Neon was a special moment in a long history of human illumination. Central Boston has been lit by various forms of artificial light since pairs of night watchmen began patrolling city streets in 1635, swinging lanterns from hand-held poles. Oil-lit street lamps were installed in Boston in 1773, spreading light through the most-populated sections of the town. Well-lit public spaces are a prerequisite for safety, prosperity and social life. The spread of municipal lighting in Massachusetts fundamentally changed the relationship between night and day, allowing people to work longer hours and navigate greater distances in the dark. Beer gardens and restaurants, lit with bright new gas fixtures, heralded the arrival of a genuine nightlife in the nineteenth century. Restaurants blossomed across town, and ordinary people expanded the number of hours they spent outside the walls of their homes. The turn of the twentieth century marked the spread of electric light through the metropolitan area, creating the comfortable environment familiar to us today. Most of us take the different types of light available for granted, pausing perhaps for candles, but otherwise not noticing the different types of light in operation. Incandescent bulbs, fluorescent tubes, halogen lamps, xenon headlights, and the light-emitting diodes each have their own characteristics and best uses.
Neon light, which was introduced to the United States from Paris in the 1920s, has a particular magic. The term “neon” is a bit of a misnomer, as the name refers only to one of the noble gases used in neon lights. (The other gases include argon, helium and krypton). Neon’s distinctive, colorful glow, the ease with which its displays can be customized, as well as its relatively affordable running costs, gave it a special appeal to advertisers. The first clients for neon signs in the United States included theaters, which had already pioneered mass electric publicity with flashing incandescent bulbs, and large corporations. It was corporate clients who distributed small signs like the GE Radio sign, as well as large-scale animated mural “spectaculars,” like Boston’s much-beloved CITGO sign. Neon lighting was a popular investment for merchants during the Great Depression, who used the bright, inexpensive tubing to update their storefronts and attract hard-to-come-by customers.
After World War II, neon experienced a kind of golden age. As large corporations embraced the low shipping costs and ease of distribution offered by standardized backlit-acrylic signs, neon signage became a niche opportunity for small business owners. Both the clients and the fabricators of these postwar signs tended to be small-scale entrepreneurs, often seeking to advertise diners, motels and other roadside businesses. The design of a neon sign in the 1950s might typically have been drawn by a business owner, copied from a trade booklet, or created by a local sign-maker. For small business owners, neon’s relative affordability, as well as its ease of fabrication, meant that they could advertise their offerings on a scale suited to the increasingly automotive landscape of the postwar era.
All of the signs you see in GLOW became landmarks in their neighborhoods and towns. Most were illuminated for decades, some for the full length of time that the company was in business. In a postwar landscape increasingly dominated by the automobile, highways and homogenous corporate architecture, handmade neon signs like the most of the signs on display here became distinctive landmarks. These glittering, creative neon signs were in some ways more memorable than ways than the ordinary buildings next to which they flashed, flapped and blinked. Neon signage may not have been an art form, but it was - and still is - a form of creative expression. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, neon sign-making requires an unusual fusion of craftsmanship, scientific expertise, and graphic design talent. Each of the signs in GLOW is evidence this unique blend of skills on the part of its fabricator. Viewed together, the signs are part of Massachusetts’ graphic and creative history as well as a legacy of the Bay State’s history of entrepreneurship.
In placing these signs together on a park in central Boston, the Greenway Conservancy is inviting you to consider new ways of interpreting these signs; and contemporary ways of thinking about how neon light can work as a catalyst for engaging with and in public space. Some visitors may remember one or more of these signs as favorite food destination, place of employment, or simply a bright, flashing landmark on a well-travelled route. If you are new to Massachusetts, or just visiting Boston, these signs are evidence of the small businesses which flourished here. By bringing together signs from different locations in Massachusetts, this exhibition offers a brief tour of a much larger state. By placing these signs in close proximity with each other, the Greenway is creating a new geography of light, inviting you to consider how the presence or absence of light can define a space, how particular kinds of light can encourage us to come together, how light can create open, inclusive spaces for dialogue about technology, creativity, and the shared heritage of our built environment.
The signs in this exhibition are drawn from the collection of Dave and Lynn Waller, who have devoted significant time and energy to preserving and documenting Massachusetts’ neon past. The Greenway Conservancy would like to thank Dave and Lynn Waller for their generosity in lending these signs to GLOW.
The signs will be illuminated from 8am-10pm daily.
- Victoria Solan, Architectural Historian and Consultant Historian, GLOW Exhibition.