Dydia DeLyser* - Louisiana State University
The neon-sign industry in the US developed in the twentieth century facilitated by automobile travel and tourism. Different from Europe, where neon remained a large-metropolitan and broad-avenue phenomenon, in the US neon signs illuminated both larger and smaller streets. With wide Main streets the norm, and with smaller towns desiring the cosmopolitan looks of their larger neighbors, neon spread to smaller places until the signs could be found in tiny hamlets and along lonely highways, serving as beacons to faster-and-faster moving tourists and locals alike. Because illuminated signage, particularly the continuous illumination of words with neon, offered greater readability at greater speeds, neon signs were understood to best catch the gaze of the automobile-driving public. As automobiles grew in popularity and increased in speed, neon signs became the most popular way of reaching the larger and larger numbers of Americans traveling by car, until neon became linked to automobility itself. Though a few nation-wide companies made standardized signs and offered those for sale or for rent, most neon signs were made locally, by skilled artisans who custom-made signs for their local clientele. Thus, even as other technologies were automated and outsourced, neon remained a locally based handcraft industry, persevering in small shops across the US to serve an increasingly mobile American population. Though critics have disdained neon's electrification of the American landscape, the actual practices of making neon signs defy automation, de-skilling, and globalization. The paper shows how these illuminated representations, embodied practices, and mobile materialities shaped the American landscape.