For millennia, shopkeepers, tradesmen and artisans have been marking their places of business with signs that promise reward and satisfaction to whoever crosses their threshold. A catalogue of universally understood symbols has become part of our collective consciousness. Only in the last 130 years have these symbols been illuminated by electric light, as was the delightful wooden “Huyler’s” sign that hung in front of this Toronto restaurant for close to thirteen years.
Before the invention of electric lights, skilled and not so skilled artists created painted and sculpted signs in two or three dimensions to advertise services and products. The iconography of commercial signs has not changed much in the last couple of thousand years. The Greeks and Romans used signs made of stone and terracotta or painted them on the outside walls of their shops. A bush indicated a tavern selling wine, a boot a cobbler, and in the Middle Ages, a pawnshop was indicated by three gold balls, a symbol attributed to the Medici family that is still used today.
Neon has been the medium of choice for
sign makers and designers since the 1920s. Neon
is an element—a rare gas that was discovered
by British scientists Sir William Ramsay and
Morris William Travers in 1898—but it was the
sealed glass tubes invented in 1858 by German
glass blower and physicist, Heinrich Geissler,
that gave neon an environment in which to
shine. Heinrich’s ‘Geissler Tubes’, when filled
with neon and ionized by a high voltage electrical
charge produced the gas’s characteristic orange-
red glow. As early as 1890 the influential
book Electricity in Daily Life describes the “beautiful
electric toys” available for purchase that
were crafted from Geissler’s curvilinear tubes
into fanciful animal shapes and vases of flowers.
The commercial value of neon, however, was not
exploited until French scientist Georges Claude
was able to produce neon in sufficient quantities
and develop a durable electrode to ionize
the gas. Claude patented the neon lighting tube
in 1915 and his company, Claude Neon, sold its
first sign in the United States to a Packard car
dealership in Los Angeles in 1923.
At about this time Parisian artist Sonja
Delaunay was inspired by this new medium to
create her work Zig-Zag by painting directly on
the tubes. Another Parisian painter, Fernand
Léger, on seeing the neon signs in Times Square
in New York in 1942 had this to say:
I was struck by the neon advertisements flashing
all over Broadway. You are there, you talk to someone,
and all of a sudden he turns blue… another
one comes and turns him red… the colour of neon
advertising is free… I wanted to do the same in my
Fernand Léger, exhibition catalogue,
The use of neon as a fine art medium continues
today and most major public galleries in the
world have examples of neon art in their collections.
In 1975 I photographed Jack Markle’s
whimsical piece Goodbye for the Art Gallery of
Ontario’s exhibit, Chairs. Another AGO piece,
Michael Hayden’s iconic neon light sculpture,
All Things Being Equal (1978), lit up the corner
of Dundas and Beverley Streets for many years,
but is now in storage.
The first neon sign went up in Las Vegas in
1929 and today Vegas vies with Shanghai’s Nanjing
Road and Tokyo’s Ginza as the epicentre
for the planet’s biggest, gaudiest and tackiest
neon signs. Vegas wins with the Hilton Hotel’s
70,000 square-foot neon sign, a $9 million exercise
There is something about neon. Something
dangerous, a bit forbidden, a whole lot sleazy.
Whenever I travel I like to stay in the ‘C’ hotels—
they’re not even in the Canadian Automobile
Association guidebooks. There’s something
about the reflection of neon shining on
your hotel room ceiling that adds suspense to
one’s life. A bottle of Canadian Club, a dirty
glass and a certain morbid set of mind and I’m
ready to channel Philip Marlowe:
I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled
stale and old like a living room that had been
closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you.
The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a
monument to the man who invented neon lights.
Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy
who really made something out of nothing …
—Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister, 1949
Well, Raymond, they did in a way build
that monument: the Las Vegas Hilton sign is a
whopping 289 feet high, twenty-four glorious stories
of ‘liquid fire’ as it was called in the 1890s.
I can’t see neon signs being used to advertise
a funeral home, except maybe in Vegas.
Not sure if I’d buy a prosthetic device from a
store that advertises ‘Peg-Legs for Picky People’
in purple flashing neon. But that’s just me—a
bit old-fashioned. There’s nothing subtle about
neon, “The Scarlet Whore of Advertising,” as it
is known in the ad world. There is a natural fluidity
to neon’s glass tubing when it is heated
and bent into fanciful forms. Often these curves
are accented by flashing marquee lights, the
poor cousin to neon.
There are some wonderful examples of neon
in Canada. All across the country in almost every
small town in every province the two most exotic
signs one would encounter would inevitably be
those of the local Chinese restaurant and the
movie house. The Molou Theatre in Haliburton,
Ontario, is such a place. Run by Lou and Molly
Consky for sixty-seven years, the Molou’s simple
but distinctive green and orange neon sign
marks the spot where many young cottagers explored
the mysteries of love and lust in the glow
of the latest Hollywood potboiler.
Ask any Torontonian where the El Mocambo
is and they’ll tell you it’s on Spadina—the joint
with the giant palm tree out front. We
Canadians don’t seem to find it odd to see a
blazing palm tree twinkling between the snowflakes
on a frigid winter’s night. In fact, just the
opposite, it promises warmth, sanctuary and
Hamiltonians on the other hand are drawn
to more ‘blue collar’ delights such as the gleaming
green bowling pin gracing the sign of the
Bowlero Lanes bowling alley. I don’t think
the owners were trying to conjure up Ravel’s
Boléro—but who knows? There is something
downright seductive about that chartreuse pin:
its lovely curves, its round bottom. The Bowlero
sign also employs the sign designer’s favourite
palette of primary and complementary colours,
the reds, greens and blues that separate so nicely
from the night sky and from each other. Red,
the colour of passion and power, is also the longest
wavelength discernible by the human eye,
and when paired with its complementary green,
the two colours intensify each other.
Red will cut through the gloom of a St John’s
fog guiding homesick sailors to “Cold Beer & Hot
Girls” or, for the more sedate patron, the simple
Art Deco sign of Mel’s Tearoom on Bridge Street
in Sackville, New Brunswick, welcomes those
with large appetites and simple tastes to select
from the menu of this 50s diner that seems to
serve everything but tea.
Although neon has been largely eclipsed
by LED lights and large-screen digital advertising
it seems to be making a bit of a comeback.
What pubescent teenage boy wouldn’t be dazzled
by Toronto’s wonderfully garish Zanzibar
Tavern sign advertising “GALS HOTTER THAN
YONGE ST FIRE,” awash in throbbing neon for
more than fifty years?
This spring my wife Colleen and I will be
heading down to Savannah but on the way we
will stop in Memphis to visit Elvis’s final resting
place at Graceland. This musical fun-land is
second only to Vegas as a mecca of bad taste and
inappropriate behaviour, and I know there will
be neon. There will be lots and lots of neon.
James A. Chambers has been a commercial photographer
and photo-based artist for over 35 years.
Huyler’s restaurant sign, Toronto, Ontario, c. 1920. Painted wood
Molou theatre sign, Haliburton, Ontario
Goodbye, Jack Markle, 1973
Photography: James A. Chambers
All neon signs photographed were still in operation as of February 2011.