If a good sign is worth more than its weight in canvas, plastic, fiberglass, cardboard, or whatever material helped birth it, a good old sign earns even more accolades, as multiplied by the number of years it has done its job. (Weight of the material multiplied by its age?) The perseverance of a good sign seems like an obscure or glib subject, but really, it’s simple enough that a cliché applies quite nicely: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve written about noticeably old signs in the past. The fact is, if a sign conveys its message effectively and has not deteriorated (which, to an extent, will usually preclude it from conveying its message effectively), there’s no justification for repairing or replacing it. In fact, a particularly old sign is not just a tacit signal of the sign’s effectiveness, it’s also a reminder that whatever the sign is signifying has been around awhile. For a locally run business, that’s a marvelous indicator that the business is successful.
(One disclaimer: I’ll concede that an old sign may also indicate the stinginess of the proprietors, and their tightfisted approach—up to and including not repairing or replacing the sign—may be the primary reason the business has survived. But miserly proprietors who manage a poorly run establishment will still inevitably fail, in due time.)
My testament to good signage usually speaks for itself if the sign is big and brazen when bathed in natural light. But what if the success of a sign’s message has little to do with the sign itself—if the sign is merely the platform upon which the true signifier stands? If it seems like, once and for all, I really am being obscure, maybe now’s the time to unveil a photographic example:
Yes, it’s a great vintage neon sign. My use of the adjective “great” here no doubt reveals my own chauvinism to an extent. But it would be hard for anyone to deny the powerful impression this massive chevron conveys, promoting the Turf Motel in the far eastern panhandle municipality of Charles Town, West Virginia (not, to be confused with the state’s centrally located capital of Charleston). Step backwards one hundred feet and it’s obvious what I mean:
It’s not just that the Turf Motel is a local indie adrift in a sea of mass-market, corporate, fast-food predictability. (Though that’s definitely worth something.) In 2021, the Turf Motel embodies an anomalous type of luminescence. We just don’t see much neon anymore, and when we do, chances are it’s a remnant from a bygone era, much like the Turf Motel. Though scientists and inventors pioneered the containment of rarefied neon in glass tubes (first Geissler tubes, then Moore tubes) at the turn of the 20th century, electrifying it to elicit the telltale orange glow, its popularization only became feasible after French inventor Georges Claude found an easy method of extracting large amounts of purified neon, as part of his air liquefaction business. Even then, the installation of electrodes at either end of a neon-filled, pressurized glass tube produced one color: striking though that red-orange may be, it’s somewhat harsh and limiting as an expressive tool on its own. But the combination of other gasses within the tube—helium, mercury, carbon dioxide, argon—allowed a full spectrum of colors. By the 1920s, the deployment of neon to help accent promotional signage caught on like the Charleston (the dance, not the WV capital), especially in the United States.
The difficult, painstaking process of heating and cooling the thin, delicate glass tubes to bend into various shapes—up to and including cursive lettering—all while maintaining the internal vacuum to trap the neon and other gasses, resulted in unusually high upfront costs for this stylized promotional tactic. But neon lighting, if executed correctly, has an inordinately long life span. As the precursor to modern domestic fluorescent lighting, neon accents on a sign could easily last half a century. And so they did. Although manufacturing of pressurized neon tubes declined during World War II, the endurability and popularity of the signage continued well into the late 1960s. The low maintenance costs ensured that neon lighting offered the perfect blend of ostentation and economy—more bang for less buck. New York City’s Times Square in particular achieved fame the world over for the dazzling and increasingly colorful display of text and images depicted through one neon formation after another. Las Vegas, founded as a city in the year 1905, essentially came of age amidst a latticework of neon, often carefully timed in intervals to give the appearance of animation—a feat that, when perceived from he comfort of an automobile (ideally with air condition) achieved much the same spectacle as meandering the streets of Times Square.
For all its utility, however, neon lighting always straddled the aesthetic line between innovation and fad. Ubiquitous as it may have been at the middle of the previous century, it didn’t achieve a widespread domestic purpose—a stark contrast from fluorescent lighting, which first emerged in the mid-1920s but only reached mass-market when plastic ascended as a viable, more durable proxy for the expensive glass tubes. By that point in the 1960s, fluorescent lighting proved both longer-lasting, more luminescent, and easier to mold into functionality in homes and (especially) commercial office buildings. Neon, by this point, had lost its novelty, so the vast majority of businesses simply decommissioned their neon signs (or at least the neon components within their signs) by the time the noble gases trapped within them had depleted. Amidst the energy crises of the 1970s and 80s, fluorescent lighting simply proved more efficient, if less expressive. Those businesses that survived the ensuing decades most likely retained the signs as long as they remained functional, but the aggregate amount of neon signage distributed across urbanized America has been in steady decline ever since: vague memories of growing up in the 1980s and 90s includes road trips where neon signage wasn’t quite the anomaly that it is today. Twenty years ago, the Turf Motel may have competed with a neighboring inn that offered a similarly big sign with smart neon lighting.
Perhaps even more indicative of how this technological marvel has receded into public consciousness as little more than a kitschy marketing gimmick, the Turf Hotel sign only earns its wonderment through size and rarity. It’s not particularly intricate or elaborate and certainly not all that colorful. The lack of color differentiation is particularly significant, because, during the peak of the neon era, the artists and advertisers had a palette of about two dozen colors; today nearly one hundred options exist. Yet the Turf Hotel’s sign is extremely limited: while it’s possible the unlit portions at the bottom offer additional colors, the palette seems reduced to red, green, and white—the Italian (or Hungarian) flag. And that’s not the only example in Charles Town. Continue on Washington Street (WV-51), the main drag into the heart of the small city, and another neon sign emerges with a similar aesthetic language.
There it is in the distance, on the left side of the street (the other green-hued lighting is a trick of my camera—it was much whiter in real life.)
Again, primarily red and green, though the “SAVE MORE HERE” seems to use blue lettering (the color which seems to be deteriorating the fastest). And then there’s the text at the very top.
It’s hard to know what colors the proprietor intends to display, but clearly they aren’t functional at the moment. And, chances are, since the scalene hexagon intends to represent a diamond, chances are the unlit neon is neither red nor green.
Red and green, red and green—are these the two colors most representative of the surviving vestiges of neon lighting in advertising? Even the more banal uses—the type that remain fairly common today—seem to embrace this color pairing above all others. Returning to the Turf Motel and pivoting slightly, a smaller sign within the window of a ubiquitous carryout pizza chain gives us something similar:
Across most (perhaps all) of America, the pairing of these colors first and foremost signifies a certain wintry holiday. But clearly that’s not the intent on any of these signs, nor does Christmas really come to mind despite the customary association. Red and green could be popular because they are the complementary within the color wheel—they starkly contrast one another, so both are equally visible in a way that, for example, yellow and orange or red and violet would not be. Furthermore, as part of a broader color scheme, they each carry their own implications: green is cool, typically means go or something positive; red is warm, typically inhibits or implies something negative. But none of these have any significance when it comes to the chemistry behind Moore tubes and neon lighting in general. After digging around a bit further, the closest reasoning I can determine is that, comparatively, red and green are easy colors to procure: the orange-red glow is the default color for neon (it requires no containment of any further inert gases), while green, which neon artists usually attain using either argon and mercury or internal phosphor coatings, tends to be among the most efficient, yielding six times the lumens per watt as standard neon red.
None of these finer points saved neon lighting from slipping from the mainstream. But they might explain why those intermittent holes-in-the-wall like Turf Motel, which still deploy neon lighting, seem disproportionately dependent on two particular colors. Truth be told, the wow factor for the Turf Motel sign may be greater today than it was in 1970, an era when numerous other nearby neon signs were grander, more elaborate, and much more colorful. The obsolescence of neon lighting during the oil crisis decades almost guaranteed two phenomena: A) a mild resurgence of an art form born out of nostalgia when extinction looms, and B) a collective effort to salvage what remains, either through public initiative (often led by historic preservationists) or even the free market’s judgment that these increasingly rare signs still have value.
The former (Phenomenon A) played itself out in the late 1980s. In an era of boldly colored shapes and splotches and squiggles, when pop-culture templates routinely mimicked the paintings of Kandinsky or Pollack, when In Living Color dominated primetime comedy, neon lights underwent a resurgence. This revival primarily domesticated the neon formerly on display in storefront windows or large signs, turning it into a novelty feature to accent an old beer advertisement hung on the wall of the basement bar or man cave. (It also enjoyed a slightly longer resurgence among conceptual artists and their revered installations, whether at MoMA or Michael Hayden’s famed 1987 Sky’s the Limit walkway at O’Hare International Airport.) Needless to say, the revival was short-lived: through great at attracting attention, neon doesn’t serve any real illuminative purpose that isn’t better served by either incandescent or fluorescent lighting. Its appeal was about as gimmicky as a black light.
It didn’t help that yet another innovation demonstrated greater versatility—namely, light emitting diodes (LEDs), which gradually achieved public acceptance, decades after two engineers at Texas Instruments first patented the semiconductors in 1962. Cheaper to manufacture, more durable, more compact, and more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent lighting, LEDs also seem capable of mimicking the aesthetic results of neon, by inserting a concatenation of diodes in a transparent protected sheath. Returning to Charles Town, an example of what I’m almost certain to be LED accents stands directly across the street from the Turf Motel.
The camera doesn’t entirely capture it, but the cool white trim on this converted home’s second floor almost certainly comprises a string of LEDs. And here’s a conventional storefront sign in Charles Town, using the strategic location of individual diodes to form shapes and Roman letters. It’s a sign we’ve all seen a million times over.
The second phenomenon (Phenomenon B) involves more social science than natural science, and a keen observer of my photos may have already picked up on it. The reality is that the Turf Motel only still exists through that bold neon lighting as a reminder. Take a closer look.
Smack in the middle of the chevron, using blue (or maybe white?) neon lettering, is a reference to Rodeway Inn and Suites, a budget inn within the Choice Hotels family. The Turf Hotel is no more. It managed to linger well past its prime—at least up to November 2015—but it appears the national chain purchased the mom-and-pop and made minimal changes, least of all that big bold sign, to which they even spent the extra money for some post-modern neon filigree work to promote the Rodeway brand.
What does this signify? The corporate leadership at Choice recognized that a big red-and-green neon sign—even one that is probably merely average looking by 1955 standards—is a sufficiently distinctive landmark amidst the middlebrow suburban chains that it merits preservation. It didn’t need a bunch of Mid-Century Modern or Googie enthusiasts to petition the Charles Town government to save it when hotel ownership changed hands. The new owners took on the responsibility themselves. And they signaled to all passers-by that the Turf Motel has been around since the space age. God willing, it’ll prosper long after the close of the information age. Because what other baubles, bangles, and beads can we expect will catch the eye in another quarter-century? Holograms? Nah—too retro.