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Antique Neon Signs

Michelle Radcliff
vintage neon sign

Antique neon signs can be a nostalgic reminder of classic advertising campaigns from the early 20th century. Whether you collect old neon signs or just admire them, these signs have become a part of American history.

History of Neon Signs

Neon lighting was invented by a French engineer named Georges Claude, who first presented this new technology at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. Neon lighting became a popular cultural phenomenon and was used extensively in advertising and outdoor signage from 1920 to 1940. In 1923, Earle C. Anthony purchased two neon signs for his Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. People stared in amazement at these blazing bright signs, visible even in daylight. Neon signs became known as "liquid fire". By the 1940s, most large cities in the U.S. were glowing with hundreds of neon lights. Most notable for its neon signs is Times Square in New York City.

About seven years after neon tube lighting was introduced, a General Electric employee named Daniel McFarlan Moore developed the first miniature neon glow lamp. The design of this lamp was significantly different from the larger neon tube lighting, enough to warrant a new U.S. Patent. These small neon glow lamps were commonly used as indicators in instrument panels and in many home appliances until the invention of LED lights in the 1970s.

Experiencing Historic Neon Signs

Fortunately for all lovers of historic neon landmarks, there are neon sign museums that you can visit to experience first-hand, the classic signs of years gone by. Two such places are located in Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

Neon Museum Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Las Vegas has two locations where you can view historic Vegas neon signs. The first location is the Freemont Street Gallery. Ten refurbished signs can be viewed anytime of the day or night (night is obviously better) on a self-guided walking tour in downtown Las Vegas. Beginning in front of the Neonopolis, at Las Vegas Boulevard and Freemont, the gallery starts with the original Aladdin's Lamp and The Hacienda Horse and Rider. The tour extends to the 3rd Street cul-de-sac and includes the following famous Vegas signs:

  • The Flame
  • Chief Court Hotel
  • Andy Anderson
  • The Red Barn
  • Wedding Information
  • Nevada Motel
  • Dots Flowers

The second location, called The Boneyard, is home to 150 historic, non-restored, neon signs. Among the most notorious are Caesar's Palace, Binion's Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Silver Slipper and the Stardust. The guided tours allow visitors to view these famous landmarks up-close at ground level. The Boneyard is located at the Las Vegas Mormon Fort, Las Vegas Boulevard North and Washington.

Neon Museum of Philadelphia

The Neon Museum of Philadelphia was established in 1985 by neon collector Len Davidson, who began collecting neon signs in the mid 1970s.

The collection has over 100 signs dating back earlier than the 1950s and includes the following types of vintage signs:

  • Exterior metal and neon painted face signs
  • Exterior metal and neon porcelain face signs
  • Window display signs
  • Neon clocks
  • Neon art pieces
  • Painted plastic signs with neon back-lit interiors
  • Tube-bent folk art signs
  • Painted wooden signs

There are plans to open satellite museums around Philadelphia for the many signs still in storage. The signs would be on loan to various public buildings where they could be viewed in a street setting.

Collecting Antique Neon Signs

Starting a collection of old neon signs can be a rewarding adventure back in time. Keep in mind that most neon signs are not actually antique. The term antique is generally understood to mean something that is over 100 years old. Since most of these signs are not that old they would be more correctly known and being vintage.

There's a very art deco look to some of the really old signage dating back to the late 1920's and 1930's. Vintage food and soda signs have a distinct 1950's diner look. Also reminiscent of the 1950's and 1960's are the vintage neon roadhouse, restaurant and gas service station signs. You can also take a trip down memory lane with vintage beer neon signs.

Whether you collect antique neon signs according to a theme, brand, time period or a little of everything, you will want to make sure you have a good place to display them. You could use an entire wall or even an entire room. Just make sure you have enough outlets because the appeal of neon signs is their electric glow. You will probably need to invest in several multi-outlet power strips.

There are a couple of ways to collect old neon signs. You can search for authentic antiques which can be difficult to find and expensive, depending on their condition and age. You can also buy vintage reproduction neon signs or have a vintage sign custom made.

The following sites are great resources for starting a vintage neon sign collection:

If you love nostalgic items, collecting antique neon signs might be right up your alley.

Antique Neon Signs