The Everlasting Romance of Neon Illumination
For more than 100 years, neon signs have illuminated the downtown streets of London, Las Vegas, and London. But, is the neon sign in danger of going out?
New Yorkers are fighting for the preservation, with success, of a giant neon sign which has been visible over Brooklyn’s Ninth Street, advertising ‘Kentile Floors. The sign will be moved to another location as part of the redevelopment program. It isn’t about celebrating the products and history of a factory producing synthetic flooring, but rather the long-lasting love affair between neon lovers from all corners of the globe.
Ginia Bellafante stated in the New York Times: “The tiles made by Kentile Floors contained asbestos.” This caused years of litigation as plaintiffs claimed Kentile Floors was responsible for cancer cases and other dangerous diseases. Bellafante believes that the Brooklyn sign campaign is an extension of creative class prejudice against the workingman. This same sensibility has led to the creation of Carhartt jackets, Esso blouses, trucker caps, factory paraphernalia, and so on, among recent college graduates. These are the ultimate symbols of being denied the privilege.
Perhaps. Kentile Floors and the other venerable neon sign are attractive to many, regardless of their original purpose: they catch the eye like fireworks. They are an integral part of city life. They invoke the nostalgic worlds of 1930s bars, speakeasy eateries, and sensual nightclubs as well as the excitement of walking downtown. Petula Clark sang Downtown in 1964.
Listen to the city’s traffic.
One of London’s most popular neon signs promoted the bubbly energy drink Lucozade. It was there for many decades. People walked by it every day as they went into town via the elevated road that leads to Heathrow Airport. This cheerful sign featuring a bottle bursting sparkling golden bubbles into a cup of wine was created in 1954. However, the original message of “Lucozade Aids Recovery” was changed to “Lucozade Repels Lost Energy” in the 1980s. The building that it adorned was demolished 10 years later. After a six-year campaign by residents as well as other supporters, Gunnersbury Museum placed the sign and a replica was attached to the side of a nearby auto showroom. Margaret Hodge of Britain’s Culture Minister, said “There was no energy loss” in the campaign organized by residents.
Last year, JC Decaux – a sign and street furniture maker – announced plans to replace Lucozade’s replica with a digital monitor showing the bottle – so reminiscent of childhood for millions – mutating into the modern Lucozade sport drink. Lucozade had been acquired by Suntory in Japan. This may have been because they failed to appreciate the joy of nostalgia and neon.
While neon may be losing its appeal, LED installations and fast-moving digital displays have replaced it with neon lights on major roads around the world. The Piccadilly Circus LED neon sign which used to be a traditional sign, in London, commemorating Sanyo, a Japanese company, was taken down in 2011. But, Las Vegas’s Neon Museum has been busy organizing tours of Las Vegas’ incredible neon heritage for busloads. Hong Kong, another city that continues to evoke the appeal of neon signs, is also available.
Kings of neon
It all began in 1896. William Ramsay was a British chemist. He discovered that the gas is only 0.0018%. He used neon to charge electricity in a glass bottle. He said that it was like the Northern Lights. The bright neon light captivated all of his scientists.
Georges Claude (18th century) was a French engineer who became an entrepreneur. He displayed two 12m-long neon signs made of bright red neon at the Paris Motor Show. The public was spellbound. Claude’s Air Liquide (the company that brought Paris neon signs to life in the years before World War I) lit Paris with them. In 1919, when Europe had its lights back, he even lit Paris Opera’s entrance with neon. Four years later Claude sold a pair of neon signs in Los Angeles to Earl C Anthony Packard’s Packard shop. This was the start of many neon advertising signs, including Kentile Floors that would light up the United States from coast to shore over the next decade.
In the Roaring Twenties, neon signs made the Depression more bearable. Hollywood, Times Square, countless cheerful, cheap cinemas, family dinners, and Times Square: neon signs were always very jolly. The signs were also an art form by themselves, each one is handcrafted. The artistry that could be created with different gases and colors was unmistakable. While neon is bright red, argon gas offers violet light and helium pink. Krypton silvery, krypton pale, and krypton yellow are all available. Even though neon has fallen out of favor among advertisers, today it is very much in demand by artists, such as Tracey Emine, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman.
These neon signs will forever be linked to 1930s Las Vegas or Shanghai. Their first sign was a 1926 sign that Royal Typewriters had made on Nanjing East Road. They shined in classic films like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner of 1992, on album covers including John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll 1977, and also lighting – in bands of white – Hong Kong’s origamilike Bank of China that was created by I M Pei, an American-Chinese architect.
In the 1960s, neon signs for sale were synonymous with the poorest areas of the cities. These areas have been redeveloped, and have returned to a more comfortable and financially profitable lifestyle since the 1990s. Backstreet dives, sex shops, and hostess bars were the darkest corners of the city. You can see the old signs pointing to an industrial world of wheel alignment, synthetic flooring tiles, and automobile parts high up.
Even though LED and fluorescent lighting is cheaper than neon, LED Neon Sign is still a popular choice for lighting. It has been able to shine into the 21st Century despite its economic disadvantages. Many residents want to see signs for Kentile Floors and Lucozade lit up, as well as whole cities like Hong Kong. Neon will always be the name of ‘downtown,’ a bright and emotionally-uplifting firework that is immensely popular.