Stop for a moment and consider the tube benders. That’s what I try to do whenever I look at a particularly striking neon sign. I try to think about the benders who painstakingly curved each piece of glass by hand to produce these cross-sections of craftsmanship, art, and commerce. They may not have come up with the design or artwork for each sign, but they’re the ones ultimately responsible for bringing them to life. I imagine them checking their work one last time looking for flaws. Finally flipping the switch and seeing their luminous creations flicker into being, their faces awash in a reflected amber glow of satisfaction.
There’s just something about neon signs that strikes me. Of course the vibrant colors and whimsical designs are designed to draw you in, but it’s more than that. In certain areas neon perseveres like a brash uncle who refuses to leave the table at Thanksgiving. Neon rose to prominence in the 1930’s-1940’s but then crashed and started to disappear in the latter part of the 20th century as it came to represent seediness and over-commercialization. There is currently a small resurgence in neon’s popularity mostly due to its appeal as an object of nostalgia, but there are enclaves where it never went away at all.
The beach town of Wildwood New Jersey is one of those places. Wildwood tries to cling to its doo-wop 1950s past as hard as it can. But it’s more difficult to maintain that visage with every passing year when you’re more likely to find a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk staffed by Eastern European summer hires than a soda fountain manned by a kid in a paper hat.
But as you drive up and down the strip next to the beach, you can still find one motel after another with brightly colored alternating room doors. You feel as though Doris Day might just walk out of one of them if you watch long enough. Almost every one of these post-war style resorts boasts an elaborate neon sign to punctuate their anachronistic take on the modern family vacation. Each one a thing of beauty. In fact, there are so many of them, when you run across a more modern backlit sign it looks out of place.
The whole town seems to embrace neon as part of its culture. It’s not just the hotels and motels that are adorned, but pizza parlors, fudge kitchens, and even national and regional corporations like McDonald’s and WaWa sport the signs as well. There’s a healthy mix of vintage and newly-constructed neon signs all along this seaside strip.
So what is it about the neon? What does it even represent for those of us who were born long after its hey-day? For myself, I can’t say for sure. I am fond of the idea that someone is trying to preserve cultural items that are vibrant bookmarks for the happiest days of people’s summers gone by. I like to think that’s what the tube benders had in mind as well. Their meticulously crafted gas-filled glass tubes are the lifelong nightlights for vacationers’ memories.
If you’re interested in the history of neon signs I would highly recommend the podcast “Tube Benders” by 99% Invisible as a good jumping off point. If you’re interested in great podcasts 99% Invisible is a pretty safe bet in general.