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The History (and Future) of Neon Signs

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The shop at 38 White Street in Lower Manhattan buzzes both literally and metaphorically.

Inside is a nonstop barrage of motion—shipments coming in and going out, designers working feverishly behind large monitors, phones ringing, salespeople discussing color options, and—in the very back—craftsmen bending and shaping tubes of glass with the formidable heat of gas torches.

All of this under the glow of neon lights in every size, shape, and color. Their transformers give off a faint hum, audible only when the movement inside manages to stop for a moment and take a breath.

Let There Be Neon has been making neon signs for businesses, artists, and decoration for 40 years, shipping work all over the world. They’re an increasingly rare breed; as more businesses opt for LED over neon, shops specializing in the inert gas become harder to find.

In the century since their invention, neon signs have become one of marketing’s most ubiquitous tools. From highly visible billboards to dust-covered signs in bodega windows, neon is a marketing staple that helps businesses shine. But even neon isn’t immune to the endless march of technology. These days, more and more neon signs are being replaced by cheaper and more adaptable L.E.D. screens. Like the hand-painted billboards before them, neon is becoming an uncommon advertising art.

But don’t turn off the lights just yet; for those who desire a handmade aesthetic, the nostalgic blaze of neon can’t be replicated.

Noble and Novel

Neon (the element) sits on the far right side of the periodic table, atomic number 10, with the noble gases—one of the most common elements in the universe, but relatively rare here on Earth. At two thirds the density of air, a balloon full of neon will rise slowly.
British scientists Morris W. Travers and William Ramsay first discovered neon in 1898 by liquefying air then capturing the gases that boiled off as they heat it. It was an elusive element to isolate, taking the duo about a month to finally capture. They put the gas into a tool called an “electrical gas-discharge” tube—essentially an early precursor to today’s neon lights. By adding an electric charge to the gas, they were able to identify it based on the color it emits. Travers and Ramsay were immediately awed by the brilliant red-orange color that the gas showed under electrical current. Travers wrote that “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget… for a moment, the spectrum of the gas did not matter in the least, for nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen.”

Shortly after the discovery, neon light tubes became scientific novelties, but the high cost prevented them from being used for anything more substantial. Then, in 1907, a French businessman by the name of Georges Claude found a cheaper way to isolate neon and began mass producing neon lights, first showing them off at the 1910 Paris Motor Show.

A few years after that success, Claude’s business partner—Jacques Fonseque—saw an opportunity in the signage business for their new technology. In 1912, they reduced the diameter of the glass tubes to make it more malleable, making it possible to shape the tubes into words. That same year, the company sold their first neon sign to a ritzy barber shop at 14 Boulevard Montmartre—a space now occupied by a Hard Rock Cafe. Soon, neon signs were popping up all over Paris—160 of them by 1913, and over 6,000 by the late 20s. In 1923, neon made its first appearance in North America when Earle C. Anthony bought two signs for his Packard dealership in Downtown Los Angeles. One of those signs is still there, shining bright on the corner of Hope Street and Olympic Boulevard, only now it says “Packard Lofts.”

Business boomed for Georges Claude throughout the 20s and 30s, but he landed in hot water after WWII. Following the liberation of France, he was accused of cooperating with occupying Axis forces, and sentenced to life in prison. He was released after five years in recognition of his other technological contributions that helped the Allied cause.

Technically, neon only produces one color—a bright orangey-red. To produce other colors, different gases—namely argon, which produces a beautiful lavender color—are used in combination with fluorescent coatings on the glass. This development, which came along in the 20s, makes a wide range of colors possible. That’s about the last technological innovation that came along for neon lighting. The process for creating neon displays has remained remarkably unchanged in nearly 100 years. Any innovation since has come from the hands of the craftsmen who shape it, finding new and creative ways to apply the medium.

As businesses took to using neon as a way to draw attention to their advertisements, certain cities and neighborhoods developed an identity around the glow of their signs. Times Square in New York, Ocean Drive in Miami, Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Shinjuku in Tokyo. With more businesses using them, the pressure to make increasingly impressive signs rose. Douglas Leigh, an advertising entrepreneur, helped brands do just that. The Alabama native moved to New York in 1929 and quickly made a name for himself by designing creative billboards that not only incorporated neon, but mechanical elements as well—giant coffee cups that let out steam, a laundry detergent ad that spit out real bubbles, and a famous ad for Camel cigarettes that blew smoke rings out onto Broadway.

Rather than being interruptive eyesores, Leigh’s signs—and others like them—became landmarks in their respective cities. Miami’s lights became synonymous with an entire design movement. Las Vegas became known as much for its animated neon behemoths as for its casinos. Author Tom Wolfe once wrote that Las Vegas is “the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Mass., but signs.”

But being a relatively affordable, low-maintenance way to grab attention, neon wasn’t limited to big brands and expensive billboards. Small businesses could put them up in their windows to tell the world they were open or advertise their services. Neon window signs became standard material for barber shops, restaurants, and bars. Beer companies produced a seemingly endless supply of signs to hang in watering holes to entice customers to order a Pabst over a Budweiser, a Schlitz over a Miller.

And behind every one of those gas tubes was a craftsman, creating gleaming advertisements from the very stuff stars are made of.

Handling Liquid Fire

Neon is formed inside massive stars (bigger than our Sun) from the fusion of carbon atoms. This takes an incredible amount of heat—500,000,000 degrees celsius. Neon is the fifth most common element in the Milky Way galaxy, after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon.

But even the fifth most common element isn’t immune to the steady march of technology. Neon signs have become less popular in the last two decades. The lure of L.E.D., with it’s dropping price and adaptability, has turned most of Times Square into a sea of massive video screens.

It’s easy to see why advertisers prefer L.E.D. screens—changing a sign only requires uploading a new file. For the billboard owner, this means more paying clients on the same ad space, faster turnarounds, and more revenue.

But there’s something different about neon. The physical aspect of the medium—glass pipes molded into shape by a craftsman, his hands rough with burns from years of work behind the torch—gives neon an entirely unique and special appeal.. It’s exactly what draws people to Let There Be Neon.

“What we do is make our clients happy. Neon just happens to be the product,” says owner Jeff Friedman. “That’s why people come to us.”

Inside the shop, Iqbal—who has been making neon signs since “before you were born”—heats up tubes of glass with a white-hot torch until they become as malleable as cooked spaghetti, then quickly shapes them against a pattern to write out words and form shapes. He points to pictures hanging on the wall of particularly challenging pieces, acting out the struggle with his hands as he describes the details that made each piece difficult. It’s tough work, and a job that’s becoming harder to fill.

“The glass benders that are really the heart and soul of the shop always seem to be old guys. There seems to be very few young people coming into interest in it, and I hope that turns around,” says Friedman. “It’s a craft. It’s a job. It’s a really good job.”

Friedman’s shop takes on a huge range of projects, big and small. He recalls a massive project for Hunter College—a fine art installation that hung from the pedestrian skywalk over Lexington Avenue. Even the smaller projects can be challenging. Back in the shop, the glass benders were putting the finishing touches on a piece of lettering that curved around a corner—the three-dimensional pieces are always tricky.

Perhaps most memorable of all was the time they watched someone swallow their work. They were commissioned by a performer from a Coney Island sideshow to create a neon sword that he could swallow, giving audience members a behind-the-scenes look at his G.I. tract.

“When he came to pick it up, he demonstrated,” Friedman says with a smile. “It was a little hard to watch.”

People come to his shop when they’re looking for something unique and craft-driven. The medium necessitates that. The handmade, artisanal aspect of neon means that their clients are looking for a way to stand out from a crowd of Light Emitting Diodes.

“Philosophically speaking, L.E.D. signs have no soul,” Friedman says. “Everything we do is made by hand. There’s no comparison.”

A Feature, Not a Fault

The problem with any new technology that becomes popular is that inevitably, we come to take it for granted. The novel becomes a nuisance.

Neon lights became so prevalent that they’re hardly noticed anymore. Some cities even passed ordinances banning or limiting their use in certain districts, turned off by the bright, colorful blaze. Neon signs became synonymous with seedy late-night businesses—bars, strip clubs, bail bonds, and casinos.

But as the prevalence drops, the opportunity with neon becomes greater. In a sea of L.E.D. video screens, the advertiser with neon stands out. The craft and handmade aspect of the signs brings with it a certain aesthetic that is irresistible to distinguishing brands, not unlike the appeal of hand-painted signs.

Its lo-fi nature is a feature, not a fault. There’s a nostalgic appeal in the hum of the transformer and gaudy brightness of the tubes. Like the crackle of vinyl, the high-pitched hiss of a VHS tape, or the blocky graphics of an arcade game, it’s something no amount of technology can replicate or replace. The elemental glow, harsh and unforgiving, is a visual reminder of our cosmic roots—”ATM Inside,” spelled out in the rotted guts of stars. How could mere pixels compare?

“You can’t duplicate neon,” says Friedman. “Some have tried to use L.E.D.’s, but then they come back and go with neon again.”

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