A Brief History of Vintage Neon Signs
I commute daily almost 3 hours. A large portion of that commute is along Route 99 West and often as I've sat stuck behind a row of high performance BMWs driving two miles-an-hour because it's lightly misting I've had a lot of time to enjoy the great looking vintage road signs along Route 99W. In addition, when my meanderings have found me on the other side of town I've enjoyed what I've seen on Route 99 East (for instance a B-17 mounted over a vintage filling station). The Route 99 routes run North to South through Oregon and it's apparent they were the motorway before I-5.
I decided to travel the Routes (East and West) and take pictures of the signs to share with others. I self published a book filled with many of those pictures that you can preview the whole book and purchase here:
If you like the book but think, "Holy crap that's expensive", I can comiserate. I only make a $1.50 per book. Apparently, print-on-demand costs significantly more than the economies of scale scored by Barnes and Nobles mass publications of coffee table books. If you do buy my book feel happy that you're supporting the man with the vision and the passion, not a corporation. except my printer who might be making $20 or $30 per book but I don't want to think about that.
But that book only piqued my curiosity. Who made these signs? How are they made? How old are they? Some of these signs are obviously pieces of art but how hard are they to make? Why aren't signs made like this anymore?
I decided to do a little research and it was fascinating. I'm going to share it with you but I must caveat: It's utterly pointless for me to re-write what the experts wrote and I'm not in grade school or selling this blog so know that some of the below is not my writing and enjoy that I put it together in one place for you but know that much of it is blatant plagiarism. It's 10 AM on a beautiful Saturday and I don't feel like chasing references all day, I want to go work on my 1957 MGA (www.budgetmga.blogspot.com).
So how did neon signs come about? Well, the concept of charging gases in a vacuum tube to glow had been around a long time (since the 1600s). But for the 1910 Paris Motor Show a guy named George Claude demonstrated a tube filled with Neon blazing brightly. He was owner of a liquid air company, and Neon was one of the by-products his air company produced (along with others such as oxygen, acetlyln, helium, etc. for industrial applications (I'm guessing on what else he produced)). Somehow he got the idea to try it in the vacuum tubes and figured out it worked wonderfully well!
Here's the signs from the 1910 show -
Here's his patent -
Interesting enough, I found court cases in the 1930s where he was suing everyone that joined the neon business. Then in the 40's, when the Germans ran over France he became a Nazi sympathizer. After the war he was tried and imprisoned. Personal opinion here, but I get the indications from what I see that he was a ruthless business man without much personal integrity.
After the Paris show, according to Wikipedia, an Italian Vermouth company put up a neon sign. I can't find any pictures of this online but neon was introduced to the US in 1923 when a Los Angeles Packard dealership bought two of the signs for $1250 a piece. Consider at that time, a Model T was selling for circa $600 so these signs cost the equivalent of four cheap cars.
Packard sign -
Between 1910 and 1930 a number of innovations were made to increase the quality of the lighting including ways to purify the chamber of the glass and the coatings used inside the glass.
From Wiki -
"Over the next several years, patents were granted to Claude for two innovations still used today: a "bombardment" technique to remove impurities from the working gas of a sealed sign, and a design for the internal electrodes of the sign that prevented their degradation by sputtering."
"The next major technological innovation in neon lighting and signs was the development of fluorescent tube coatings. Jacques Risler received a French patent in 1926 for these. Neon signs that use an argon/mercury gas mixture emit a good deal of ultraviolet light. When this light is absorbed by a fluorescent coating, preferably inside the tube, the coating (called a "phosphor") glows with its own color."
The actual manufacture of neon signs was an artisan's work. Here's a description of that process that's extremely abbreviated (also from wiki) -
"Neon tube signs are produced by the craft of bending glass tubing into shapes. A worker skilled in this craft is known as a glass bender, neon bender or tube bender."
"A section of the glass is heated until it is malleable; then it is bent into shape and aligned to a pattern containing the graphics or lettering that the final product will ultimately conform to. This is where the real art of neon comes in that takes some artisans from a year up to several years of practice to master. A tube bender corks off the hollow tube before heating and holds a latex rubber blow hose at the other end, through which he gently presses a small amount of air to keep the tube diameter constant as it is bending. The trick of bending is to bend one small section or bend at a time, heating one part of the tubing so that it is soft, without heating some other part of the tube as well, which would make the bend uncontrollable."
"A bend, once the glass is heated, must be brought to the pattern and fitted rapidly before the glass hardens again because it is difficult to reheat once completely cooled without risking breakage."
"It is frequently necessary to skip one or more bends and come back to it later, by measuring carefully along the length of the tube. One tube letter may contain 7-10 small bends, and mistakes are not easily corrected without going back and starting all over again. If more tubing is required, another piece is welded onto it, or the parts can be all welded onto each other at the final step."
At this point the tubes are then evacuated of all air and charged (per Mr. Claude's cleansing invention) to a massive voltage in order to get the impurities out. They are then sealed and through a port neon is placed in the chamber. The mechanism at the end of the tube also provides the charging port from which the electrical current is supplied to the tube. The control of those currents can range from simple on/off to quite complicated if the lighting is designed to change.
Period articles of the time dubbed neon "liquid fire".
Because of the artistry and skill required to be a neon sign maker many of the early shops were mom and pop style.
After the Packard signs, neon signs exploded through the US. One of the best descriptions I can find of why comes from the definition of "googie architecture" in Wiki -
"Alan Hess, one of the most knowledgeable writers on the subject, writes in Googie: Ultra Modern Road Side Architecture that mobility in Los Angeles during the 1930s was characterized by the initial influx of the automobile and the service industry that evolved to cater to it. With car ownership increasing, cities no longer had to be centered on a central downtown but could spread out to the suburbs, where business hubs could be interspersed with residential areas. The suburbs offered less congestion by offering the same businesses, but accessible by car. Instead of one main store downtown, businesses now had multiple stores in suburban areas. This new trend required owners and architects to develop a visual imagery so customers would recognize it from the road. This modern consumer architecture was based on communication"
Here's the history of one of Portland's early neon sign makers (taken from their website) -
"In 1911, a 28-year-old newspaper editor from Louisville, Kentucky was looking for a change. Arch Gibson Ramsay - known professionally as A.G. Ramsay - headed west to Portland, Oregon, married his sweetheart Zelma, and established Ramsay Signs as a handcrafting sign company in a small building in downtown Portland, Oregon."
"Though little is known of the earliest years of Ramsay Signs, business flourished throughout the 1910s and 1920s - the company had signs everywhere from Seattle, Washington to Redding, California. In the 1920s, the company expanded and opened Brilliant Neon Company, a subsidiary that focused on electrical signs rather than the gold leaf lettering Ramsay Signs installed for banks and other businesses downtown. Employees at the Brilliant Neon Company's shop, located in Portland's Hollywood District, were active in the community and used their expansive social networks made through various club memberships to sell signs in the neighborhood."
"In 1933, the Brilliant Neon Company was renamed Ramsay Signs, and the Brilliant Tube Company located in Portland, OR was acquired. This acquisition had been a long-time desire of A.G. Ramsay , when the Depression caused the Brilliant Tube Companies purchase price to plummet from $5000 in 1929 to a mere $750 in 1933, it was a deal A.G. Ramsay could not pass up. Ramsay Signs continued to defy the conditions of the Depression through the mid-1930s, noting in 1934 that they believed the "attitude of the buying public was turning around."
"When the war was in full-swing in 1942, Ramsay Signs faced its toughest times yet - far worse than at any time during the Depression. As men were shipped off to war they were faced with a labor shortage and the price of parts reached astronomical levels. Blackouts and dim-outs were becoming increasingly common in Portland and across the country; manufacturing - let alone selling - signs became a daunting task."
"When the company realized it couldn't survive on sign sales alone, the shop was converted into a plant for building and preparing war materials. While it is unclear exactly what those war materials were, from conversations with retired employees of the company it's believed those materials may have been cold cathode lighting and gas tanks for the military. This manufacturing was short-lived, as there was not much profit in supplying parts for the military. Through it all, the company survived, though it took several years before the company once again reached its levels of success prior to WWII."
Here's a photo of one Portland Intersection in the late 1930's -
As you can see, Portland's neon sign business was healthy in the late 1930's.
When I stopped into Lew's to take the picture of the sign, the manager came out and explained this sign was from the late 1920's when it was over Lew's cart which was located in a grove of farm trees. Lew was successful enough to later build a restaurant.
One interesting concept I stumbled upon was of a company named Richfield. Their plan was to build town's that incorporated everything a traveller would need around large Richfield signs. These Richfield signs were meant to be both a beacon to motor and plane travellers. At the base they would find fuel, airports, hotels, restaurants and etc.
Here's what one website had to say about Richfield -
" Almost overnight it seemed like everybody had a car and they were most anxious to use it, with flivvers flivvering hither and yon from Yuma to Yreka. These would-be Christopher Columbuses had money to spend, but not always so many places to spend it. Recognizing a need and thusly a way to make lots of money, a group of high-powered Los Angeles executives got together and in July 1928 they formed a corporation known as Highway Communities, Inc. Working in conjunction with the powerful Richfield Oil Company, the newly formed venture laid out a bold and exciting plan to create a chain of hotels, service stations and restaurants that would stretch all the way from the Mexican to the Canadian borders. All facilities would be strategically placed so as to reap the maximum benefit not only from automobile traffic, but from air travelers as well, with each location near an airfield."
A 1928 article states that a 60' Richfield sign was placed on the hill above Portland but this late 1930's picture of the area the sign was to be shows the sign was already removed by that time. No internet picture of this Portland Richfield sign exists so if you have one, post it please!
This 1928 sign must have been part of this effort, maybe even a prototype (also stolen from the above referenced website) - "The bold program got off to a roaring start on December 17, 1928, the 25th anniversary of the Wright Bros. history-making flight at Kitty Hawk, when the first six giant beacons went “live” with a gala ceremony held at Palm City, California, the southernmost site of a Richfield Beacon."
We do have a town north of Portland named Richfield. I can't help but wonder if it started as one of these Richfield developments (I would bet on it).
Richfield was operating in downtown Portland at the time, as you can see in the below photos (look hard, you'll see a Richfield in both.
After the war, through the "Googie" period, neon signs continued to be popular.
From Wiki -
"Googie architecture is a form of modern architecture, a subdivision of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age."
"Features of Googie include upswept roofs, curvaceous, geometric shapes, and bold use of glass, steel and neon. Googie was also characterized by Space Age designs symbolic of motion, such as boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms and parabolas, and free-form designs such as "soft" parallelograms and an artist's palette motif. These stylistic conventions represented American society's fascination with Space Age themes and marketing emphasis on futuristic designs."
Bob's Big Boy is probably the ultimatum of "googie"-
Here's what one local Portland hotel owner has to say about his sign (stolen from a website) -
"It's one of the favorite lights in my life," Bhanu Patel says of the neon sign towering outside the motel he purchased in 1997. "It's my heart."
The Palms sign stands a staggering 50 feet tall on North Interstate Avenue, an electric totem forcing all who pass it to take notice. Or even to stop and stare in awe. Folks from around the world swing by the Palms to have their picture taken in front of the set of glowing trees and the little monkey that reaches for a coconut, Patel says. He believes the sign was built in 1952. The Palms has also been the set for a number of indie films. Someday soon, the owner hopes to augment his sign. "My one dream is to have a couple more monkeys to catch the coconut," he says.
Here's a circa 1960 Portland photo showing some of the downtown signage -
This is an excellent video of moving neon signs around Portland -
Even my 1972 Ford F-250 has an atomic symbol on the AC unit as a decal.
Modernism all but killed Googie and neon signage as it was dabbed too flashy. Only recently has a real effort been made to save existing examples from the period of history that reflected America's transformation to a traveling and commuting society. Some argue that effort started when LA attempted to put one of the very first McDonald's on the historic registry (the owner resisted but did agree to preserve the spot.
Modern signs now are a much cheaper and easier to produce plastic with translucent paints, lighted with standard lights under.
The degree of artistry needed to produce modern signs has been reduced almost to zero. Just look at a Home Depot sign.
Read too New Product Samsung
Let's do everything we can to preserve the signs that still exist from that fascinating period in American history. The signs represent much more than an advertising technique, they represent what was happening in American culture at that time and are part of our national heritage.
Remember to check out the author's book documenting some Portland signs here -