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The End of the Road: Neon Signage and Nostalgia

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Jodi Woolsey Kolpakov

During my recent visit to Branson, Missouri I couldn’t help but notice all of the motels, bars, museums, and other attractions that populated the main strip. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many neon signs are still utilized as advertisements for these establishments. With their decline in popularity I had figured they would have been replaced by more modern signage by now; however, they are still standing strong. Why? Is it nostalgia? Is it aesthetic? Is it powerful neon sign lobbying?

Neon signage is the original American standard for advertisement.

It is everywhere. You are most likely to see a few neon signs situated along any major highway or city. Las Vegas is the perfect example; it’s neon characteristics are the epitome of night-life culture. All of the gleaming, flashing, and vibrant colored shapes and words draw you in every direction imaginable. It is almost overwhelming, yet it fills you with excitement. In contrast, we see neon in less flavorful places such as diners, motels, bars, and strip clubs, where we get a more negative connotation: tacky, flashy, and inappropriate aesthetic. Whether it’s good or bad, neon still has the same effect on us; it is legible and grabs our attention.

From movies to songs to roadside travel, neon signage has become one of the true American symbols. Over the years it has taken a journey from popularity to decline and is currently on the rise again. While it has always been with us, it makes us feel nostalgic. Why is that? While I may not have the answer, focusing on the neon’s emergence, advertising, souvenir elements and its comeback are just a few ideas to investigate.

Imagine never seeing a neon sign in your life and passing by to see this crazy blue light illuminating in the night sky. Just like you, everyone else would also stop and stare in amazement. Similarly this feeling may be the same as when you saw your first laser show as a kid. Pretty cool, huh?

Neon was first discovered in the late 19th century, but where did neon signage make its first grand appearance? The answer is Los Angeles in 1923. Earl C. Anthony commissioned it in order to advertise his new Packard dealership. Not only was this sign super expensive (two of the signs he ordered together had cost about $24,000 at the timewowzers!) but it also had to be shipped from Paris, France. The Packard company was short-lived however, going out of business in the late 1950s. This particular sign lived its life up until about the 1970s, when the building had been converted into a computer corporation.

Neon signs were first created as a means of advertising.

The technology behind them has been around for a long time; however, it has only been commercially used for only about a century. The “adoption” of neon signage began when automobiles became more accessible and U.S. major highways started to expand in the early 20th century. During the Great Depression it eventually reached more rural areas, where they became most prominent in association to places such as motels, diners, and bars. While creating neon signage was expensive, businesses justified the price calling them as a novelty that will help stay competitive in the industry.

The design of neon signage has contributed significantly to its attractiveness and popularity. Following World War II mid century modern and futurism design was on the rise. The Cold War followed shortly after, and as a result the fascination with space and nuclear technology became the key components that were integrated in its design. Much of the type and shapes were organic and less technical. By the 1970s this aesthetic started to become obsolete as it could not keep up with modern design, resulting in the start of its decline. Because this signage could not keep up it almost froze itself in time and became a historical icon.

In addition to cost, other technologies become the enemy of neon signs. Instead of relying on traffic, the shift to advertising through the internet has seemed to be much more effective as it can reach a wider audience in a shorter amount of time and across the globe.

Walk into any store in Las Vegas and you are most likely able to find a shirt with the famous landmark sign on it. Souvenirs are a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event, or preservation of a memory.

In Roland Barthes’ “The Eiffel Tower,” he makes the observation of how this large, Parisian structure is also deciphered in the form of a souvenir. Just like the Eiffel Tower, neon signs are memorable, and create a “little world” of [American] culture through collectables such as postcards, knick-knacks, T-shirts, and much more. The souvenir then becomes an ephemera that stays around for a long time.

Neon as souvenirs are not always depicted as a material object. According to Susan Sontag, we can also use “snapshots as souvenirs” in order to preserve the memory of neon signage. Photographs are a great way to keep a record of how these establishments have changed over the years while their quirky, vibrant mid century style signs have frozen in time.

An example of a physical souvenir would be an item like a statue or a crystal ball. These family friendly, average consumer-oriented knickknacks are there to remind you of that trip to Las Vegas, that weekend you spent in Times Square or a few days road trip along Route 66. Just like Coca-Cola, apple pie, and blue jeans, neon signage represents the culture of Americana. Due to its longevity this tool of attention capturing earned its spot among nostalgic icons of consumerism.

Imagine walking into your local Target. When breezing by the home decor aisles, you cannot help but notice all of the cute neon signage on the shelf. What’s even better? It appears to be super cheap. Why is that?

Yes, it is too good to be true: real neon signage is very expensive. Neon gas is rare and is difficult to obtain and work with. The creation of neon signage also takes a lot of time; sometimes it can take days, or even weeks to make. Because of this, neon’s popularity started declining in the 1970s when it began to be too expensive, along with the discovery of its harmful effects on health and the environment.

The “new” neon signs you see at places like Target aren’t real neon— but rather LED, which makes them much more efficient, less harmful, and cost friendly. While you may feel played, remember that you are actually helping others by purchasing LEDs. Sure, they may not last as long as real neon signs, but they cost a fraction of what it’s predecessor would. So display that little cactus neon sign with pride when you move into your college dorm next semester.

Due to these factors “faux” neon has also gained popularity in more places than ever: art galleries, wedding halls, and boutiques. These places are looking for a unique way to express themselves even if they are not always being used as an advertising tactic. It appears that they are bringing back the nostalgia and aesthetic of Americana culture, but in a modern way, whether they realize it or not.

So why has neon become nostalgic? It may be due to ever evolving advertisement strategies, high cost and mentioned environmental harm that turned it into a time capsule of technology from the past. This perfectly fits right into the dictionary definition of “nostalgia” (noun.

- A bittersweet yearning for the things of the past). Its beauty is a unique and mesmerizing form of advertising that once thrived across the United States. Much of real neon signage is no longer dominating the market as they once did, however, the comeback through LED is only proving that this aesthetic is still sought after by Americans. Even though we have moved on from them, they are still here for us (insert tear here).