heyday in the 1920s and ’30s came to an end, neon lights had become, for some, “emblematic of the decline of Western civilization,” observes Christoph Ribbat.
Ribbat is a professor of American studies at Germany’s University of Paderborn, and his writing is larded with irrelevant detail—“A long-term study shows that 75 per cent of successful country songs between 1960 and 1987 were love songs”—and sometimes baffling. On the other hand, he’s done a prodigious amount of research. Flickering Light details the history of neon as a medium for advertising and art, beginning with the British chemist William Ramsay’s discovery of the noble gas in 1898. Twelve years later, a French engineer, Georges Claude, demonstrated the first neon lights, made with electrified glass tubes.
More than a primer on the practical uses of neon lighting over the years, though, this is also a history of neon as a metaphor, generally for either excitement or anxiety about modern times. To this end, Ribbat has scoured the annals of pop culture to deliver what is surely the most exhaustive list of song, album, and book titles that use the word “neon,” from the novels The Neon Jungle (1984) and The Neon Bible (1989), by John D. MacDonald and John Kennedy Toole respectively, to Kraftwerk’s “Neonlicht” and XTC’S “Neon Shuffle.” Country music, which has given the world a “Neon Moon” and “Neon Women,” seems to have a particular predilection for neon symbolism. Ribbat’s faithful recording of such minutiae builds into a story about how popular perceptions can change.
Nelson Algren, author of the 1947 short story collection The Neon Wilderness, was among those who saw something sinister in the glow. Ribbat writes that, to Algren, neon served “as a dramatic metaphor underlining the struggle for survival in the urban jungle of Chicago.” Algren’s first book, Somebody in Boots (1935), called the light show at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, which used more than 20,000 meters (65,617 feet) of neon tubes, a “zigzag riot of fakery.” He situates his cast of down-and-outers below a red, white, and blue neon sign that reads, “A CENTURY OF PROMISE BIGGER AND BETTER THAN EVER.”
Later, a parade of writers would seize on the neon lights of Las Vegas to deplore the city. In their 1955 Las Vegas: Playtown USA, Katharine Best and Katharine Hillyer singled out racism and segregation in the desert metropolis, which they described as “a totally neonized society.” Inevitably, a French philosopher would weigh in: In Zeropolis (2004), Bruce Bégout describes the giant neon cowgirl Vegas Vickie, who tops the sign for the Glitter Gulch strip club, as a “celestial and mechanical whore.”
Any technology as maligned as neon lights will, of course, soon acquire contrarian enthusiasts. In 1972, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour published Learning from Las Vegas, in which they compare the Young Electric Sign Company, a prolific builder of Sin City façades, to the 17th-century painting “factory” of Peter Paul Rubens. Tom Wolfe, naturally, is a neon lover, and he did literary justice to the flashing lights in a 1960s essay that describes their colors as “tangerine, broiling magenta, livid pink, incarnadine, fuchsia demure, Congo ruby, methyl green, viridine, aquamarine, phenosafranine . . . scarlet-fever purple, cyanic blue, tessellated bronze, hospital-fruit-basket orange.”
These days, the most creative and lasting neon billboards have become objects of nostalgia. There is now a Neon Museum in Las Vegas, and cities across the United States have seen neon-sign preservation campaigns. In 2004, when PepsiCo began to dismantle a 147-foot-long cursive neon Pepsi-Cola sign, which had shone over New York’s East River since 1936 (in a color you might call Congo ruby), citizens’ protests prompted the company to reverse course. More recently, the builders of a new apartment tower next to the sign set back the lower eight floors in deference to it. Once a symbol of the future, then of despair, the neon sign is now a retro icon.
If there’s a lesson here, it may be that we should think twice before condemning every newfangled, distracting, mesmerizing thing. Ribbat notes that, even before neon, urban lighting was controversial. Once invested with the kind of ominous significance that professional worriers would later devote to rock ’n’ roll, fast food, and sundry fashion trends, neon lights turned out to be no more and no less than decoration. Their failure to bring about the collapse of civilization is proof that ugly never killed anyone, and that if you let it hang around long enough, it won’t even be ugly. Sometimes a sign is just a sign.
Elisabeth Eaves is the author, most recently, of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents.