In the midcentury period, the streets of Vancouver boasted about 19,000 neon signs. The company Neon Products Ltd., located in the city, estimated that Vancouver had the second-most neon signs per capita on the globe, after Shanghai. A Flickr set by the Vancouver Public Library collects black-and-white images of some of the city’s signage as it appeared in the 1950s.
In his history of neon, Christoph Ribbat writes that by the 1950s and 1960s, the style was on its way out, “replaced by backlit plastic structures that were becoming considerably easier to use, more flexible and more durable” than the breakable glass tubes of classic neon signage.
In Vancouver, as the curators of the Museum of Vancouver write, many neon signs fell victim to a “visual purity crusade” in the 1960s. Critics thought that the neon cheapened the look of the streets, and obscured Vancouver’s natural beauty. (“We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs,” wrote a critic in the Vancouver Sun—a newspaper whose headquarters was prominently bedecked in neon—in 1966. “They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous.”)
Now, the nighttime images, many featuring the telltale shimmer of British Columbian rain on pavement, look beautiful: a noir landscape worthy of Blade Runner.