The neon sign made its debut in America (it was a French invention) in the early 1920s when a Packard dealer in Los Angeles erected the first one. The “classic neon” period continued into the 1960s.
Since we’re on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the introduction of neon signs in this country, one night I went looking for some in Sedalia. But first a quick look at how neon works.
Neon signs are made by filling glass tubes with neon gas, which is colorless and odorless. But when an electrical charge is applied inside the tube, it glows with a rich red color. Other gasses produce different colors, around 250 in total, but all tend to be grouped under the “neon” label.
I grew up in the classic era, and neon signs were everywhere you looked: motels, bars, roadside cafes, drug stores, filling stations, etc. I can still see the well-executed red neon outline of a very fat pig atop a barbecue joint in east Poplar Bluff.
Ordinary signs, unless they are illuminated, are useless at night, but darkness is neon’s element. It changed the way America did business.
Had I written this column several years back, Sedalia’s claim as a classic neon sign town would have been stronger. I remember the Wheel Inn, for example, with its great animated red neon signage. There have been other losses over the years.
But the good news is that not all has been lost. I was surprised one night to see that State Fair Floral in downtown Sedalia still has a working neon sign from the classic era. It used to be one of several along Ohio Avenue, such as the Bard Drug and Shaw Music neon signs, plus others.
Neon signs can still be seen here and there along South Limit, with Goody’s Steakburgers being the highlight.
The best news is that the crown jewel of classic neon — the magnificent Hotel Bothwell sign with its brilliant red and blue colors — is still lighting up the nighttime sky.
David Furnell, whose investment company owns the hotel, said he thinks the neon signage was included when the hotel was built in 1927.
But no neon signs were functional when Furnell acquired the hotel in 1998. He set about to fix that, and got a quick education in how hard it is to find qualified neon technicians, at least in outstate Missouri.
“Making neon letters for historic signs is becoming a lost art,” he said. “As far as I am aware, only one individual within most of Missouri is still doing this type of work.”
Although one of the benefits of neon signs it that they are long lasting, LED lighting has proved to be more economical and has become a competitor with neon. For Furnell, however, there’s something about neon that sets it apart.
“It’s technology and art combined,” he said, “a handmade craft.”