IN THE CLIMACTIC SCENE of Sister Carrie, Hurstwood, Carrie’s luckless consort, having spiraled downward into beggary and despair, trudges south on Broadway to 42nd Street and sees the “fire signs” blazing in the snow. This is Dreiser’s portentous term for the electric signs that announced restaurants and theaters up and down Broadway, a technology too new to have a proper name. Hurstwood pauses before a restaurant— Shanley’s, perhaps, or the Café de l’Opera—and there, too, a “fire sign” illuminates the giddy whirl of merrymakers. The snow in front of the Casino, where Carrie is starring, and which in fact had the biggest and shiniest electric sign of all the Broadway theaters, is also “bright with the radiated fire.” Here is something new in the world, a glowing, glittering kind of speech that attracts nighttime revelers with a promise of excitement and warmth (and repels the likes of Hurstwood, who proceeds to trek through the darkness to a flophouse, and to suicide). The lighted sign, which came into being just as Times Square did, was quickly established as its visual signature and the symbol to the entire world of its dazzling nightlife.
At the time Dreiser was writing, in the last years of the nineteenth century, electric lighting was only twenty years old; Edison had perfected the incandescent lightbulb in 1879. The ability to turn night into day seemed miraculous. The world’s fairs that were in such vogue in the last decades of the century were essentially festivals of light, with an Electric Building, or Electric Tower, their featured attraction. At many of the fairs, an anthropological exhibit designed to feature the evolution of the arts and sciences ended with a dazzling display of light. Electric light was not the home convenience we think of it as today, but rather a spectacle, used to illuminate streets, restaurants, theaters, and fairgrounds, and to draw country folk into the city.
Electric streetlights began to line Broadway almost as soon as they became commercially available, in the early 1880s; they reached 42nd Street in 1895. Theaters had long used gas lamps to light their marquees; now they began to switch to electricity. Advertisers at first continued to favor billboards, which were plastered over every available space on major thoroughfares and often stacked one atop another. And so the first electric signs were essentially billboards made of light. In 1892, the president of the Long Island Rail Road hired the Edison General Electric Company to erect an electric sign at the wedge-shaped corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue beguiling passersby to “BUY HOMES ON LONG ISLAND SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES.” The sign, located at what was then the absolute center of New York, was a sensation—a brilliant, almost three-dimensional ad leaping out from the drab two-dimensional signs around it. The food magnate H. J. Heinz often looked out over the sign from his Madison Square hotel; in 1898, Heinz took over the space and hired New York’s leading bill-poster, O. J. Gude, to make a new electric sign for Heinz. The sign featured a fifty-foot-long pickle in pickle-green lights against an orange and blue background, a giant white “57,” and the names of Heinz’s most popular products: Sweet Pickles, Tomato Ketchup, India Relish, Tomato Soup, and Peach Butter. Advertisers had learned how to incorporate flashers into signs, so the pickle, the numerals, and the product names flashed on and off in the night sky of Madison Square. A new medium, and a new maestro, were born.
O. J. Gude belongs alongside figures like Adolph Ochs, Oscar Hammerstein, and Florenz Ziegfeld in the pantheon of promotional geniuses who created Times Square—or, rather, the idea of Times Square. Gude was a New Yorker who dropped out of school at seventeen, made a living posting signs, and then over time became the equivalent of an account manager for the food and beverage companies that then dominated outdoor advertising. Gude founded a company of his own in 1889 and soon became one of the leading admen in New York. He was the first to understand the power of the billboard. In a brief essay entitled “Art and Advertising Joined by Electricity,” Gude wrote: “Practically all other advertising media depend upon the willingness or even cooperation of the reader for the absorption of the advertisers’ story, but the outdoor advertising sign asks no voluntary acquiescence from any reader. It simply grasps the vantage point of position and literally forces its announcement on the vision of the uninterested as well as the interested passerby.” It is the mark of a true adman that “literally forces” is meant to express a virtue, not an unfortunate side effect, of the new medium. And of course electric light brought this act of buttonholing to a pitch of aggressiveness unimaginable in the era of the two-dimensional poster. An electric sign was a billboard raised to the power of hypnosis.
Indeed, the earliest accounts of electric signs stress the awestruck reaction of viewers. According to a contemporary description of one of the very first signs on Broadway, “little knots of people used to gather nightly in newly christened Herald Square to watch the glowing eyes in the head of The Herald’s owl wink solemnly at each minute as it crept by, and if you stopped and listened, you could hear little cries of satisfaction go up from the watchers at each repetition of the miracle.” The power of the sign was the power of electricity itself, a force that compelled awe. And the need to compel that sense of awe pushed the signmakers to ever more miraculous acts of creativity. Around 1905, Gude spent $45,000 to erect a sign for the Heatherbloom company in Times Square. As Tama Starr, the author of Signs and Wonders, a history of the electric sign in Times Square, describes it, “The incandescent Miss Heatherbloom walked delicately through a driving rain—depicted in slashing diagonal lines of lamps— concealed by a shell-like umbrella. The gale behind her whipped at her dress, revealing her shapely outline and, above her high-topped shoes, a daring glimpse of stockinged calf.” A few years earlier, men had gathered in front of the new Flatiron Building at 23rd and Fifth (the former site of that first electric sign) to see how the winds swirling around the building whipped up girls’ petticoats. Miss Heatherbloom was a giant, glowing, endlessly visible version of that girl; and men gathered in the street below to watch her, again and again.
The Heatherbloom petticoat girl was the first Times Square “spectacular,” to use the word that quickly came into vogue among sign men to describe a big, colorful, crowd-stopping sign. The history of the spectacular and the history of Times Square are utterly bound up with each other, for the spectacular, like the New Year’s Eve celebration, came to define the way people thought about Times Square, while Times Square became the setting for the biggest, brightest, and most innovative signs. The spectacular became the one art form that Times Square, and Times Square alone, gave to the world—to the world, that is, of popular and commercial culture. The reasons for this are principally economic. As the most densely populated crossroads in the world, Times Square offered to advertisers the same commodity that network television later did: eyeballs. An adman writing in 1925 in Signs of the Times, the trade magazine of the sign industry, noted that a million people were said to pass through Times Square every day. “The willingness with which advertisers invest huge sums in long term contracts for this Times Square publicity can be understood when it is stated that this circulation is procured at a cost ranging from one cent per thousand for the illuminated displays to fourteen cents per thousand for the splendid spectacular ‘electrics.’” Many of the people seeing those displays were visitors from foreign countries and other American cities; all the buyers from the big department stores passed through. Thus Times Square functioned as a national or even international advertising medium. As another writer for Signs of the Times observed in 1920, “The primary purpose of the large electric sign of the Broadway type is to send its message on a national scale rather than to try to influence the individual to stop at once and buy a new suit of underwear.”
Times Square also provided the ideal geographic site for this new commercial art form. The triangle whose base was defined by 42nd Street, with corners at the western and eastern edges of Broadway, and its apex at 47th, where the two streets first joined, formed the perfect setting for viewing signs, with unobstructed sight lines in all directions. The low buildings that predominated in Times Square offered an ideal platform for signs. Times Square was poorly suited for practically everything— especially for functioning as a square—but as an amphitheater for the viewing of spectaculars, it was matchless. Perhaps the sidewalks were too narrow to accommodate a crowd of gawkers; then the gawkers simply overflowed into the street. Advertisers realized early on that, thanks to the combination of sight lines and the size and shape of buildings, certain sites had tremendous value: the west side of Broadway at 42nd, the east side between 43rd and 45th, and the point of the triangle, at 47th; they would be occupied by splendid signs for decades to come.
By 1910, more than twenty blocks along Broadway bore electric advertisements. The most astounding and inventive was without doubt the giant sign raised that year on the west side of Broadway at 38th Street— one of the few sites in the Times Square area not controlled by O. J. Gude. The sign featured a Roman chariot race in the style of Ben-Hur, at the time a beloved spectacle of the stage. Seventy-two feet wide and ninety feet high, it was the biggest electric sign ever built. As a crowd in an amphitheater looked on, one chariot raced into the lead while others chased behind, whips cracking and wheels kicking up dust. “The galloping effect,” one historian writes, “was produced by outlining the legs of the horses in eight different positions and using flashing sequences of more than thirty times a second, far faster than the eye can follow, rendering their gallop perfectly.” The effect of naturalism was greater than anything the nascent technology of the moving picture could offer, and far beyond anything ever seen on an electric sign. The race lasted thirty seconds, and then came a wait of thirty seconds before the next race. “Few spectators were content to watch the race only once. When the sign was first turned on, crowds halted traffic, and for weeks a special squad of police was detailed to handle them.”
The sign was not only an aesthetic but a commercial breakthrough. The sign itself was framed by a “curtain,” which acted as an internal frame; above the entire scene was another screen that offered space for commercial messages. Each message lasted fifteen seconds, so that an entire cycle of 150 messages would repeat about every forty minutes. In other words, the chariot race was a “show” intended to attract viewers to commercials, which would run simultaneously—television avant la lettre. The new sign failed as a medium—perhaps the commercials should have run during breaks in the programming, as on TV—but it raised the bar of spectacularity to heights unimaginable only a few years earlier.
By the mid-teens, Times Square, when captured at night by a photographer looking north from an upper floor of the Times Tower, already had the mind-boggling look that has long been its trademark: two merging paths of white phosphorescence flanked by innumerable glowing signs for theaters, restaurants, tires, cigarettes, and underwear. O. J. Gude bestrode this narrow world like a colossus. It was Gude who is said to have coined the term “Great White Way,” around 1901. (Broadway was also known for many years as “the Gay White Way.”) A 1907 article in Signs of the Times noted that “there was a time a few years ago when prospective outdoor advertisers were almost if not entirely at the mercy of the O. J. Gude Co., which concern has succeeded in securing control of, or an option on, about every available location that was at all desirable.” Gude had signs up and down Broadway; Gude’s sign for Trimble Whiskey occupied the single prime location in Times Square proper, at the 47th Street apex. Gude not only had the most signs, but the best signs. On the west side of the avenue, at 41st, he built a sign for Corticelli silk that was a masterpiece of playfulness as well as a genuine narrative. A kitten, gamboling on the Broadway side of the sign, became entangled in a length of thread, leaped around the corner to a giant sewing machine, caught up the thread, jumped back to Broadway, and brought the machine to a halt. “The kitten’s tail wagged,” Tama Starr writes, “its ears twitched, and its paws pummeled, pulling the silk off the turning spool in a blur and tangling the kitten in the loops.”
These gigantic, ingenious and blatantly commercial narratives in the sky came to be understood as a new kind of public theater, a theater that was the special province of Times Square. When Harvey Forbes, the hero of Rupert Hughes’s What Will People Say?, sits in his room at the Knickerbocker Hotel at 42nd and Broadway, and gazes out into the night, his view is of “the electric signs working like acrobats—the girl that skipped the rope, the baby that laughed and cried, the woman that danced on the wire,” and “the kitten that tangled itself in thread.” Foreign visitors to New York almost invariably mentioned the fantastic light show of Times Square. “Fabulous glow-worms crawl up and down,” wrote a British visitor in 1917. “Zig-zag lightnings strike an acre of signboard—and reveal a panacea for over-eating!” The English novelist Arnold Bennett described for readers back home “the mastodon kitten playing with a ball of thread, an umbrella in a shower of water,” and then delivered himself of this mighty apostrophe: “Sky signs! In Europe I had always inveighed manfully against sky signs. But now I bowed the head, vanquished. These sky signs annihilated argument.”
Gude himself cited Bennett’s declaration as evidence that even the most majestic arbiters of the traditional media had given their imprimatur to this new one. What Bennett was expressing, in fact, was resignation, not approval. Bennett understood that the marshaling of immense technological, economic, and cultural forces represented by the spectacular made the question of acceptance utterly irrelevant, for the culture of literary judgment suddenly looked like a very small thing next to the raw power of popular culture. Bennett didn’t despise popular culture; he was delighted at the George M. Cohan play he saw during his visit, preferring it vastly to the wooden renditions of classical drama he otherwise watched. He was probably one of the first literary men to experience that profound ambivalence—that mingled sense of awe, horror, and inevitability—which Times Square has inspired in cultured citizens ever since.
The poet Rupert Brooke came to New York in 1914 and described “the merciless lights” of Times Square in accents Theodore Dreiser would have understood very well. “A stranger of another race, loitering here, might cast his eyes up, in a vague wonder what powers, kind or maleficent, controlled or observed this whirlwind,” he writes. And the terrible, ludicrous answer is that the gods of the heavens have retreated before the gods of commerce. A “divine hand” writes its “igneous message to the nations, ‘Wear Underwear for Youths and Men-Boys.’” And then “a youth and a man-boy, flaming and immortal, clad in celestial underwear, box a short round, vanish, reappear for another round, and again disappear.” Nearby, Orion “drives a sidereal golfball out of sight through the meadows of Paradise.” Here, in Times Square, modern man had orchestrated the sky itself, the region that teems with the divinities of Western mythology, to sell toothpaste. This was a death of the gods which Nietzsche had not anticipated. Brooke could still summon a deep sense of dread at the thought; but Arnold Bennett’s shrug was soon to become the more familiar response.
The great threat to the electric sign, however, came not from partisans of Olympus but from advocates of the city beautiful. The Municipal Art Society, a civic organization consisting of many of New York’s leading citizens and dedicated to preserving the city’s beaux-arts elegance and decorum from the depredations of popular culture, began a campaign against billboards as early as 1902. By 1912, public outcry had led Mayor William Gaynor to establish the Mayor’s Billboard Advisory Commission. The commissioners turned Gude’s arguments for the virtues of outdoor advertising against the industry, noting that the billboard or electric sign “thrusts itself upon unwilling and offended vision by day,” and “glares and winks and radiates its often uninteresting messages” by night. The commission proposed an ordinance that would prohibit large electric signs in residential neighborhoods and regulate their hours elsewhere, limit the height of roof signs to ten feet, and prohibit virtually all outdoor advertisements on or near parks, squares, public buildings, schools, and boulevards and streets of exceptional character (that is, Fifth Avenue). In short, it would have crippled the sky sign.
It was O. J. Gude, more than anyone else, who came to the industry’s defense. By this time, Gude was one of New York’s leading business figures, wealthy and respectable, an art collector, a horseman, and a clubman in good standing. He was a broad-shouldered man with thick hair, a clipped mustache, rimless spectacles, and a solemn mien. Promoter though he was, Gude was neither a cynic like Willie Hammerstein nor, certainly, a libertine like Ziegfeld. He seems genuinely to have viewed advertising as a source of moral and aesthetic improvement, and he had the gift of using the late-Victorian language of uplift without abandoning commercial candor. He once paid tribute to “19 centuries of the most effective outdoor advertising that the mind of the greatest advertising genius could conceive,” by which he meant the church steeple. When he testified before the mayor’s commission, he unfurled from the balcony an early public-service ad: a poster showing children going off to church, with the caption “Take your children to church, give them the right start.”
Gude believed that the solution lay in the promotion of high aesthetic standards among sign men. He believed that beautiful signs were more effective than plain ones, and he argued that outdoor advertising had “felt and shown the effects of the awakening of the artistic spirit in the people of this country”—a claim that he, at least, had every right to make. In 1913, Gude had the inspired idea of joining the Municipal Art Society and getting himself placed on its Committee on Advertising. There he made a raft of improving suggestions: that some prominent billboard locations be used as outdoor art galleries, that the Gude Company and the society jointly sponsor a sign design competition, that leading artists lecture Gude employees with the goal of “making advertising displays less offensive and more artistic.” None of this got him anywhere, and he soon quit. Nevertheless, the outdoor advertising industry, with Gude’s leadership, fought the forces of regulation to a draw; the city fashioned a much less restrictive ordinance in 1914, and then incorporated its principles into the new zoning ordinance of 1916. The zoning rules declared many areas of the city off-limits to electric signs, but otherwise placed few limits on their use. Times Square thus became New York’s electric light district, as the Ginza was later to be in Tokyo, or Piccadilly in London. The brilliance and beauty and technical daring of the signs that Gude and others raised along the roofline of Broadway more than justified the city’s ruling.
Gude’s most stupendous achievement came in 1917, at the very end of his career as Times Square’s master spectaculator. One of Gude’s prize locations was the space atop the Putnam Building, on the west side of Broadway between 43rd and 44th Streets. William Wrigley agreed to pay $100,000 a year to lease the space, and Gude designed for him the largest electric sign on the face of the earth, two hundred feet long and almost a hundred feet high. Here is the indispensable Tama Starr on the Wrigley’s sign: “Twin peacocks faced off on a tree branch, their tails forming a feathery canopy over the central portion of the display.” Beneath were the Wrigley’s logo and the actual ad copy. On either side of the text were six “Spearmen” in pointy hats. “Brandishing spears, they comprised a drill team that went through a series of twelve calisthenics the populace quickly dubbed the Daily Dozen. Flanking them were fountains spraying geysers of bubbling water, and the whole spectacle was framed in vinelike filigree.”
Gude, who was in poor health, sold his business in 1918, gave his art collection to the Lotos Club, went off to Europe, and died in Germany seven years later, leaving an estate worth a million dollars. He was much eulogized as “the creator of the Great White Way,” a title he deserved not simply because he lit up Times Square—that would have happened anyway—but because he combined art and commerce to forge the new form known as the spectacular, and thus gave Times Square the look for which it has ever after been known. Gude seems to have left no record of his own process of creation, but this astute and tough-minded businessman devised some of the most whimsical and fantastic works of art ever seen in Times Square. And he was a businessman, and a promoter, like Ochs and Hammerstein and Ziegfeld. In other parts of New York City—in Greenwich Village, for example—the motto may well have been “Art for art’s sake.” Not in Times Square. The motto of Times Square was, and always has been, “Keep the turnstiles clicking.”