The Commoditable Block Party: Electric Signs in Manhattan, 1881-1917

Margaret Weigel

Margaret Weigel

This text interrogates the form, and to a lesser extent the content, of the electric bulb sign as it manifested in Manhattan from 1892 to 1917, and how this unique medium both engaged with its environment and may have been read by its audience. Manhattan, like many other cosmopolitan cities at the fin de siecle, continual negotiated between the ‘hyperstimulus’ of urban life and systems to control or redirect these stresses into appropriate channels. The urban resident similarly courted certain types of spectacular entertainments while obviating others. Outdoor advertising in Manhattan, however, was a difficult spectacle to avoid: handbills, billboards and posters all competed for the urban consumer’s attention.

The first advertising electric bulb sign appeared in Manhattan in 1892 and stylistically mimicked existing print advertising conventions. Over time, however, the sign developed its own unique style of visual iconography shaped in part by the limited representational capacity of the sign itself and its commercial message. Film, a medium with similar origins but with fewer limitations, ultimately modeled itself after the theatre trope by incorporating both narrative elements and establishing fixed spaces of cinema display.

While a single sign may have been considered either vulgar or harmless enough, a constellation comprised of multiple signs threatened to overwhelm its environment though refutation of textual presentation, its level of performativity, dimensions and position in the landscape, its relation to the promoted commodity, and its degree of luminosity. The balance of the study offers possible readings of multiple electric bulb signs in Manhattan. The urban spaces transformed by electric bulb signs may have been read by audiences as liberating, confusing, spectacular, amusing, threatening, or a combination thereof, each position presented substantiated by theoretical arguments by such scholars as McLuhan, Bahktin, Baudrillard, and Debord. No preferred reading is endorsed by the author; however, she suggests that electric bulb signs may be considered early examples of postmodernist media.


Margaret Weigel

About Margaret Weigel

Margaret graduated from CMS in 2002 and began her career in the glamorous and lucrative field of education technology as the Project Director of Project New Media Literacies with Dr. Henry Jenkins. She subsequently worked for Dr. Howard Gardner at Harvard's Project Zero, for academic publisher Cengage Learning as a digital strategist and content developer, for Six Red Marbles as a Director of Curriculum and Learning. Thesis: The Commoditable Block Party: Electric Signs in Manhattan, 1881-1917


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