Signs are a fixture of the American landscape. They serve useful purposes: warning us of traffic hazards, providing directions and telling us where to stop for food or shelter. From the humblest stenciled door sign (“Rainbo is good bread”) to the enthusiastic welcome of the Parkette Drive-In’s neon, signs invite us to stop our cars, to buy, to eat, to rest for the night. They also allude to meanings beyond the apparent message: the sign that invites us to sleep evokes symbols of comfort or hospitality or modernism: anything to encourage the speeding driver to pull over.
Two developments brought about a fundamental change in signage in the late 19th and early 20th century. The first was the invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison in 1879. As early as the 1880s, electrically-lit signs were appearing at a few establishments in big cities. The second important development was the advent of the automobile, which has had a sweeping impact on the modern landscape. The management of traffic, of course, demanded the now familiar “Stop” and “Yield” signs, but it is in advertising where changes were the most notable. Travelers in the past could read signs at the leisurely pace of walking or riding in a carriage. The speed of the automobile shortened the attention span of the viewer. Attracting the driver’s attention required ingenuity. Signs became larger and gaudier, while their text became simpler: often as simple as “Eat” or “Motel.” The automobile age roadside sign informs the viewer at a glance that gas, food, entertainment or lodging is available.
As signs proliferated, so did competition for the viewer’s attention. Businesses erected even larger signs with flashing lights, moving arrows and unusual outlines. By the 1960s, many localities began putting sign ordinances into law, citing concern over the appearance of the landscape and auto safety considerations. Many of the older signs fell into disuse and were dismantled or altered; those that remained began to be seen as valuable reminders of recent history.
The Frenchman Georges Claude patented the neon lighting process in 1915. As early as 1923 businesses began to use neon signs in Los Angeles. By the early 1930s, large neon signs caused a sensation at Times Square. The famous Las Vegas strip with its large neon displays developed after 1944, and by the early 1950s neon signs became a common sight all over the country.
Neon lights consist of bent glass tubes filled with rare gases, usually neon, xenon, argon or helium. The gases are lit with an electrical charge. By using various combinations of gases, mercury and colored glass, sign makers can achieve over 40 colors. Neon signs are initially expensive to produce but once made are very durable, lasting 20 years or more before the lights fade, when they can be repaired. Plastic signs, backlit with fluorescent lights, began to replace neon signs in the 1960s, and continue to be popular, although neon has enjoyed something of a renaissance in more recent years.