June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. By 1900, fifteen hundred incandescent bulbs had been hung on the narrow front of the Flatiron Building in New York City to form America’s first electrically lighted outdoor advertising sign. After that, incandescent signs began to flicker on across the country. But neon, which would become the most pervasive part of the urban nocturnal landscape, did not get to the United States until the 1920’s.
Around the turn of the century a French inventor named Georges Claude started producing cheap, high-quality oxygen, then much in demand by hospitals and for oxyacetylene welding. In the process, he found himself with sizable amounts of leftover “rare gases”—argon, krypton, xenon, and neon. Seeking a use for these by-products, he filled a glass tube with neon and bombarded it with electricity. The tube glowed a clear, intense red; argon, he found, produced a cool, grayish blue. Finally, he discovered that he could add to this limited palette of colors by coating the interior surface of the glass.
In 1910 Claude exhibited a neon sign at the Grand Palais in Paris. Five years later he patented an electrode with a high resistance to corrosion. This invention removed the final obstacle to the widespread use of tube lighting.
Claude saw his lamps simply as a superior source of general indoor and outdoor illumination, but an associate named Jacques Fonseque recognized the potential of neon for advertising, and thus determined the course of its use for the next sixty years. In 1912 Fonseque sold the world’s first neon advertising sign to a small barbershop on the Boulevard Montmartre. A year later a more spectacular sign, the first installed on a roof, lit up the Paris sky with three-and-a-half-foot-high letters spelling out CINZANO . The main entrance of the Paris Opéra was illuminated by the Claude Neon company in 1919. The neon signs of this period had been chiefly orange-red letters lit against scintillating green metal backgrounds, but the Opéra sign boldly combined red and blue tubing to create an effect which came to be known as couleur Opéra .
It was this color combination that first came to the United States. In 1923 a Los Angeles car dealer named Earl C. Anthony visited Paris, met the enterprising Fonseque, and paid him $2,400 for two identical blue-bordered signs bearing the word PACKARD in neon letters. The signs literally stopped traffic in Los Angeles, and one (shown at left) is still working, having outlived the automobile it celebrated.
Claude Neon did not long depend solely on chance visits from abroad. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell General Electric an exclusive license, the company began offering territorial licenses outside France in 1924. These sold throughout the world, but nowhere in such numbers as in America. Soon there were licensees in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. Each company agreed to pay $100,000 plus royalties for the franchise.
From the beginning there were problems with infringements. As the popularity of neon spread, one-man shops came into being. The fragile tubes did not ship well, but even small towns could support neon shops. Still, Claude’s monopoly held up throughout the decade. In 1927 Claude Neon Lights, Inc., made 611 out of a total of 750 signs manufactured in New York City. In the grim business year of 1929 the company reported annual sales of $9,000,000 out of a total market of $11,000,000, a 40 per cent increase over the previous year. To this day, there are people who believe the lights were developed by a man named Claude Neon.
It was not the subsequent Depression that ultimately brought down Claude’s empire, but the expiration of his patents. Even before the key patent for the long-life electrode ran out in 1932, bootleg neon sign makers had become brazen. All it really took to get started in the business was one competent exemployee of Claude Neon.
During the 1930’s American sign Shakers took neon advertising farther than Georges Claude and his associates had ever envisioned. Douglas Leigh, who conceived and created the huge, intricate signs that gave Times Square much of its visual excitement, also experimented with displays that incorporated smells, fog, and sounds as part of their total effect.
At the Chicago Century of Progress sition in 1933, fifty-five-foot-high cascades of green and blue light followed the horseshoe-shaped contours of the Electrical Building, and fountains threw up soaring jets of water, colored by submerged luminous tubes. One Chicago shop alone produced some seven miles of tubing for the Exposition. But economic conditions in the thirties prevented a large-scale transfer of these lighting effects to general use. Only on the exteriors of movie palaces did neon come into its full glory, extending the delights within to the streets outside. The pleasure of taking in a movie became inseparably associated with neon.
Up to the beginning of World War II the demand for neon seemed likely to keep growing forever. But display artists like Leigh were too few to prevent the spread of poorly designed signs. Neon’s more affluent patrons, the large corporations, gradually withdrew their support as the medium started to detract from their public images. Smaller companies and stores could afford only the simplest of designs, and neon shops began to emphasize efficiency of production over good design.
As economy became increasingly important to the industry, maintenance began to suffer. Many street signs barely functioned, their units dim or sputtering. Eventually, some communities began passing ordinances restricting neon’s use.
Following the war, plastic- and fluorescent-lamp manufacturers started promoting plexiglass shadow boxes that held fluorescent lights behind lettering and graphics. Bypassing the electric-sign industry and selling directly to the customer, these manufacturers dealt an all but fatal blow to neon in the 1950’s. Stores with bland plexiglass fronts proliferated while neon was disparaged as crude and old fashioned.
Today, although clear tubing is still easily available, tinted glass becomes harder and harder to find. Several decades ago there were thirty colors to choose from; now there are scarcely fifteen. Ruby red, midnight blue, noviol gold, uranium green, and airplane green have disappeared from American production. Even in Las Vegas there are only two companies left that make tubing, and less than five per cent of their total sales is in neon. But the most significant loss has been in skilled craftsmen. The average glass bender today is over fifty, and few young people are taking up the art. In New York City, where there once were four hundred people bending glass, there are now about a dozen.
But whatever the future of neon sign making may be, the surviving examples are remarkably durable. A neon tube can live for forty years before it needs repumping, and then it’s good for another forty. So all across the country, old neon signs still throw their bright messages out into the night. Time, sleet, and general neglect may crack and darken parts of the lettering into what one novelist called “agreeable nonsense,” but the familiar images remain—the blue and red shoe, the fat green fish, the yellow cocktail glass. And as the examples on these pages attest, they are true examples of American folk art, crisp, precise, and vigorous.