A garage with a bright neon sign is a familiar and iconic sight. Not surprisingly, since neon signs are bright and easy to see both during the day and night, they are an obvious choice to catch the eye of a passing motorist. What might surprise you though is that the history of neon signs is closely linked with the automotive industry.
The First Neon Signs
A French engineer named Georges Claude was the first to make neon signs commercially.
The first person to demonstrate neon light in a commercial application was Georges Claude, a French engineer and inventor. Monsieur Claude’s main business was selling liquefied air which resulted in large quantities of neon also being made as a by-product. Being both a smart business man and a part-time inventor, Georges Claude worked on a way to make neon lights stable and practical. He patented his processes and debuted his neon signs at the 1910 Paris Motor Show.
By 1923, Georges Claude was expanding his neon sign business into the USA. The first neon gas signs are traditionally thought to have been sold to Earle C Anthony to advertise his car dealership. He paid $2,500 for two huge signs spelling out ‘Packard’, the name of his company. The two signs were attached to the top of a hotel and they caused such a sensation that police had to be called to deal with the traffic jams.
Boom Time For Neon
The 1930s were the boom time for neon signs, especially in America. New advances in technology meant that colours other than the traditional orangey-red of neon could be used. Since the signs could be seen in daylight, fog or night-time they were an obvious choice for garages. The iconic sight of a neon sign smearing an orange glow across a black sky is a familiar one from any American road trip movie.
Neon lights were cheap, affordable to run and reasonably durable. In the 1930s the bright, other-worldly glow seemed the epitome of everything new and modern and scientific and perfectly caught the zeitgeist. It was a concept that fitted with garages selling cars that were rapidly becoming the most popular method of travel. Neon was the ultimate symbol of modern progress.
Falling Out Of Fashion
Sadly, the Second World War spelt the end of neon signs first wave of popularity. Resources were redirected to supporting the war effort and neon lights were not essential. Widespread blackouts in cities meant that neon lights were switched off. Neon signs that were not regularly maintained and used soon fell into disrepair. After the war, new cheaper lighting methods were preferred. Rusty neon signs with missing letters soon became the symbol of outdated, rundown areas.
Neon Signs As Art
In the 1960s neon signs were embraced by a new wave of artists as part of the Pop Art movement. Andy Warhol was a big fan of neon and he wasn’t alone. By the 1990s neon signs were a familiar sight in art exhibitions. Tracy Emin created neon signs using her own handwriting to write provocative statements to great acclaim. Neon has entered a new wave of popularity as an art form that has reignited an interest in the original advertising signs form the 1930s.
Today there are many museums devoted to neon signs. The Neon Museum in Las Vegas has a Boneyard exhibit where you can wander between huge neon signs salvaged from garages, casinos and shops.
The Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California has as its mission statement the aim of ‘creating an awareness for historic neon sign preservation and to showcase this electrifying contemporary art form’. They have a collection of classic signs and also conduct tours to see functioning signs in situ.
Warsaw is home to the popular Neon Muzeum that is ‘dedicated to the documentation and the preservation of Cold War era neon signs and electro-graphic design’. The museum frequently appears on lists of the best city museums in Europe.
In the American Sign Museum you can find plenty of neon signs, including a classic double sided Packard Garage sign.
LED Neon Signs
A new advance in neon signage was flexible LED neon. While traditional neon signs using gas filled glass tubes are still popular, the adaptability of LED neon is an advantage. LED neon is also cheaper to run. It is also safer and more durable as there is no glass involved. Thanks to this new technology, neon signs are once again becoming popular for shop fronts and advertising.
Neon Signs In The Home
Neon signs have recently become a popular trend in interior design. Having a bright neon sign on your wall provides an interesting, upbeat focal point. LED neon allows you to create a personal message for your sign if you desire.
If you are lucky enough to have a man cave or garage, a neon sign inspired by the classic garage signs from the 1930s might be the perfect finishing touch.