The death of neon advertising

22 Oct

Amazing neon sign photography

For the next 10 months, you can visit a remarkable – if somewhat under-populated with only 23 examples – exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver: a celebration of the life and death of the neon sign – once to North American cites what graffiti has become today: fantastical, omnipresent and controversial.

I had to do some research into what exactly neon tubing is. Neon is an inert gas, slow moving and stable, that already exists in the air we breathe. To make neon lights, glass tubes are coated on the inside with florescent colour, filled with the gas and then vacuum-sealed. The electrodes at either end introduce the electricity that produces the garish glow.

Hard to believe they’ve been around in advertising for more than 100 years, but the first commercially applied neon tubes are credited to the Packard Company sometime around 1905.

According to this Vancouver Sun article, there were once 19,000 neon signs perking up the nightscape over in Vancouver. Today only a handful remain: a 1974 by-law restricting their usage delivered the coup de grace. Victoria’s neon sign population has endured a similar fate.

A city in North America without neon signs is European. We might as well just all head off back to the Old World and putter around on Vespas.

What’s a motel without a neon Vacancy sign, or a girlie bar without a hostess kicking her legs up in a martini glass?

It turns out there are bloggers and photographers dedicated to chronicling the decline of this once great staple of the North American graphic diet.

It will be sad day when the final neon sign flickers out.

Neon sign " Wait here I have gone to get help"


8 Responses to “The death of neon advertising”

  1. reg October 22, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    Hi Doug,
    Love the neon for sure. Travelling in Asia right now on business and you will not be surprised to know that neon is alive and well here (been in Pusan and Seoul, Korea the past 10 days; off to Tokyo this afternoon). In fact, it’s a riot of neon, but that does seem to be giving way to digital and/or LED everywhere, too, so I think the nostalgia for neon will likely extend beyond North America before too long.

    One happy note: Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog has had a popular surge in his photographs from the 1950s and 1960s of both our city and some others, with plenty of great examples of neon sprinkled through them. He is widely acknowledged as one of the few photographers of that era that turned his lens — in colour, at a time when it was still thought to be too garish and B&W was more in vogue and considered the “artist’s” tones to be working in…. As a result, Vancouver has some fantastic historical records of the age of neon. Here’s but one sample, for those of you old enough to remember Woodward’s:

  2. Doug Brown October 23, 2011 at 5:07 am #

    Reporting from the neon front lines! How cool and timely is that Reg. I was thinking of Seoul and Tokyo and Hong Kong as I was writing the post, especially Hong Kong as back during the late 80’s when I lived there, Wan Chai was just a neon jungle. I was imagining the switch to LED and digital. What a blow to hear it from our Asian Correspondent.

    Thanks also for the link to the Herzog site. Much is lost in character with the inexorable drift away from neon, but thankfully there is no shortage of excellent historical records. Travel well and thanks for dropping in!

  3. Anonymous October 23, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Very cool posting. By the way, a month or so ago I was walking by my bank and noticed their neon sign was fully on fire. Fire trucks came pretty quick to put it out. Was at least the death of that sign ;).

  4. Doug Brown October 23, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    Banks have neon signs? How cool is that! Where?

  5. hill copy October 24, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Curses on you Doug-man! Yet again you have foiled my attempt to focus on the task-at-hand and led me off into the wonderful world of procrastination! Now I must google old neon signs, make a new folder, add “neon creative research” to me to-do list — CURSES I say! Grrrr…

  6. Doug Brown October 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    I’m sorry Bazz. I will fast for a week for my role in creating this sort of interruptive content. But seriously, blame the flippin’ neon!

  7. jjace3 October 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Its sad to see the iconic neon signs go!! There are a lot of neon open and smaller type business neon signs making a return tho!!

  8. Doug Brown October 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Hopefully there will be some kind of renaissance and renewed sense of appreciation for neon signs. They are too iconic to our culture to disappear – and too important to your business!

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