Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
If I asked you to name the most common use of the element neon, your first guess would probably be correct: neon signs. I chose to write about neon because I wanted to write about these signs.
See, I come from something of a sign dynasty. On my mother’s side, my grandparents are the children of two sign makers who owned businesses in Grand Rapids, MI and maintained a genuinely tense rivalry. That means that my grandparents are something like the Romeo and Juliet of the greater Grand Rapids area sign industry.
I don’t often give much thought to signage, but my grandfather does. After his father retired, he took up his sign shop, and though it was eventually sold, he has continued to work in the sign industry up to this day. So, I began my research for this essay with a call home.
According to my grandfather, neon signs became popular in the first half of the twentieth century—around 1930 or so. In 1910 (about ten years after the element itself was discovered), the scientist Georges Claude discovered how to use electricity to activate neon gas in tubes, effectively creating the first neon light. Within twenty years or so, neon became an immensely popular way to illuminate all kinds of commercial signs both in Europe and the U.S. Sometime in the 1950s, though, its popularity waned as fluorescent lights (which, actually, still use some neon) were introduced. Neon stayed around until its popularity took another hit when light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs became widely accessible. Most corner stores, restaurants, gas stations, you name it, have LED signs in their windows these days.
Now, neon signs evoke a certain kind of “vintage,” or “old-school” feeling. This is ironic because its name literally means “new”—drawing from the Greek neos.
After neon was discovered, it took just a few decades to harness its chief use: luminescence. Ever since then, its most famous and important characteristic has mostly been fading from relevance.
According to my grandfather, though, neon signs have enjoyed a small renaissance in the last twenty years. Based on my experience alone, this was no surprise to learn. In Philadelphia, where I live, aside from the old neon signs of dilapidated businesses, you can find boutiques and cafés and gyms with neon signs that say things like “Work Hard / Play Hard” or “Treat Yourself.” Signs like these channel a well-known vintage aesthetic into a discrete object and hang it glibly on a white wall, inviting young people to pose in front of it and “tag” their business on social media. It’s smart, actually. If signs were designed to get attention in the first place, how can Instagram-worthy signs that say things like “Rosé All Day” be anything but progress in the field?
Neon, the element named for the concept of novelty itself, is now hanging onto its public relevance by a thread of nostalgia. Personally, I like neon signs and I’d be sad to see them go. Aside from “Open” signs and lit-up beer insignias, most neon signs you see are unique creations. Each is handmade for a specific client with a specific aesthetic vision. But that’s also the reason they’re fading: they are labor-intensive and expensive.
Here’s hoping neon signs continue to hang from storefronts for years to come. If not for novelty’s sake, then nostalgia will do.
A few nights ago, I rode my bike around South Philadelphia to take in the neon glow. Enjoy some of the highlights below.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.