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The History of Neon Signs

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"The History of Neon Signs"
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The History of Neon Signs:

Americans have had an ongoing love affair with the brilliantly arrayed gassy tubes since the 1920's. After a brief decline in the 1960's, the popularity of neon signs was again on the rise and has only increased through the passing years. In the early part of the 21st century, the nostalgic wonders are in high demand, not merely among blossoming businesses, but by museums and private collectors. This unique form of art and advertisement has rightfully earned its place in the hearts and minds of the nation who made it great. Though neon signs were first brought to America from France, very few neon manufactures still exist outside the United States.

The ancient art of glass-blowing combined with 19th century scientific discovery of neon gas's glowing properties first came together by way of Heinrich Geissler, who in 1857 put the two together to form the Geissler Tube. It was mass produced in the 1880's as entertainment devices; toys for adults. Nikola Tesla invented and displayed his florescent lamps and neon lamps at the 1893 World Fair, but his innovations had not been patented. As a result, in 1902 Georges Claude took the idea of the neon lamp and developed it into a sign. Sold commercially in Paris in 1910, Claude was then credited with the neon's invention.

In 1923, an American businessman specially ordered two signs from Claude at a cost of $24,000. The Light Fantastic was then brought to the United States and used for advertisement. As people stopped to stare in awe at the liquid fire, the signage became a national craze among businesses and patrons alike. The glowing wonders were the best known way of attracting attention and therefore driving business. The signs themselves were often a person's motivation for giving patronage to an establishment. The craze continued into the 1930's and 1940's. After World War II, new businesses sprouted up and wanted a piece of the glowing night sky.

By the 1950's neon was everywhere; glass-bending techniques had developed further and neon signs were no longer mere words, such as "open" or a company's name. Instead, the eye-catching signs incorporated images glowing with many new vibrant colors. Suddenly, motel signs boasted flamingos and palm trees; night clubs flashed musical instruments and cocktail glasses; drive-in restaurant signs danced with roller girls in poodle skirts. Every drive-in, roadside attraction, diner, motel, and coin-o-matic across the U.S. drove the national economy by drawing us like moths to the flickering, buzzing, over-the-top displays of glowing gas signage.

During the 1960's, America saw a drastic change of attitude toward neon signs and people saw them as gaudy, tacky, and distasteful. Throughout that decade, the production and sale of neon signs nearly came to a complete standstill. However, the 1970's ushered in an era of new artistic mediums and the icon received a make-over when artists began incorporating the technique into their artwork. As a result, neon made a fast comeback and has been going strong since. More businesses are beginning to return to the neon signs as advertisement and with more than 150 different colors and advanced techniques in glass design, the possibilities are endless. Currently, neon signs, both old and new are highly sought-after. Private collectors are willing to shell out hefty prices at auction for these artistic and nostalgic reminders of the glory days.

Today, neon signs have become a pop cult icon in America, lighting businesses and imaginations in small towns of the heartland as well as big cities. From the rural most stretches of Rt. 66 to the Strip in Las Vegas and dotting the shorelines along the east and west coasts, neon signs light the skies to lead us through the night and push us for a closer look at the wonders they display.

More about this author: Gayla Pledger

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