Where Neon Signs Go to Die

neon sign boneyardPhoto:
The neon sign boneyard
Image: Neon Museum, used with permission

Neon signs are so commonplace today that we hardly give them a second glance, unless they are extremely bright, huge or colourful. Neither do we reflect on how the labour-intensive, long-lasting signs are crafted and where they go after they are not needed any more. Well, what better place to look than neon sign heaven, Las Vegas. It is here also, in Vegas’ Neon Museum, that old signs go to die.

Assorted signs of the boneyard:
Image: Neon Museum, used with permission

From merry-go-rounds at fairs to the pizza sign at your corner shop, neon signs are part of our urban landscape. But few know that they have been around for more than 80 years. Though the origins of neon signs are a bit hazy, it is most often Frenchman Georges Claude and his company Claude Neon that are credited with the invention.

Probably the first commercial neon sign ever was sold by Claude’s associate Jaques Fonseque to a Paris barber in 1912. Eleven years later, the two businessmen extended their reach across the Atlantic by selling two neon signs to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles, thereby introducing neon gas signs to the United States in 1923.

Image: Neon Museum, used with permission

From there, the idea just took off as it was such an effective means of advertising: People would stop in their tracks to stare at the first neon signs, even in broad daylight and often for hours, causing quite a commotion. Shop owners were delighted of course and soon, neon lighting, initially called “liquid fire,” became the most popular means of outdoor advertising.

Aladdin’s lamp and the Hacienda horse and rider:
Image: soupstance

Installed in 1966 for the Aladdin Hotel, Aladdin’s Lamp was designed by Raymond Larson and built by the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). It has recently been restored and can be found at the intersection of Fremont Street Experience and Las Vegas Boulevard. Right behind it is the Hacienda Hotel’s trademark horse and rider, originally installed in 1967, designed by Brian Leming and built by the same company.

What are neon signs exactly and how are they produced? Each neon tube has three or four straight sticks of hollow glass that contain gases like neon, argon, helium, krypton or xenon at low pressure. The gases glow brightly when a high voltage of a few thousand volts is applied. So far, so mass produced.

The Coin Castle King:
coin castle kingPhoto:
Image: Neon Museum, used with permission

Individual neon signs are then custom-made by specialised, often small shops that bend the glass tubing into the desired shapes. It’s a labour-intensive process that requires great skill. Many different colours are available and achieved through the type of tubing and gas used.

Not wanting to see this labour of love go to waste, the Neon Museum in Las Vegas decided to build a permanent home for the city’s retired and often huge neon signs. The museum’s mission is to “collect, preserve, study and exhibit neon signs and associated artifacts to inspire educational and cultural enrichment for diverse members of our international community.”

Giant silver slipper, anyone?
Giant slipperPhoto:
Image: Neon Museum, used with permission

Established in 1996 as a non-profit organisation, the Neon Museum currently has 150 signs from the 1930s to the present day in its collection. Each sign is considered a witness to the city’s history and a national treasure. As a “living museum,” the organisation depends on the help of individuals as well as corporations and government entities to preserve and expand its collection. Fans will be delighted to hear that several active signs throughout Las Vegas have already been pledged to the museum for when they are not needed any more.

Vacancy and steamed heat, yeah:
Chief Court HotelPhoto:
Image: ChicagoGeek

The Chief Court Hotel sign above at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street was originally installed around 1940. It was the first sign that the Neon Museum refurbished.

Though the Neon Museum is currently not open to the public, tours for individuals and school classes can be scheduled. The museum is also currently getting a facelift and restoring the historic La Concha Motel lobby, soon to be used as a visitors’ centre.

Sources: 1, 2, 3