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Neon owned the Night

Human beings used to look at the world with their eyes open before evolution. People contemplated maple trees, church steeples, and clouds in the countryside. They gazed at neon in cities — it was everything.

Neon signs were an American symbol of both glamour and depravity, as well as hope and despair, between the 1930s to the 1970s. How many starstruck geniuses have looked up at Broadway’s bright lights in movies? How many poor characters have checked into a seedy hotel only to find a broken sign outside?

“I love the chaos of a street filled with different lights,” Anna Castellani (managing partner at DeKalb Market Hall), said to The Times during a neon revival in 2017. You feel like you are in the city.”

That light’s audacity has always been a unique urban characteristic. In the neon wilderness, it’s either glow big or go home.

William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, was working with Morris Travers in 1898 when he discovered an inert gas. He named it “neon” after the Greek term for “new”. However, it didn’t occur to him to sell beer or theater tickets using his discovery. Georges Claude, a French inventor, saw a new industry. In December 1910, Mr. Claude presented a neon light at Paris Motor Show. He then went on to make many signs for clients.

New York was vibrant with color by the 1930s. Times Square was an immense flame towards which many moths flew. “Visitors also arrive in New York to see the nightly Vesuvius-like eruption of light,” Richard F. Shepard wrote for The Times many decades later. They may go to the movies, bars, and theaters. Or they may just walk along 42nd Street, taking in the show from a distance.

Although neon is often associated with spectacle and size, it is also a craftsman’s medium. Glass tubes are heated so they can be shaped. They are then filled with gas which glows when electrified. Different gases (neon, argon, mercury, helium, etc.) Different gases produce different colors giving sign-makers a variety of options.

In New York’s golden age of neon, people wanted to eat Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and smoke Camels. They also wanted to wear a tuxedo to get a Maxwell House cup of coffee, which was poured by a butler who was also wearing a suit. Although Las Vegas wasn’t ready to embrace neon until after World War II ended, it made up for its shortcomings quickly.

The greatest selling point of Neon — its ability to shout louder than any other — made it look a little desperate and tacky. The signs were associated with dangers and temptations as the 20th century progressed. Perhaps you should avoid anything that is threatening your safety. Some towns adopted anti-neon ordinances in the 1960s after Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, encouraged the “beautification of the nation”. Further threatening to neon was the low cost of backlit plastic signs.

The Times published on January 4, 1966. It was a kind of obituary for a neon Camel billboard, which had been blowing smoke rings at Broadway 44th Street and Broadway since 1941. It read, “I’d walk a mile just for a Camel.” Is it possible to grieve the passing of a cigarette advertisement? Because everything on the billboard was reminiscent of an earlier era, it was. This was the era when neon was still king. It also was a time when you could not walk a mile if you were so dependent on Camels. Douglas Leigh, the original owner of the sign, stated that he rented it out to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company at a monthly cost of about $10,000. He told The Times, “It breaks my heart to lose this one.” It was a long-standing tradition. It was a tradition that people went to great lengths to see.

This is how neon worked. It burned brightly, even though it was hot.

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