Here’s something most people don’t think about every day: the history of neon signs. But history is everywhere, and neon signs, it turns out, have some good stories to tell.
In 2018, Mass Humanities supported an exhibition of eight historic neon road signs of Massachusetts businesses, ranging from 1927-1970, along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Called GLOW, the installation asked viewers to consider the “particular magic” of neon, and to get to know the stories and the people behind the signs, all of which had been landmarks in their neighborhoods.
Neon was introduced to the U.S. from Paris in the 1920s. (The term “neon” is a bit of a misnomer, as the name refers to only one of the noble gases used in neon lights, the others including argon, helium and krypton.) Neon’s distinctive, colorful glow, the ease with which its displays could be customized, and its relatively affordable running costs gave it special appeal to advertisers and businesses. The first clients were theaters and large corporations, which distributed small signs like the GE Radio sign as well as large-scale animated mural “spectaculars” like Boston’s beloved CITGO sign.
Neon experienced a golden age after World War II with the spread of the car: small business owners used it to advertise diners, motels and other roadside businesses, brightly. These glittering, creative signs were in some ways more memorable than the ordinary buildings next to which they flashed and blinked.1
Neon signs have much history to relate. GLOW’s signs included one of Boston’s longest running Italian restaurants; an auto shop founded by a Lithuanian immigrant; Bill’s Radio, which served the Roxbury community before, during, and after waves of African Americans migrated to the neighborhood from the South during the 1940’s and 50’s; and State Line Potato Chips. The Wilbraham-based company’s name refers to its origins in Enfield, Connecticut; according to company lore, the first State Line chips were fried up in a family-run kitchen on a property that straddled the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line. Production was scaled up when Abraham Katz opened the Wilbraham factory in 1927, which became a reliable source of employment in the growing agricultural and industrial town.2
Taken together, the signs are part of Massachusetts’ creative history and a legacy of the Bay State’s entrepreneurial history.
The GLOW exhibit itself was a success, with the project successfully engaging over 350 children from low-income households, who participated in the Greenway’s Youth Adventure Days field trip program, and stationing Art Ambassadors at the neon signs to answer questions and start conversations. The public engaged with the works in numerous ways, including photo classes using the signs as subject matter; fitness classes taking place in the exhibition space; and visitors sharing photos and impressions of the exhibit widely on social media.
We encourage you to visit the Greenway’s GLOW web pages to read up on all eight signs and their place in Massachusetts history.
- From “Neon Signs in Massachusetts, 1925-70” by Victoria Solan, Rose Kennedy Greenway website. https://www.rosekennedygreenway.org/public-art/currently-greenway/glow/
- From “State Line Potato Chips,” Rose Kennedy Greenway website. https://www.rosekennedygreenway.org/public-art/currently-greenway/glow/state-line-potato-ships/