This year marks the 95th anniversary of the neon sign. In less than a century, this advertising form went from slick to sleaze, but the interest of breweries and bar owners has helped keep the medium alive.
Neon refers to the glowing, brightly-colored, gas-charged tubes bent into a particular shape. Neon is an inert gas that glows a reddish-orange when electricity is passed through it. When argon gas is used in the tubes, they radiate a bluish hue. Additional colors can be produced by coating the inside of the tubes with fluorescent powders that will filter out a number of colors from the light spectrum, or by using colored tubing.
These techniques have changed very little since French inventor Georges Claude developed the first neon sign in 1910. It was not until 1923 that neon came to America, when a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles ordered two signs to illuminate the outside of the show room. The demand for neon skyrocketed almost overnight.
In the early 1940s there were over 2,000 neon sign companies employing over 5,000 neon tube benders. However by the end of the 1960s, neon was associated almost entirely with strip clubs, gambling, and alcoholic beverages. Many benders had retired and a number of the manufactures had closed shop.
Breweries realized the power of this medium and refused to let it die. Most bars remained dimly lit and this lighting provided just the right amount of atmosphere. As the industry’s customer base shrank, these few advertisers controlled the destiny of neon. In the late 1980s another boost came to this industry when companies began to package affordable “open” signs. Soon businesses large and small were hanging these signs in the windows to let the world know they were open for business. In the 1990s, neon began to appear as a frame for license plates and before long it was being added to both the inside and outside of the hippest cars on the road.
The influx of imported beers and the success of the microbrewery movement have continued to grow the demand for neon beer signs. In addition, the large brewers have partnered with various sports logos to create a dual type of attraction and advertising.
In collecting circles, neons are desired up to a point. Because of their fragility, the older the sign the more valuable it is. Also some small brews produced very few signs when they were issued.
Most neons in private collections will last longer than ones used in bars because collectors will usually only light the sign when they are showing off their display. Many of the older neons also have a hum or sizzle sound when lit. Some older versions also will interfere with radio or TV reception in the home. Regardless, neon lighting creates an atmosphere that is timeless.