Heinz Ketchup, wedding dresses, and a dash of magic—welcome to the strange and heartwarming tale of how high visibility clothing came to be. Bob Switzer is a quasi-legendary figure in the world of Hi-Viz, but his wife, Patricia, also plays her part, and his brother too was an integral figure. There’s tragic lows and Day-Glo highs in this story, alongside conflict and a bureaucratic resolution that has ensured these conspicuous and iconic garments are now ubiquitous. So, for lovers of neon everywhere, here’s the low-down on Hi-Viz.
A Tragic Tomato-Based Accident
Back in 1930, Bob Spitzer was busy working his way towards med school, when The H. J. Heinz Company laboratory in Berkeley, California, offered him a simple warehousing position as he completed his studies at the College of Chemistry at UC. However, one fateful day, Bob fell while unloading tomatoes from a freight car and suffered serious injuries to his skull and optic nerve. This tragic accident put Bob in a coma and permanently damaged his vision—ensuring any dreams of entering the medical profession were cut short before they had really begun.
Upon waking from his coma, he was instructed to remain in a dark room to allow his eyesight to recover. Luckily for Bob, his brother Joe had plenty of exciting news about his amateur magic show to share. Joe was deep in the midst of some interesting research into ultraviolet light as an otherworldly addition to his act. The dark room of Bob’s convalescence proved the perfect place to play chemist, and the brothers spent hours mixing and waving strange concoctions through the air.
A Fluorescent Wedding Dress and the War
Once Bob had fully recovered, he and Joe really got stuck into the chemical cabinet—his father’s pharmaceutical cabinet to be precise. Armed with their blacklight, they set about identifying substances with potential fluorescent properties, combining them with shellac, either in their mother’s kitchen mixer or the bathtub (depending on which version of the truth you believe). By 1935, they had discovered “Fire Orange” the first of many substances that didn’t require a blacklight to glow brightly, and that could be easily and reliably painted onto any surface. Among those surfaces, was Bob’s wife’s wedding dress, which once covered in his miraculous new substance, became the first ever piece of Hi-Viz clothing.
They immediately realized the economic potential of their new discovery, and before long, the U.S Government took notice. They painted fabric panels that could be seen by allied bombers in North Africa, they painted aircraft carriers so landing pads could be seen at night, they painted buoys installed to identify the location of floating explosives. They painted everything they could think of, and it gave the U.S military and its allies a significant advantage over the enemy.
The Birth of the Day-Glo Brothers
After the war, the brothers created their own company in Cleveland, which eventually took the name of the Day-Glo Color Corporation. The Switzers became known as the “Day-Glo Brothers”, and the development of fluorescent pigments and products continued apace. At the end of the 1950s, Day-Glo inks were being used by manufacturers to help their products stand out on the shelves, with Tide detergent among the earliest adopters. After this, psychedelic artists of the 1960s fell in love with Bob’s paint, and it came to be associated with some of the most iconic images of the era.
Throughout all of this, the Hi-Viz clothing industry was really taking off. Safety vests were among the first to hit the shelves, but pretty soon you could find high-visibility garments in all shapes and sizes. The efficacy and practicality of the earliest Hi-Viz clothing was soon apparent to workers in a huge variety of industries, with motorcyclist, cyclists, and hunters also jumping on the neon-colored band wagon.
Bob Switzer – Environmentalist and Pioneer of Health & Safety
Over the decades, Hi-Viz clothing has become legitimized and enshrined in law. In 1999, the American National Standards Institute published standard 107 that defines three classes of successively brighter garments designed to protect workers in high risk areas. This complements standard 207 that identifies other practical fluorescent garments designed for easy belt access and other optional features for unrestricted working. Both of these standards were built out of the International Safety Equipment Association guidelines that previously existed.
For Bob, the discover of his now iconic Day-Glo was about much more than money. After his tragic accident, he saw a way to improve safety standards for workers everywhere, and arguably, he can be credited with inspiring the earliest health & safety regulations that have protected individuals across the globe. In addition to this, Bob was known as a passionate environmentalist, and he ensured that all of his factories and plants operated above and beyond current environmental laws.
In 1985, Bob sold the Day-Glo Color Corp to Nalco. He was 71 years old. With the money, he and his wife Patricia set up the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation to fund students working specifically on applied environmental problem solving. Sadly, Bob died in 1997 aged 83. However, his legacy lives on with the students he has helped through the foundation and, of course, by leaving behind a world that is (quite literally) brighter for his existence.