Cheap Jack Flash
Fluorescent inks – costly, dramatic, even ‘vulgar’ – provided 1950s designers with a fresh challenge
The Wokingham Road, where it skirts the eastern edge of Reading, is a well worn strip of convenience stores, beauty salons, tool shops and kebab joints. Here, too, is a ‘Books For Amnesty’ where Amnesty International raises money by selling donated books. A year ago, while scanning the unpromising spines of 50p titles in a cardboard fruit crate, I came across one whose words had faded almost to illegibility. Five green arrows and the imprint were all that remained. The arrows beckoned a closer look, and when I turned up the cover ‘Fall out’ glowed at me in big fluorescent orange letters. Beneath, an anxious subtitle ran ‘radiation hazards from nuclear explosions’.
For anyone seeking meaning in the artefacts of graphic reproduction, this would be a welcome find. The equation of fluorescence with radiation of a wholly more menacing variety was apt, if a bit obvious. But the equation had a subtler second dimension: radioactive half-life and its correlation with the notoriously fugitive nature of fluorescent ink responsible for the present state of the spine (ah, if only Strontium-90 decayed as quickly as fluorescence’s analogous fading . . .). And there was more: the cover’s second colour, a dull green, was in fact a livelier green overprinting the orange, in effect ‘shielding’ the reader from the latter’s fluorescence and surviving in its true chroma only in places. Sophisticated work – and uncredited.
I wondered if Fall out was the first time a link between fluorescence and nuclear catastrophe had been made. The book itself was an early contribution to the anti-nuclear argument in Britain. Published in July 1957 with a foreword by Bertrand Russell, the copy I held was the second edition issued only seven months later and at precisely the moment (February 1958) when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched, with Russell a founding member. Fluorescent inks didn’t seem much older, so perhaps the equation had once been novel and was now submerged under other associations – psychedelia and punk – more persistently attached to fluorescent effects.
Throwing light on the matter would mean tracing the early career of fluorescent inks in Britain, from whence Fall out had emerged. I recalled an article in the trade journal Printing Review (Winter 1952–53): ‘Fluorescent inks and paints’ by T. Thorne Baker, director of research at Dane & Co, a London ink manufacturer. Baker felt his subject needed little introduction since readers would already be familiar ‘with the change in advertising which has come about during the last eighteen months. “Posters” or advertising announcements have been made much more arresting to the eye by being printed in coloured inks which appear to be “alive”.’ A second article, ‘Fluorescent printing inks’ by K. J. Reed in The Penrose Annual for 1952 (vol. 46) was more revealing: ‘in the spring of 1950, posters printed with coloured inks of startling brightness were displayed for the first time in this country. They immediately aroused widespread interest among advertisers and printers alike and the impression made on the general public was so pronounced that articles and letters on the subject appeared in periodicals and in the national press.’ [. . .]