Neon Signs: Their History & Role in Today’s Decor

Retro Staff Comments
First neon sign in US.

The first neon sign in the US was displayed at the Packard dealership in Los Angeles.

Neon signs have a rich and exciting history that dates back to the early 1900s. Theories leading to the creation of today’s neon signage began development around 1675, but it would take more than two centuries for neon itself to be discovered.

Neon is a rare, inert gas that can be extracted from the atmosphere. When electrically charged, the harmless gas glows red, but by adding various elements to neon, other colors can be made. For signs, neon is placed inside glass tubes, which can be molded to various shapes.

French engineer and inventor Georges Claude developed neon tube lighting in order to exploit the gas which was a byproduct of his air liquefaction processing. The first neon sign made for public display was erected at a car show in Paris in 1910. He was awarded patent in the US in 1915, which gave him protection and the ability to run a monopoly company – Claude Neon Lights – through the early 1930s.

The first neon sign displayed in the US was at a Los Angeles Packard dealership. Earle Anthony paid approximately $2,500 for two signs. Passersby were so stunned by the bright lights that the signs literally stopped traffic.

Tiki Bar Neon Sign

By mixing gases and elements, more than a hundred colors can be used to create a neon masterpiece.

Throughout the years, additional gases were introduced to create different colors: mercury glows a light blue, argon and phosphor provide a bold yellow glow, and carbon dioxide is used for white. Since many elements and gases can be mixed, “neon” tubing is available in more than 100 colors.

As the creative process became more advanced, so did signage. Today’s neon signs, however, still provide that awe effect that was so common in the 50s and 60s. While different methods are used to make these types of lighted displays more affordable, multi-colored neon tubing is still hand-blown, and is still supported by a grid. Placement of indoor signs is restricted only by the location of electrical outlets.

Neon signs are as popular as ever, and not just at bars and restaurants. They’re used in home decor – primarily in game rooms, garages, “man caves”, cocktail areas and kitchens. Because they have a warm glow, they provide ample light for gatherings and become great conversation pieces.

Affordability was a key factor for many retro enthusiasts, so reproduction signs have become very popular. Subjects include cars, games, restaurant and diner, coffee and beer. Traditional portrait signs accented by neon provide an unique glow to well-remembered pieces.

Even though they’ve been around a century, neon signs have become an exciting, new decorating trend in today’s homes, making unexpected statements in all types of rooms. Yes, even the bathroom…

Are you a neon enthusiast? Do tell…

Last updated: Apr 27, 2012
Filed under: Retro Design Tagged with: Decorating Ideas, neon decor