Growing up in Chicago the neon lights were everywhere and always looked beautiful to me. The family that owned the deli in my neighborhood had a neon sign that was ‘animated’. The little pig jumped into the sausage machine and came out a sausage. Kind of gross to me today, but as a kid I was fascinated watching this sign. And it’s still there today.
When I first opened Signarama, almost ten years ago, I spoke to a man who worked with neon and asked how they blew the glass. After chastising me for incorrectly describing how neon signs are made, he told me the neon is BENT not BLOWN. And the bending is done over a very hot flame. He showed me how they bent the glass and attached it to the metal housing. The glass benders were true artisans. The neon came in a kaleidoscope of colors and blended together, they were breathtaking.
Two to three years later, LED lights started coming on the market. Primarily used for channel letters, the LED lights were 30 percent more costly than the neon, but as more manufacturers entered the market and new types of bulbs were designed, the cost rapidly came down.
Where the neon artisan bent the neon and determined by their eye where and how much neon was required, LED manufacturers create computer-generated patterns. This ensures that the channel letter lighting is evenly disbursed and there are no “hot spots”. The width of the letters determines how many LED lights are needed. It’s kind of like connect the dots. (But I’m dating myself).
Across the United States, the use of neon signs saw a sharp dip in the late 2000s, according to a survey by trade magazine Signs of the Times. Signs were illuminated by 33 percent neon and 23 percent LEDs in 2007, but by 2010 LEDs more than doubled the use of neon, 40 percent to 18 percent.
Municipalities played a large role in the demise of neon lighting. Many felt the displays were ugly and gaudy. Touting the more energy-efficient LED bulbs, the municipal planning boards began to zone out neon. They also claimed that the neon gas in the neon lighting was detrimental to landfills. In reality, Argon gas is primarily used in Neon and a small amount of neon is used to give color to the tubes.
Although the neon signs are being phased out, enthusiasts, like me, can find them at the American Sign Museum. This organization, along with Save the Signs on Colfax, is removing and renovating neon signs. The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio has actually set up “streets’ that look like the 1930 through the 1960s. They are keeping the wonderful history of these signs alive for generations to come.
LED is the current rage, but with the speed that technology changes, it will be interesting to see what the next lighting method for channel letters will be. And then, maybe we will be asking, “Where has all the LED lighting gone?”
For all your signage needs, contact Signarama online or by calling 303-914-9700. We are happy to work with you to create the right display for your business needs!