Today in Tedium: Being color blind is pretty weird. Everyday, typical, “normal” people see colors I can’t imagine. When co-workers or friends find out, it’s often an exercise in personal boundaries with plenty of pointing to various colors and asking what I see. But being colorblind is kind of useful. It’s helped me appreciate the colors I can accurately experience. And I often find myself wondering how the colors that exist in our daily lives came to be. How do you invent a color you can’t see? Today’s Tedium is looking at the Switzer brothers, how they manufactured fluorescents, and the outsized influence of DayGlo. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The amount of money Douglas Leigh charged the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company every month to rent the iconic smoking Camel advertisement that could be found in Times Square between 1942 and 1966. Neon signs and advertising came to dominate many urban centers as businesses fought for attention. Like all trends, neon started to flicker out by the 1960s, being viewed as gaudy, with some cities banning them outright. Just as neon lights started to fade in popularity, fluorescent pigments and fabrics were getting ready for their time to shine.
Why printed neon colors weren’t inspired by neon lights
In a 2012 interview with 60 Minutes, noted petrol head Jeremy Clarkson—former host of Top Gear, at the time one of the world’s most popular television shows—waxed philosophical about the nature of his work, specifically how British law enforcement complains about the show’s glorification of speed.
“What did Aldous Huxley say about speed, I forget? It was that speed is the only truly modern sensation,” Clarkson said. “Speed is great, speed works. Where would we be as a species without speed? We’d still be eating mud.”
While Huxley didn’t quite say that, the British writer wouldn’t likely have objected to Clarkson’s paraphrasing as he actually wrote, “Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.”
He does note that humans have always enjoyed speed, especially via horse, but that the automobile is capable of delivering a euphoric experience so intense that at certain velocities, it must become a type of torture. The sentiment is understandable but oddly myopic for the visionary behind Brave New World. The sensation of altitude away from large natural objects, like from a commercial jet, is undeniably modern. Literal bird’s eye views have been available for a few generations now, with admittedly various degrees of access largely depending on wealth.
Colors, however, and the modern ways in which they’re conveyed can be found in virtually every major city anywhere in the world. When discussing the proliferation of neon signs in NYC during the mid-20th century, author Thomas Rinaldi told the New York Post, “[Neon] was an icon of the very cutting-edge, of the most modern you could be.”
Neon signs debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1911 by French inventor Georges Claude. Neon signs didn’t make their way to the US until 1923 when a Los Angeles car dealer bought two signs for $24,000. They simply said “Studebaker”. In its retrospective on neon dominance in mid-20th century New York, the Times noted that neon was pervasive across all five boroughs by the 1930s. In fact, this seems to have happened so quickly that neither the Times nor the Post mentioned the first neon sign in the city. Some sources note that Claude opened his own neon shop in NYC in 1924, which introduced the concept. The sign for his shop is implied to be the first in NYC.
(Claude’s political views would later become an issue during World War II, when he used his invention to promote pro-Nazi propaganda.)
Unquestionably, the most widely known hoarder of neon lights in this period were the advertisements in Times Square. Neon helped achieve a particular “daylight at nighttime” sensation that attracted millions of tourists and is still the desired effect of Times Square today, albeit achieved with different technologies. By the 1970s, neon had become associated with the seedy reputation Times Square had developed, helping contribute to its “tacky” and run down perception. Neon expert Rinaldi also notes this period is when corporate clients began to prefer fluorescent lighting for advertising as they required less maintenance and thus were less expensive.
Fluorescent lighting and pigments, the latter known in the industry as daylight fluorescents, were quietly developing while neon lights had their moment. And much of this innovation can be attributed to two brothers tinkering around in their family’s California pharmacy. Oh, and a tragic accident. And a fortunate accident. And just a little bit of magic.
The amount of money the Switzer brothers charged for a pint of their newly invented fluorescent paint in 1934. This is almost $220 in 2022 money. Early customers for fluorescent paints were magicians looking to develop their own tricks. Fluorescent paints would go mainstream in ways the creators could only begin to imagine.
How a bit of negligence at a Heinz tomato processing facility gave us the colors that defined the 1980s and 1990s
In the middle of the Great Depression, two brothers moved with the rest of their family from Montana to Berkeley, California to help their parents open a pharmacy. In their early years, Robert and Joseph Switzer had seemingly disparate interests. Robert was serious and analytical, earning a scholarship to study medicine at the University of California. His younger brother was more carefree and interested in performance, especially magic. Since this was the Depression, the elder Switzer was still expected to help the family, despite his academic commitments. And this is how Bob Switzer ended up working in the quality assurance lab of a Heinz tomato processing facility. As part of his job, Bob had to collect samples from incoming shipments for testing. While doing this, an unspecified accident involving a freight car left him seriously injured. The accident fractured his skull and left Bob with brain damage, a severed optic nerve, and memory loss. As part of his rehabilitation process, Bob was encouraged to confine himself in dark rooms. And this is when Bob and Joe Switzer realized they shared an interest in fluorescents.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) explains fluorescence pretty succinctly: “Black lights emit ultraviolet (UV) light, an invisible class of electromagnetic radiation with a higher frequency than visible light but lower than X-rays. Fluorescent materials absorb the UV light and reemit it as visible light. In darkness, UV fluorescent objects appear to glow when exposed to black light.”
The brothers used a portable black light to test the compounds and medicines in the family pharmacy for fluorescence, finding several.
Quickly, the brothers realize that fluorescents could be used to enhance Joe’s amateur magic shows. They began experimenting with mixing fluorescent materials with paints and resins. The result was something called the “Magic Balinese Illusion”, which used fluorescence to give the appearance that Joe had removed the head of his assistant. The trick even won an award at a 1934 magic convention in Oakland.
The brothers saw potential for fluorescence in advertising with Bob writing in 1934 that Joe had, “conceived the idea of projecting ultraviolet light ... upon all displayable articles which fluoresce (or are treated with fluorescent materials) to produce a beautiful and noble method of displaying merchandise.” They partnered with a San Francisco-based artist to develop advertising displays, primarily for department stores, under the company name Fluor-S-Art Co. Their first attempt at a window display wasn’t as spectacular as planned due to light pollution and interference from natural sunlight which degraded the fluorescent materials much quicker than anticipated. Subsequent attempts focused on indoor displays and were much more successful. So much so, the company entered into a partnership agreement with Continental Lithography, a subsidiary of the Warner Bros. movie studio that focused on movie posters. The partnership proved fruitful, but by the 1940s the Switzers started to see the limitations of black light-focused fluorescents.
The solution for the fledgling company was something called daylight fluorescents which work, according to the ACS, by “convert[ing] energy from the ultraviolet spectrum and transform[ing] them into longer wavelengths that are visible to the human eye. An object coated with a specific daylight fluorescent pigment reflects its visible color and absorbs and transforms UV wavelengths into this color. This creates the visual effect of super brilliance, and is comparatively brighter than standard color. These products became known as DayGlo fluorescents.” According to DayGlo corporate history, the brothers discovered the method to make daylight fluorescents by accident, when they dipped silk fabric into a combination of alcohol and fluorescent dye.
These products became immediately popular in the Allied war efforts during WWII, especially for visual signals that provided the US military with significant operational advantages. The Switzers continued manufacturing activated black light inks, most notably a penetrant that seeps into cracks and flaws on metal parts, which greatly improved quality control across entire defense industries. Many of these penetrants are still in use.
After the war, the Switzer brothers’ partnership with Continental ended as well and they established a new company based in Cleveland, Ohio. And if these achievements were all that the Switzer brothers had done with fluorescents, they would still be hailed as brilliant innovators. But fluorescent pigments hadn’t quite yet expanded to their full potential. That would come with a little help from the fashion industry. And a lot of unnamed scientists.
The debut advertisement for DayGlo fabrics in 1950. The product represented a significant achievement for the nascent Switzer Brothers Inc. While the brothers were responsible for initial breakthroughs in fluorescent paints, pigments, and dyes, they employed a robust research and development department that continued to innovate. Their success was so significant that the ACS designated DayGlo fluorescent pigments as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2012. Rather than attribute the development of fluorescent pigments to the Switzer brothers, the ACS recognized the scientists of the company for its effort.
How neon and psychedelic colors came to dominate a good bit of post-war fashion
The Switzer Brothers Inc debuted their fluorescent yarn in 1950 with “new plaids woven by Aberfoyle Inc of Norfolk,” which the company described as “spun light” that “literally blaze with the luminous intensity of a Highland sunrise.” The next year, they introduced a line of somewhat spicy-for-the-era fluorescent underwear and hosiery. While fluorescent yarn garnered some press attention, cost likely limited its use to largely avant garde fashion. Psychedelic colors offered by fluorescent inks worked its way into 1960s counterculture art. Andy Warhol was one of the first, using DayGlo inks in his “Flowers” and portrait of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. However, DayGlo became forever ensconced in pop culture when The Beatles donned bright fluorescent suits for 1967′s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cover was printed with DayGlo fluorescent ink.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that DayGlo became a staple of consumer fashion. The first fashion products to widely incorporate fluorescent materials were generally “new” products introduced in the 1970s and 1980s that didn’t have a defined tradition, like windbreakers and jelly shoes. DayGlo colors were especially popular among advocates of the booming aerobics fad.
Amazingly, DayGlo colors managed to find a new niche in the 1990s as the club-kid set chased raves and danced to early electronica. Some of these acolytes of good times dyed their hair any number of fluorescent colors.
And any given discussion of the late 80s and early 90s without mentioning the aesthetic of shows like Saved by the Bell or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would be criminal.
In the 21st century, DayGlo colors have found their way into, if not quite a staple of fashion, stable use. Plenty of styles, however niche, incorporate brash fluorescent colors, such as the OutRun/synthwave aesthetic or sapeur culture in the Congo. And of course, nearly every piece of modern personal safety equipment involves some amount of fluorescent material—a useful point, given its roots in an accident. Pretty impressive for a couple Depression-era brothers who were just tinkering in the family pharmacy.
As technology helps us innovate and create, humanity will likely be subjected to a myriad of new sensations, whether pleasurable or horrible. Parasocial relationships have existed since prominent public figures became a thing. Social media proliferation has simply amplified the experience into one common among modern audiences. But explaining a parasocial relationship to someone in the 19th century would probably be hard. Really hard.
Likewise, the colors taken for granted by modern audiences would either astound or frighten our ancestors. The vibrancy of fluorescence or neon, whether you personally find it garnish or unpleasant, is undeniably a sensation new to the modern era. Nature provides color experiences that have long been appreciated by humans. But the unique reflection of fluorescent material signals more than the natural. They signal safety and light. Nostalgia and the future.
More importantly, fluorescent and neon remind us we’re nowhere near done exploring light.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks again to Andrew for writing an illuminating piece.