WE’RE OPEN. Everywhere you go, this neon sign shines brightly from the windows of both local and chain businesses in every city in America. It’s reminiscent of the 20th Century’s obsession with decking every roadside attraction with neon signs. Las Vegas took the trend to a whole new level. Everywhere you look in Sin City you’ll see hotel signs blink and flicker, bright arrows point to different shows, and casinos beckon with a whirlwind of colors. Neon signs were the most popular way to advertise and the bigger and brighter your sign, supposedly the better your business. But how did this American love of neon signs start? It all began not with a Yank, but with a French engineer.
Georges Claude invented the neon sign back in 1902 and started patenting his work 8 years later. He first sold commercial neon signs in France to his colleague’s barbershop business. When neon signs finally made their way to the States, America was thriving in the Roaring 20’s, making it the perfect time to sell extravagant signs. Packard Car Dealership was the first American company to jump on the trend. The dealership paid $24,000 for two massive signs from Claude; signs that still stand to this day.
Neon signs spread like wildfire (so it’s no wonder they were coined by excited audiences as “liquid fire”). Advertisers loved how these signs could be seen well in the daylight and also shine brightly at night to drive in foot traffic. Neon signs in a design sense were (and are) very visually appealing. They really emphasized a brand’s personality. Neon signs became a national symbol of America’s inventiveness and creativity.
The 50s saw the biggest influx of neon signs dotting across towns nationwide. Every diner and movie theater was decked with neon. It was a pop culture phenomenon. Artists began to get creative in neon light designs. Examples included outlines around various shapes, lights added to the architecture, and fonts that varied per storefront. But over time, the trend of neon faded out for cheaper alternatives.
By the 60s, neon signs weren’t requested by new companies, but the old signs from earlier decades remained. Lucky for us, because these retro signs stand as an inspiration for the design and advertising world. They still stand as a testament to an older America. They make us wonder, what’s next in the world of advertising? If brick and mortar stores become a thing of the past, how would everything be marketed only online? Would WE’RE OPEN signs ever transfer to another medium? Maybe even via Google Glasses? Only time will tell.
Neon signs teach us a lesson or two. They’re proof of simple eye-catching design working as a strong marketing tool. They give us a look into the past and inspire our future. Nostalgia is a powerful hook for audiences and neon signs use that to their advantage. Next time you drive down the street, drink in those old signs you pass. Maybe stop by that small cafe with a blinking red coffee cup you used to go to as a child. You should also consider staying until the sign starts to blink WE’RE CLOSED.