Vegas Vic, an icon of the Las Vegas strip. Jan. 19, 1985. Credit Scott Henry for The New York Times
By Jeff Giles
Before evolution hit a snag, and we reverted to slouching and staring at our phones, human beings walked with their eyes up, looking at things. In the countryside, people contemplated church steeples, maple trees, clouds. In cities, they gaped at neon — and it was everything.
Between the 1930s and the 1970s, neon signs were a potent American symbol for both glamour and depravity, hope and desolation. In movies, how many star-struck ingénues have gazed up at the bright lights of Broadway? How many down-and-out characters have checked into a seedy hotel and found a malfunctioning sign buzzing like a bug-zapper outside their window?
“I love the chaotic nature of a street full of different lights,” Anna Castellani, managing partner of DeKalb Market Hall, told The Times in 2017 during a neon revival. “You feel like you’re in the city.”
Something about the audacity of that light has always seemed uniquely urban. It’s glow big or go home in the neon wilderness.
In 1898, the Scottish chemist William Ramsay was collaborating with an English colleague, Morris Travers, when he discovered an inert gas, naming it “neon” after the Greek word for “new.” He went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work, though it did not occur to him to use his discovery to sell theater tickets or beer. It was the French inventor Georges Claude who sensed a new industry in the offing. Mr. Claude unveiled a neon light at the Paris Motor Show in December 1910, and went on to create all manner of signs for clients.
By the 1930s, New York was ablaze with color, and Times Square was an enormous flame toward which countless moths fluttered. “Visitors, too, arrive in New York to witness the nightly Vesuvius-like eruption of light,” Richard F. Shepard wrote in The Times decades later. “They may patronize the theaters, movie houses, restaurants and bars, or they may not, being content merely to walk between 42nd and 47th Streets taking in the brilliant show only a tilt of the head above them.”
Though it’s often associated with size and spectacle, neon is a craftsman’s medium: Glass tubes are warmed so that they can be shaped by glassblowers. Later, they’re filled with gas, which glows when electrified. Different gases (neon, argon, mercury, helium, etc.) produce different colors, giving sign-makers a palette to choose from.
During its heyday in New York, neon signage made people long to chew Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, to smoke Camels, to put on a tuxedo and have a cup of Maxwell House coffee poured for them by a butler who was also wearing a tuxedo. Las Vegas didn’t fully embrace neon until after World War II, but made up for lost time quickly: Nobody had to tell them not to be subtle.