Neon signs: An enduring love affair

For more than 100 years, the neon sign has illuminated downtown areas in London and Las Vegas. Is it in danger of losing its bright glow?

New Yorkers have been successful in their campaign for the preservation and restoration of a neon sign that has been blazing over Brooklyn’s Ninth Street for decades advertising ‘Kentile Floors’. The sign will be removed as part of a redevelopment program. It celebrates not the products of a synthetic floor factory that closed in the early 1990s but a long-lasting love affair with neon shared by people all over the globe.

Ginia Bellafante wrote in the New York Times that Kentile Floors tiles contained asbestos. This led to years of litigation by plaintiffs who claimed Kentile Floors products caused cancer cases and other serious illnesses. Bellafante views the Brooklyn campaign as an extension of creative class fetish, which she believes is the reason for the popularity of factory paraphernalia, Esso shirts, and trucker caps among recent graduates from better Eastern colleges. It is the ultimate symbol of denied privilege.

Perhaps. But there is something more about Kentile Floors, and other venerable neon signs, that draws so many people no matter what they originally intended to sell: they are like fireworks. They are a way to liven up cities. They bring back memories of the 1930s, speakeasy diners, and sensual nightclubs, as well as the excitement of being downtown. Petula Clark’s 1964 hit, Downtown, is a tribute to this.

Listen to the traffic noise. You can also just linger on the sidewalk, where there are neon signs.

Energy replacement

One of London’s most loved and well-known neon signs has advertised the energy drink Lucozade for many years. Many people saw it as they walked into town from Heathrow Airport. This cheerful sign, which depicts a bottle filled with sparkling golden bubbles in a wine glass, dates back to 1954. Its original message of “Lucozade Aids Recovery” was changed to “Lucozade Replaces Lost Energy” 10 years ago. The sign was saved by Gunnersbury Museum after a six-year campaign by residents and others. A replica was then attached to the side of a nearby car dealership. Margaret Hodge, Britain’s culture minister, said that “there was no energy wasted” in the campaign of residents.

The fightback was renewed when JC Decaux (the signage and street furniture manufacturer) announced plans to replace the replica with a digital screen that showed the old bottle – so reminiscent of childhood for millions of people – morphing into the modern Lucozade Sports beverage. Lucozade, now owned by Suntory, was once again in the spotlight. Perhaps they didn’t realize how important the happy marriage between nostalgia and neon was to many.

While neon lights have been replaced with LED displays and digital displays that move quickly along major roads and city centers around the world, it still retains their appeal. Although the last neon sign at London’s Piccadilly Circus, which celebrated Sanyo, another Japanese company since 1987, was removed in 2011, the Neon Museum in Las Vegas has been busy organizing tours of the city’s incredible neon heritage for busloads. There is also Hong Kong, which continues to be a tribute to neon signs.

Neon King

It all began in 1896 when William Ramsay (a distinguished British chemist who would become a Nobel Laureate) discovered the remarkable properties of the rare gas – it only forms 0.0018% in the Earth’s atmosphere – when he put neon in a glass container and charged it with electricity. He described it as a bright crimson glow that captivated his colleagues and was reminiscent of the Northern Lights.

Georges Claude, a French engineer/entrepreneur, displayed two 12-m-long neon signs in bright red at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. The public was amazed. Claude’s Air Liquide company, in the years before World War I, adorned Paris with neon signs. In 1919, when Europe was again lit up, he even lit the Paris Opera’s entrance with neon. Four years later, Claude sold a pair of neon signs to Earl C Anthony’s Packard dealership near Los Angeles. This was the beginning of the era for many neon advertising signs, including Kentile Floors, that would shine from coast to coast across the United States in the ensuing decade.

The Depressed Thirties were made more bearable by neon signs that lit up the Roaring 20s. Hollywood, Times Square, and countless cheerful and cheap movie theatres were all places where neon signs are found. Each sign is handcrafted, making them an art form. The way colors could be mixed with different gases was also an art form that showed undeniable talent. The neon is bright red. Argon offers violet light, helium pink, and krypton whitey white. Xenon pale blue is also available. Even though neon is no longer in fashion among advertisers, artists like Tracey Emin, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman still love it.

The custom neon signs will always be associated with 1930s Las Vegas, Shanghai, and Times Square. They have also been featured in films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner 1982.

However, neon signs for sale were associated with areas in the inner cities of the world for a time between 1960 and 1990. These areas have seen a rise in development and have been brought back to a comfortable and lucrative life since the 1990s. There were also backstreet dives, sex shops, and hostess bars. Neon signs marked the way to the darker side of city life. They were accompanied by old signs that waved a flag for an industrial, blue-collar world of synthetic floor tiles and wheel alignment.

Despite the economic appeal of LED and fluorescent lighting, LED Neon Sign has continued to shine in the 21st century, despite all odds. Residents are determined to keep neon signs for Lucozade, Kentile Floors, and entire cities, such as Hong Kong’s, lit. Neon will be long a symbol for ‘downtown” in bright, emotional-uplifting firework light that is hugely loved by the public.

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