An Old Neon Sign Tells the Story

From a 1950s Pats old neon sign crown that glows in Jack’s Firehouse to the winking eyes of a Buster Brown Shoes sign displayed at the Center for Architecture to an animated running Greyhound dog from Sun Ray Drugs, there’s no shortage of neon signs that still draw gasps from visitors and residents of Philadelphia. But the neon light is only part of a much larger story that begins with the mom-and-pop shop makers who built them. Their vernacular designs, slap-dash approach to construction and reliance on characters and not trained art skills are what makes these old neon signs unique.

The dazzling effect of these signs was produced by a combination of the neon gas and the use of phosphorescent film on the glass. The result was the most vivid and attractive signage fixtures used for decades, so ubiquitous that it was rare to find a business without one. However, they waned in popularity because they were difficult to maintain and require special skills to repair. Today they appeal to collectors who admire the 1940s and ’50s aesthetic.

Ephemeral Glows: Rediscovering the Beauty and History of Old Neon Signs

The concept of neon lighting is simple — electrifying a gas trapped in a narrow tube. But making the lights is a complicated and labor-intensive task. Neon sign makers heat the tubes with a torch flame, blow out existing air, add electrodes to each end, evacuate the remaining gas and then pass high voltage electricity through the tubes. And this must be done in a controlled environment to prevent overheating or splintering the tubes. Because these signs were usually erected outdoors, it’s almost impossible to find one in perfect working condition. Those that are will command a premium from collectors who prize functional pieces over non-functioning ones.