Sunday, November 11, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Neon!

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Georges Claude was a French engineer and chemist who created the first neon lamp circa 1902. Eight years later, he displayed his first neon sign consisting of two 38-foot long tubes at the Parish Expo.

In 1912, Jaques Fonseque, an associate of Claude’s, sold the first commercial neon sign to a barber in Paris.

It took until 1923 for Georges Claude to introduce his neon signs to the United States. The first two neon signs were sold to a Packard Car dealership in Los Angeles. The dealership was owned by Earle C. Anthony. The two signs, reading “Packard” cost Anthony $24,000.

Neon signs made people stop and stare, and the brilliant red of the neon tubes was called “liquid fire.” During the 1920’s and 1930’s, many elaborate signs were created and neon signs spread across the United States from New York to California.

The heyday of neon signs was the 1950’s. Neon signs for diners and motels lit up the highways.

The 1960’s saw a steep decline in the use of neon. Municipal sign codes and public interest changed. The choice of neon was being replaced with cheaper alternatives.

From the 60’s through the 80’s, neon fell out of favor but, in 1999, the Route 66 Corridor Restoration Act helped in preserving some of the iconic Retro-Neon signs and monuments of the past.

It’s interesting to note that true neon usually only illuminates red, orange and amber. Other colors used in signs are usually “argon” gas-filled tubes. Normally, everyone refers to both gas-filled tubes as “neon.” Today, using neon and argon, more than 150 colors can be produced.

Recently, neon and argon signs have enjoyed a revival, and many photographers, us included, have made it a point to capture the old neon signs before they fade away. As businesses are closed, many of the neon signs are removed or left without maintenance.

Unfortunately, we came late to the game. In our travels, we drove past many signs before we realized that some of the signs we had taken for granted were disappearing from the landscape.

Now, some municipalities are passing rules against moving historic signs, including neon signs. And due to vandalism, some historic neon signs are being covered with plastic to protect the tubes.

For these reasons, we’ll be stopping at any cool neon sign we find. And in your travels, as you pass old neon, enjoy the sight. There’s no telling how long a sign will remain.

Happy Shunpiking!


  1. Great story, Ruth! You guys have captured a lot of them in Wisconsin and right here in Madison. We drive by them all the time and take them for granted! We saw lots of interesting old neon signs when we drove Route 66 last fall. We were so glad we got to see them before they do disappear from the landscape!

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