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Neon Signs

PostPosted: Tue Sep 25, 2012 9:50 am
by DavidM
A friend of mine has a fascinating collection of photographs of neon signs dating from the 1970's. For those of you who are interested in Americana, which, naturally enough, goes along with the music, these pictures are well worth a look;


Here's an essay he just wrote with a brief history of neon signs, and also about how he started collecting;

Neon Cowboys and Pink Ladies:
A photographic exhibition of neon signs from the 1970s

by Mike Cochran

In a 1978, Denton Record Chronicle article about my neon sign photo collection I was quoted as saying,
“I’m hoping to get all this stuff on record so that 40 years from now, when I’m an old man, I can say, “This is what neon once was’” the 28-year old Cochran explained.”

In every city on earth and in most towns, the nights are at least in part lit by the bright light of neon signs. It is literally “lightening in a tube” and has lit up the night for 100 years, changing and dominating the night-scape of the industrialized world. These intense colors can be seen from great distances and the glass tubes which hold the various colored gases can be fashioned into intricate, highly readable letters and shapes: it is the perfect medium for night-time advertising. But today, advances in alternate forms of sign lighting are slowly pushing neon from its place as the king of the night.

In 1910, French businessman and inventor, George Claude developed an efficient process for extracting neon gas and fashioning it into tubes for advertising purposes. The very first actual commercial neon tubes were used to decorate the Paris Motor Show of 1910. In 1913, a Cinzano Vermouth neon sign lit up the night sky of Paris, becoming the very first neon sign to advertise a product. Neon at that time was so new and fresh and respectable that by 1919, Claude Neon was used to decorate the entrance to the Paris Opera.

In 1923, Claude Neon Company shipped the first two neon signs to America where they were installed at a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles. So many people drove by to see the new phenomenon that it created traffic jams. Sign technology prior to neon had consisted of painted signs with lights on them. Neon must have seemed like some form of futuristic magic to those who saw it for the first time. It was all the rage.

For the first few years of neon in America, Claude Neon held an ironclad patent to the process. To make neon signs in America using the Claude process, a royalty fee of $100,000 was demanded, and all supplies were to be bought from the company. It was a monopoly, chafing under the increasing demand for the popular signs. If you wanted neon you had to either buy from Claude, or buy it from one of their franchisees.

Delicate neon tubes did not travel well and thus regional fabricators sprang up around the country. The exclusive nature of the single source neon provider kept the costs high and the clientele well heeled. It was new... it was modern... and above all, it was “classy”. During this period, the technical modernism of the clean-lined neon fit well with the clean modern lines of the Art Deco style and they grew up together.

In 1932 the Claude Neon patent expired and in 1933 Prohibition ended. With the end of the Claude patent anyone could make neon signs and with the end of Prohibition, bars, nightclubs and liquor stores popped out of the woodwork overnight and they all wanted neon signs. Quality went down, of course, but no one minded. Advertising signs are just a modern version of market hawkers, touting wares. “Look over here... not over there.” Signs are a visual way of shouting and nothing shouts better than neon. Businesses that depend on nighttime customers; bars, restaurants, hotels, theaters and honky-tonks were a natural fit with the attention grabbing neon sign. They were bright, they came in colors and they could flash in the night. The brightly lit neon sign, formerly been associated with quality establishments, had been democratized in the 1930s and though just as bright, began to lose its luster as a desired symbol of modernity. It would become a victim of its own popularity.

Because they were fragile and hard to transport they were generally produced locally, which caused them to develop a distinct regional style. In the southwest, the icons of southwestern culture are well represented in neon signs. From Texas to California the nights were lit with giant cowboys, bucking horses, sombreros, cacti, longhorns and the occasional dancehall girl. Neon became another form of folk-art, writ large… and very bright.

Neon as a symbol of the Jazz Age and the Art Deco martini drinking high-life began to be replaced by neon as a symbol of sleazy run-down bars, and run-down hotels for run-down people. Down-and-outers, loners, drinking by themselves and returning to their flop houses, where the darkness was punctuated by the incessant flashing of a neon sign. Of course it was a cliche, but with just enough truth to capture the popular imagination. Film Noir and 30s detective novels took up neon as a favorite symbol to provide the proper atmosphere for their downtrodden characters.

After a temporary lull in neon production during WWII, the post war economic expansion released a pent-up demand for the electrified signs. Neon sign making schools sprung up across the country, and ex-GIs, taking advantage of the GI Bill, enrolled to learn a new trade. There was one such school in Denton, Texas where many neon sign makers would learn their craft. At one time there were more than 2,000 neon sign companies in the country.

Vying for the public’s attention in the shouting match of the public marketplace, business owners commissioned ever, bigger, louder and flashier neon signs to draw in customers. Taking advantage of the capacity for neon to turn on and off instantly, creative sign fabricators devised ever more clever illusions of movement into their signs, creating what were in effect little cartoons of moving figures on the signs. Staid, dignified old-fashioned signage was upstaged by humorous tableaus of light and motion which caused the public to stop, gawk and remember. It was street theater of the night.

On Times Square in New York, one iconic sign of the period showed a man smoking a cigarette in neon with real smoke blowing out of his mouth. Every region had its exaggerated icons exploited and animated in neon signs. Paul Bunyon in the north woods, fishermen in the northeast, but in the wide open spaces of the American west imaginations ran wild. Images of giant cowboys would wink and wave, horses would buck, ladies would dance and swimmers would dive into neon pools. It was a free for all out there and Route 66 would be the link, and become the symbol of this new America.

By the 1960s, there was a backlash. Municipal beautification efforts sought to limit the neonification of the American street-scape. Any memory of the former days of glory, when neon meant quality and modernity, had long faded from the public consciousness. Blinking lights were banned in some towns. In 1970 Tucson Arizona’s Mayor dubbed it’s Speedway Blvd, “America’s ugliest street.” This reaction sparked more stringent sign ordinances, in what some called “an anti-sign witch hunt”. During that period of excess, most towns in American had similar commercial strips which could vie for the title of the Ugliest Street in America and neon was symptomatic of the very worst of the offenses.

Molded plastic signs were replacing neon everywhere as the next, newest thing. By the 70s, these plastic signs had captured almost 95% of the sign business. Rudi Stern, author of “Let There Be Neon” wrote of this dark period in the 70s, “Neon was a little bit like the last buffalo tied up outside the Indian gift store somewhere-- almost extinct, certainly thirsty and hungry.”

I can remember actually noticing neon as something beautiful late one very cold night in 1969 when I was walking around Amsterdam. I recall it was right around the corner from the Damplatz where I found a neon shop which had at least thirty neon signs arranged around the walls and the floor, lit up in a rainbow of colors. This was not neon “art”, little sculptures for sale. This was an old fashioned sign shop selling functional signs and this was their display of samples. I was mesmerized and have not forgotten what an impression it made on me.

After returning to Denton, I rented an old house on Bernard St. in Denton, Texas. Behind that house was an old barn owned by my landlord. It was not locked and exploring it one day in 1972, I discovered a cache of old unused neon tubes in a rack on a wall. The memory of that shop in Amsterdam caused me to take a few of the tubes and decide that I would figure out how to make the signs myself. This was pure naivety on my part, but I did make some very crude attempts to become a neon tube bender on my kitchen stove. The bends always flattened out until I heard that neon tube benders used a rubber tube and blew air into the tube to keep it from flattening. I rigged up a rubber hose and blew into the heat softened tube until it blew up like a glass balloon and then burst. This is harder than it looks.

In those student years I had several jobs that involved driving at night. For a while I drove a cab in Dallas and became acquainted with some of the seamier parts of town... just the sort of place where you might expect to find the neon signs people were complaining about. As a diversion, I started to look for them and I was never bored after that. Some of those old signs were so beautiful and iconic of Dallas that who could forget them. The Flying Red Horse, Esquire Theater, Lucas B&B and the Centennial Liquor’s Big Tex were all part of the Dallas nightscape. A few years later I found another part-time job, delivering motor homes across the country. Long endurance runs to Denver, to Los Angeles, to Minneapolis, to Miami. Long nights on the road, switching between every radio station on the dial to fight the boredom... and of course, looking out for neon signs.

I noticed that many of these signs were dimmed and even more were being replaced by plastic ones. Where old neon had captured the imagination with its intense colors and could amuse you with the movement of the cartoon-like figures, these new ones just didn’t do that. They were labels but they were not entertainment. When they tried to mimic the humor of the old neon in the plastic molded they all just looked ridiculous. The moving neon signs had life them, but the plastic signs seemed dead and boring.

News articles predicted the “death of neon”, so I bought a camera. If these old beauties were being condemned by the modern world, the least I could do was to document their demise. I bought a Rollei C-35, a small camera with a good lens specifically for the project. I was not, and still am not a skilled technical photographer so I had to do many tests. I took a lot of photographs. After a few experiments I could see that using regular daytime film would not get the colors right on the bright signs. The contrast was extreme and colors intense, and the conditions I was in were quite varied and generally bad: from the bright lights of a big city to a lonely motel along the interstate. I finally tried tungsten film which solved the problem of the colors at night.

And so I drove, and was always on the lookout for neon signs. As I passed cities at night I’d exit the highway and sought out neon signs. I found one unfenced dumping ground in Missouri where incredible old neon signs were just just dumped and left to rust. I found old restaurants, contacted the owners and actually bought the neon off the buildings. In Denton I bought the old neon from the Southern Hotel and for a while had a neon “hotel” sign outside of my bedroom window, just like Raymond Chandler and Jack Kerouac had described.

My photograph collection grew larger and I began to notice that some of the very signs I had documented were being torn down or broke and were not being fixed. My project had a purpose from the point the first sign I had photographed was destroyed. I had a record of it at the very least.

This collection of photos stops around 1980. Neon didn’t die as predicted, but it certainly got more predictable as the fantastic displays of the past went out of fashion or too expensive to maintain. Standardized, mass produced beer signs are everywhere, and though they do give off a nice light, they lack the creative qualities of folk art seen in the signs of the past. If this collection photos has a purpose, it is to exclaim, “This is what neon once was.”

Re: Neon Signs

PostPosted: Tue Sep 25, 2012 11:57 am
by NormanD
What a great collection.

I can think of a couple of neon signs that have gone wrong, as some of the letters blew out.

A pub with a large red "TAKE COURAGE" sign ended up as "TAKE E".

And The "Noodle King" became "Noodl ing".

Re: Neon Signs

PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2012 12:41 pm
by garth cartwright
Nice. Thanks for sharing!