Dydia DeLyser’s research seeks to reveal how historic artifacts can create community. Her current work—the subject of two books—investigates how neon signs have transformed the American landscape and built our communities. The research and writing, conducted collaboratively over more than a decade with her husband Paul Greenstein (who makes and restores neon signs), has just been funded by three grants—from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Anders Foundation. And the first book, Neon: A Light History, has just been published.
“Research, writing, and grant funding can be catalytic processes,” she observes, “with each one influencing and heightening the other.” In DeLyser’s case, a sabbatical in 2019 allowed her to deepen the research, then that extended the writing process, leading her to apply for (and eventually be awarded) an NEH Award for Faculty to complete the couple’s proposed co-authored scholarly monograph Hidden in Bright Light: The Untold Story of Neon Signs in America.
In Spring 2020, during the pandemic, she applied for the NEH grant. “But, I wanted to share what I had learned with the many people who are interested in neon signs, and I didn’t want to wait until years from now when the scholarly book is finished and published. So, last summer, I took the inspiration from the grant proposal and began working with Paul and two graphic designers/photographers, Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna who specialize in neon signs and have a small publishing house, Giant Orange Press, on a much shorter book, one we hoped would have broad appeal, and one we geared explicitly to benefit the Museum of Neon Art.”
Thus, the research for the book that is the subject of the NEH Award for Faculty and writing the NEH grant application drew this second book into being. Then, developing the second book necessitated more grant funding. DeLyser and the team worked collaboratively with the Museum of Neon Art(on whose Board of Trustees DeLyser serves) to secure that funding from the Anders Foundation as a seed grant to launch the book, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to develop historic programming for the Museum and a companion website, historyofneon.org, for the book. Each step along the way drew the others into being.
“Follow your spark. If something catches your eye and keeps catching it, that must be for a reason. Dig down to find the reason, and to understand what that spark means.”
Now, in Neon: A Light History, engaging text sparkles with full-color illustrations that illuminate neon’s 130-year history. The book is geared to a popular audience including the thousands of people who visit the steadily growing number of neon-sign museums across the country, and all those who are curious about the art, science, and craft of neon.
Thus, DeLyser and Greenstein’s “second” book now becomes the first book to illustrate the whole history of neon signs in America. Neon: A Light History dispels previous myths about neon’s history and uses the geographical tools of landscape interpretation to show what went previously unseen: how important it is to be able to “read” the landscape in all its detail; how landscapes must not only be read, they must also be made; how advertising is also art; and how a technology like neon can create community around the past and the present.
Throughout their research, DeLyser and Greenstein uncovered hidden histories of neon – and now, in print, they sought to set straight many falsehoods and myth histories that have circulated for decades.
For instance, “luminous tubing” was commercially developed by an American, Daniel McFarlan Moore in the 1890s, instead of the generally accepted assumption that Frenchman Georges Claude invented neon signs in 1910. The book traces their work, their lives, and their influence on light and landscape. “Daniel McFarlan Moore is my hero. He wanted to light the world equitably, and I admire his decades of efforts to perfect luminous tubing,” maintains DeLyser. But corporate Goliath General Electric bought out Moore’s patents, and then he was murdered by a jealous electrician.
DeLyser and Greenstein show how neon signs work technically and culturally and how they transformed the American landscape, emerging across the US in the 1920s along with affordable and reliable automobiles, an expanding highway network, and American consumer culture. Though neon signs are typically thought of as instruments of advertising (and certainly work that way), they can be active agents in building community and drawing people together under their light.
Though neon is often associated with Las Vegas, DeLyser and Greenstein point out that that city emerged as a booming attraction comparatively late in neon’s development. Though Las Vegas carried neon to new heights (literally), it also aided neon’s growing bad reputation in the 1960s and later by linking neon with drinking, gambling, and illicit sex. With that bad rep, and with competing technologies (first fluorescent tubing and plastic sign faces; later LEDs) neon nearly went extinct.
Signs are made to attract, but they can repel. Gordon Parks’ famous photo of an African American woman and her young niece standing beneath a neon “colored entrance” sign speaks to how signs could be used in negative ways to keep people apart.
DeLyser and Greenstein show how artists, craftspeople, and preservationists have labored to maintain the form against those pressures. Artists began working with neon in the 1930s, but all neon signs are artistic: making neon signs demands great skill, and craftspeople, like neon “tube benders,” have always been at the center of the neon-sign industry. Every neon sign is made by hand, and most are individually designed, often by local mom-and-pop shops. As neon signs became scarce and as a new generation of people began to appreciate America’s roadside landscapes, preservationists across the country began to rally around our neon heritage—fighting to preserve important neonized landscapes like those of Route 66. These movements brought neon back from the brink of extinction and render it vibrant today.
Neon’s technology, DeLyser and Greenstein show, is remarkably durable. “If you had your great-grandfather’s neon plant, you could still be using it today—the core technology remains stable, and the signs continue to endure,” said DeLyser. In Los Angeles, some signs have been working outdoors at night for 95 years. And across the country, people have begun to recognize historic neon signs as important touchstones for their communities, as DeLyser and Greenstein reveal in the many efforts nationwide to preserve and restore historic neon signs.
“From this research, I hope people will see signs as community-building tools and active agents, not just as “lowly” or crass advertising. I hope they’ll see neon signs as they are: as individually hand-crafted works of art; as a part of our history and heritage to be protected, preserved, and restored rather than destroyed. I hope they’ll be able to see and indeed read the landscape in new ways.”
This is a community DeLyser and Greenstein are very much a part of and a landscape they have helped shape: Greenstein has been making and restoring neon signs since the 1970s and has restored quite a few significant historic signs in Los Angeles. Both regularly volunteer for the Museum of Neon Art: with Delyser serving on their Board, Greenstein working on their signs, and the two leading neon tours for the Museum together.
As DeLyser explains, “We always talked about neon signs, and through Paul, I became interested in the medium. At some point, we began collecting books, artifacts, and ephemera about neon’s history, and by 2010 I decided it would be an interesting research topic. I went looking for The Big Book of Neon’s History, which I assumed must exist. When I found it didn’t, I realized it was an opening! Because CSUF values community-based research and collaborations between faculty and artists/practitioners/community members, I realized this was an excellent opportunity to embark on a long-term collaboration, and be able to build fully from our different kinds of expertise.”
DeLyser was born in Santa Monica in 1965. Her parents were Dutch immigrants, and English is her second language. She does a lot of community-service work that’s explicitly connected to her research – “I always want to give back to my research communities, and even to shape my research around what I perceive to be community needs or wishes. Neon: A Light History was like that.” DeLyser serves as the Secretary of the Board of Trustees for the Museum of Neon Art (shuttered during the pandemic), and the Bodie Foundation (dedicated to preserving Bodie State Historic Park, where DeLyser once worked and where she situated her Ph.D. research). “I enjoy integrating my scholarly/academic and private life, and much of my research is auto-ethnographic, so most of my interests are shared between my scholarship and my personal life. For example, Paul and I have published articles about our own antique cars and motorcycles (an interest Paul and I share). And I’ve drawn from my own experiences as a licensed pilot to write about women pilots,” she reveals.
Neon: A Light History is available for purchase from the Museum of Neon Art with profits benefiting the Museum.