The Timeless Attraction of Neon Signs

For more than 100 years, neon signs have lit up the streets of downtown London and Las Vegas. But could its bright, cheerful glow be in danger?

New Yorkers have successfully campaigned for the preservation of a massive neon sign that has blazed above Brooklyn’s Ninth Street for decades. It advertises ‘Kentile Floors.’ The sign will be relocated as part of a program of redevelopment. This is not about the products or the love for neon that people have shared.

Ginia Bellafante, writing in the New York Times stated that Kentile Floors’ tiles contained asbestos. She also claimed that plaintiffs claiming their products caused cancers and other deadly diseases faced the company for years. Bellafante considers the Brooklyn campaign to promote the sign “an extension and creative class fetish of the workingman’s lives, the same sensibility which has resulted in the fashion for Carhartt jackets. Esso shirt, trucker caps, factory Paraphernalia and so forth among recent graduates at better Eastern colleges – one of the most defining symbols of denied privilege.”

Perhaps. Yet, Kentile Floors and other old-fashioned neon signs attract so many people regardless of what they were originally meant to sell. They attract the eye like fireworks. They liven up city centers. They are nostalgic for the 1930s cocktail bars, speakeasy restaurants, nightclubs, and the excitement of downtown. Petula Clark sang the song Downtown in 1964, a worldwide hit.

Listen to the traffic jamming in the city.

Energy replacement

A neon sign advertising Lucozade, a bubbly energy drink, was a London landmark for many years. Numerous people passed it on their way to the city center from Heathrow Airport’s elevated road. The cheerful sign that depicted a bottle pouring golden bubbles into a glass of wine dates back to 1954. However, its original message was “Lucozade Aids Recovery”. It was replaced in 1980 with “Lucozade Replaces Lost Energy”. The building it adorned was destroyed 10 years ago. After a six-year campaign led by residents and supporters, the sign was finally placed in Gunnersbury Museum’s care. A replica was attached to the side at a nearby car showroom. Margaret Hodge (Britain’s culture minister) said, “There was no energy lost” during the campaign by residents.

Last year, JC Decaux, a signage and street furniture firm, announced plans for a digital screen to replace the replica. It showed the familiar old bottle – which is so reminiscent of childhood for many people – mutating into a Lucozade Sport drink. Lucozade was now owned by Suntory Japan, which may have been a mistake.

Although neon has been replaced by LED lighting and other fast-moving digital displays on main roads and in cities worldwide, its popularity is still strong. In London, the Piccadilly Circus’ last traditional neon sign for sale – which was dedicated to Sanyo, another Japanese firm, in 1987 – was destroyed in 2011. However, The Neon Museum is located in the stunning Space Age lobby of La Concha Motel. Since then, it has been busy organizing tours through the amazing neon heritage of Las Vegas for busloads. Hong Kong is another city that pays homage to neon signs for sale.

Kings in neon

It all started in 1896 when William Ramsay – a distinguished British chemist and future Nobel Laureate – discovered the amazing properties of the gas-only 0.0018% of Earth’s atmosphere – by placing neon in a container and charging it with electricity. He said it was like the Northern Lights. It was a brilliant, bright, crimson-colored light that kept his colleagues spellbound.

Georges Claude was a French engineer and entrepreneur who displayed two neon signs 12m long at the Paris Motor Show. The public was stunned. Claude’s Air Liquide was a neon-lit company that dotted Paris in the years preceding World War I. He even lit the entrance to the Paris Opera with neon in 1919 when the lights of Europe came on again. Four years later, Claude sold a pair of neon signs for sale to Earl C Anthony’s Packard dealer in Los Angeles. This set the tone for the many neon signs (including Kentile Floors) that would be shining from coast to coast in the United States over the next ten years.

Neon signs helped to make the Depressed Thirties less miserable by lighting up the Roaring Twenties. Hollywood, Times Square, many cheap and cheerful movie theaters, and family dinners were all lit up by neon signs. Because each sign was handcrafted, they were also an art form. It was evident that there was an artistry in the way colors were mixed and conjured using different gases. While neon is red hot, argon has violet light, pink, helium, krypton, and pale blue. Today, even though neon is not in the mainstream of advertising, artists such as Tracey Emin and Dan Flavin still love it.

Forever, neon signs will conjure up the 1930s Las Vegas and Shanghai worlds – where the original was a 1926 sign by Royal Typewriters at Nanjing East Road. Before that, they were featured in iconic films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner of 1981, on album covers such as John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll 75, and lighting – in bands of pure White – Hong Kong’s origami-like Bank of China, which was designed by I M Pei, a Chinese-American architect. It opened in 1990.

But there was a time between the 1960s to 1990s when neon signs were often associated with parts of the city’s innermost neighborhoods. These districts were redeveloped over the past few decades and restored to comfortable, profitable lives. There was a dark side to city life. There were sex shops and hostess bars. The old signs high above them screamed “Blue-Collar Industrial World” with their old banners promoting a blue-collar industrial world that employs wheel alignment, synthetic floor tiles, and auto parts.

Despite the lure of LED lighting and cheaper fluorescent, Neon has survived into the 21st Century. Residents have been determined to keep the neon signs for Lucozade & Kentile Floors lit, as well the entire city center, like Hong Kong’s. Neon will continue to be a sign for “downtown” with its bright, emotive, and highly popular firework light.

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