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The Origins of DayGlo

Published March 14, 2022

It’s hard to improve on the lede the New York Times used for Robert Switzer’s 1997 obituary: “Because Bob Switzer fell off a loading dock as a teen-ager six decades ago, Allied troops were not accidentally bombed by their own planes during World War II, boxes of Tide detergent glow on supermarket shelves and black light is big at rock concerts.” 

They’re not wrong, either. Switzer, who co-invented DayGlo paint with his brother, Joseph, spent the summer of 1933 working a gig that required him to unload food crates from railroad cars. (The actual job was either at a Safeway grocery store chain, at a tomato quality-control laboratory, or at the Heinz company’s quality control lab, depending on which online account of his life you’re reading.)

Regardless of what corporate office had their address printed on his paychecks, Switzer did have a serious on-the-job accident that left him with damage to his optic nerve, a brain injury, and “extensive loss of memory. He fell into a coma and, after waking up, the doctor recommended that he should stay in a dark room as he recovered. The low-light environment (and potentially being bored out of his mind) made him start thinking about ultraviolet light. 

After he fully recovered, he and Joe took a small black light into their dad’s pharmacy to see what kinds of chemicals and compounds would glow. The brothers started mixing blacklight-friendly compounds, and they developed the first fluorescent paint. At first, Joe just used it for onstage illusions in his amateur magic act, but then they started to see its bigger potential. 

For starters, the U.S. military used their fluorescent pigments during World War II, to increase late-night visibility on aircraft carriers and on the planes themselves. In the mid-40s, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio and founded Switzer Brothers, Inc., which is now known as DayGlo Color Corp. They continued to find new applications for their insanely bright paint colors, selling them to advertisers to use on posters and, quite famously, Tide detergent adopted a DayGlo orange color for boxes of its detergent. They also saw the potential for safety-minded applications of their colors, including on commercial aircraft and those now ubiquitous high-vis vests. 

In 2012, the American Chemical Society designated DayGlo Fluorescent Pigments as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. You can still find DayGlo colors everywhere — they’re hard to miss, by design — in ads and product designs, on sneakers and clothing, and, of course, in safety gear. 

DayGlo shows up in our latest Mystery Video Fun Club! Check it:

Mystery Video Fun Club, 3/14/22

Featured image courtesy of: Mike Quinn, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0