The Return of Neon Signs: Understanding the Reasons Behind their Popularity

Amazing, flashing signs are being revived to illuminate roadside America, from Route 66 to the Vegas Strip.

In the first half-century of the 20th Century, neon hummed, flickered, and lit up the United States. They decorated billboards in New York City’s Times Square, in New Mexico motor homes along Route 66, as well as casinos on the Las Vegas strip.

However, the LED neon sign was considered “grandpa’s technology” even in the 1950s & 1960s, according to J. Eric Lynxwiler. He is the president of the board of directors at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. Soon, neon was banned from billboards and other public places across the country.

The science-driven arts are seeing a revival in interest, with museums, parks, and preservation efforts appearing all across the country. Many young artists are learning how to create neon’s unique glow. Copyright is to be respected Unauthorized use is not permitted.

Many restorations are currently underway. Radiant signs are reclaiming space in cities where they were once illegal.

Drivers cruise through downtown Tucson Arizona as flashing neon advertisements advertise everything from Italian food (a brightly lit chef flipping yellow glass “spaghetti”) to “refrigerated” hotel rooms (La Siesta Motel’s circa-1940 signage with its sombrero-ed men). Numerous decades-old blinking and buzzing advertisements line the city’s ” Miracle Mile”, a commercial corridor that was renowned for its mid-century architecture, and glitzy billboards, and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

“Neon stirs nostalgia-it’s classical Americana,” Chris Bovey (neon artist and printmaker) says. Bovey recently opened a studio/gallery in Spokane’s Washington Garland District. There is something magical and intangible about it. You can hear the gas movement inside the glass and feel the buzz.

Here are some places you can see the resurgent lights casting dazzling light across the U.S.

Neon flashes into the U.S.

At the turn of the 20th century, Neon lit up the U.S. shortly after Georges Claude had presented the concept at Paris’ 1910 Auto Show. His combination of physics, chemistry, and physics created a voltage in an electrode in a sealed tube made from glass that contained noble gases. The glow discharge was then transmitted to the U.S. Copyright is to be respected Unauthorized use is not permitted.

Lynxwiler explains that it was similar to painting with tubes. “This could be animated in any way you could imagine,” Lynxwiler said. U.S. glassblowers used this “liquid fire”, to make advertisements large (“Vegas Vic,” an 80-foot tall cowboy still blinking in Las Vegas), and small (motel signs that said “vacancy” or “no”. Neon, which was especially emblematic of the American West’s lonely highways, attracted weary travelers to a soft mattress, a warm meal, or a spot at the blackjack table.

This is America’s most lonely road.

Neon was featured in some of the 20th century’s most beautiful architectural styles. Neon covered the Art Deco hotels, apartments, and streets of Miami’s South Beach. Also, it outlined the futuristic diners and drive-ins in Los Angeles in a form called Googie. This name was inspired by a long-defunct Hollywood coffee shop. Wildwood, New Jersey has a Doo Wop look with its jutting roofs and sunshine colors, as well as a kidney-shaped swimming pool.

By the 1970s, neon was no longer in fashion. Bovey said that people used to think neon was glamorous and beautiful. Back in the 1950s, there were many neon signs around downtown. “But it was associated with tackier items like tattoo shops,” Bovey says.

Because neon is a delicate material that requires some maintenance (cleaning, lighting, and free from bird poop), many businesses have found it easier, and cheaper, to promote their Broadway shows, motel rooms, or pizza parlors with backlit signs. As mass-produced TV-like and billboard-like displays emerged, a whole new universe of neon vanished.

The lights turn back on

American preservationists and collectors became more interested in the signs that had faded toward the end 20th century. They’d restore them to hang in their homes and businesses. Lynxwiler explains that neon was a popular trend in the 1980s. It was revived by Day-Glo fashion and New Wave music. “Just look at a music video to see what I mean.”Copyright must be respected. Left The Neon Museum Las Vegas preserves neon-lit advertisements that are a hallmark of the Nevada city. Signs, many of them illuminated, are scattered over more than a two-plus acre near downtown. Photo courtesy of The Neon Museum. The American Sign Museum (right) in Cincinnati contains hundreds of artifacts.

An increasing appreciation for the medium and a desire to preserve historic artifacts led to a proliferation in illuminated sculpture parks, indoor galleries, and preservation efforts similar to Tucson’s Miracle Mile. The blazer’s bright glory feels both futuristic, patriotic, and distillation from the optimistic energy of the U.S. mid-20th century.

The Neon Museum Las Vegas first opened its doors in 1996. It houses 250 signs. They range from cursive letters that are car-sized to a guitar made by the former Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Aaron Berger is the museum’s executive Director. He says, “Venice is well-known for building things, then taking them down.” “Historic preservation is like this is new,” says Aaron Berger, the museum’s executive director. Signs are set up on fencing or spread across 2.27 acres near downtown. 22 characters are illuminated by night while the others are visible at night. Please respect copyright. Unauthorized use is not permitted.

L.A.’s Museum of Neon Art was founded in 1981. The current space, a 10,000-square feet former gaming arcade, contains dozens of vintage pieces along with contemporary artwork. Dazzlers include the 1930s frog, which appears to be tipping its top hat. Also, a mod, 18-foot tall liquor store sign. And artist Bill Concannon’s huge “flowers”, made from neon-lit recycled plastic bag bags.

Roxy Rose a third-generation neon artist, teaches classes in the museum’s workshop. It teaches newbies how to use torches and manipulate glass tubes to fill them with neon or argon. Rose said that custom neon sign is something Rose considers authentic and organic. “I love the joy on their faces when they make even a small bend.”

Neon is wild

But the best place to see neon is outdoors, where its lightning-in-a-bottle gleam starkly contrasts with dark skies over little-traveled highways or gray twilights in big cities. Berger says, “It’s kind of like moths going after a flame. That is the type of attraction people have.” “You can see an orange-red glow while driving through big open spaces. It’s a beacon.”Copyright is to be respected Unauthorized use is not permitted.

The West Coast has more vintage neon than the East Coast, even though neon used to shine all over the U.S.

Historic Route 66 Albuquerque still displays vintage signs, such as the one on the Dog House. A dachshund wags her tail and eats frankfurters. And the 1946 Monterey Motel with its fiery orange, green, and large arrow marks the spot for chic, updated guestrooms, and a curvy pool.

These are the reasons historic hotels are worth conserving.

Other neon-lit spots include Seattle, which has Pike’s Place Market under a jumbo electric billboard, as well as Baltimore, Maryland harbor, with its iconic Domino Sugars sign. San Francisco Neon also offers walking and virtual tours of illuminated areas such as the Castro, Nob hill, and Chinatown.

Over the past decade, Downtown Los Angeles has experienced a boom in new hotels and restaurants within historic buildings. Additionally, many neon marquees for movie theaters have been restored. “L.A. Lynxwiler: “L.A. “Downtown glows again and people tap into that with a caveman instinct.”

These LED neon signs are part of MONA’s frequent Neon Cruises. After-dark tours aboard an open-top double-decker bus. It glides past glittering pagodas and Hollywood signs, inspiring riders to take selfies with 21st-century smartphones against the backdrop of early 20th-century technology.

Rose says that you can talk and write as much as you like but if it’s done with neon people will hear you.

You can also see neon in other locations

American custom neon Sign Museum Cincinnati Ohio
This is the largest sign museum in the United States. It covers over 20,000 feet and includes historic advertisements (both neon-colored and not), as well as a glass-bending workshop.

Casa Grande Neon Sign Park, Casa Grande, Arizona
There are twelve illuminated vintage ads, including one with a glowing goose on it.

Neon Museum in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Indoor display space for neon signs displays glowing clocks, animated parts, and Philly memorabilia.

Jennifer Barger is Senior Travel Editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Insta.

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