Getting Buzzed on the Nevada Neon Scene

Neon and Vegas? Totally synonymous, right? We triple dog dare you you to think about this international icon of a metropolis and NOT imagine a glowing neon sign, beckoning the masses for a bold night on the town. Or on the flipside, to imagine neon and not instantly picture Vegas. It’s part of Nevada’s identity to say the very least, and the Silver State couldn’t be more proud to rep this buzzworthy thread of Nevada history. But how and when did this type of sign-making technology come about, when did it go down, and why Vegas?

Well you see, this whole thing goes back to when the actual element of neon was discovered in 1898…as in period-table-of-elements element. When a brilliant red glow began to form inside glass tubes, scientists first started to understand that this occurred when voltage was applied to electrodes and then inserted into glass tubes. Thus, a glowing red light formed, but a red and only red light… unintentionally crowning the total O.G. of neon sign colors.

This vivid technology popped up here and there, but there was no real practical use or purpose for it, that is up until a couple of guys got the idea to bend shapes and letters out of these glass tubes. Specifically, George Claude is the primary guy who became interested in the possibilities that lay before him with this glass-tube-meets-brilliant-red-light situation and made one of the very first neon signs, which he proudly displayed at the Paris Motor Show during December of 1910. As you might imagine, the whole thing went gangbusters. Like, totally blew everyone’s mind. What he created was beautiful and captivating as a light source alone, but now that it served as an actual advertising or marketing purpose? Total game changer. Quickly understanding he could make a livelihood out of commercially producing neon signs for various businesses, he opened his very own advertising company, Air Liquide.

Neon Takes Off Like “Liquid Fire” 

With Claude officially open for business, neon signs started to work their way onto the urban landscape, but neon didn’t truly take off until they overseas and to the United States in 1923. Neon’s American debut? A Packard car dealership in Los Angeles, and holy moly it caused quite the sensation. You could say that it took off like wildfire, which couldn’t have been more fitting as this technology was instantly dubbed “liquid fire.” It didn’t just take the nation by storm as an exterior sign for businesses, but soon swept into every dang town as a super fancy interior lighting feature that everyone wanted. Why? Simple. Because it was, and still is just plain cool. That’s why.

While Claude was busy taking Europe by storm, a little ol’ company by the name of Young Electric Sign Company opened up in Utah. Soon, they expanded to Vegas and, later, Reno, which meant they basically cornered the entire flipping neon sign market, and still do. By the 1930s, YESCO was mass producing neon tubing and before long, had neon signs covering the Western United States and many major metro areas in the nation. Interestingly enough, despite being in one of the worst economic times this country has ever seen, the Great Depression couldn’t curb America’s enthusiasm for movies. During this time, some of the most iconic theater marquee signs were in high demand, many of which still shining brightly in cities across the U.S. Your face probably lights up seeing these razzle-dazzle signs during modern times, and so I’d bet it most certainly brought a sense of happiness during one of the worst times too. A depression-proof non-necessity that we can still see 80 years later? Pretty baller.

Vegas Owns The Movement 

By the time the 40s came around, neon was a definite thing every smart business owner wanted buzzing near their threshold. It was show-stoppingly sexy, and if you could afford it, made your business stand way out over other non-neon-sporting businesses on the block. During this time, Las Vegas resident Betty Willis designed one of YESCO’s most iconic signs, none other than one featuring the words, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.” They also created most of the signs that made Vegas, Vegas… like the Pioneer Club, Golden Nugget, Las Vegas Club, and Eldorado Club. This pocket of buzzing perfection which was right on Fremont street on the original stretch of downtown Las Vegas, made up what was soon nicknamed Glitter Gulch. BUUUUT, this was basically only the very beginning. From there, YESCO created signs for the Stardust, Golden Nugget, the famed rotating Silver Slipper, and of course Vegas Vic himself. So really, why Vegas? Because it was a gaudy city full of excitement with loose morals to boot, and neon simply enhanced the sensory overload that kept people coming back for more.

While there was only one real neon sign-making business in the 20s, more than 2,000 neon shops popped up all over the nation by the late 1940s and remained mind-bogglingly popular through the 60s. Despite starting and exclusively incorporating the color red, neon sign makers – also known as glass benders – had started to realize that they could fluorescently coat these glass tubes, implementing an argon/mercury gas mixture that emitted UV light. Doing this gave them them more control over implementing the full color spectrum into their masterpieces. Imagine proclaiming your official occupation as a Glass Bender—another time friends, another infinitely cooler time.

When they figured out what a fluorescent coat would do, the Glass Bender’s palette expanded to whopping two dozen colors available by the 1960s, really kicking this industry into high gear. Today, hundreds of colors are available….basically totally limitless options when it comes to neon. And to really geek out here, despite the fact that we still call them “neon signs,” pure neon gas was and is only used in about ⅓ of what’s going on with commercial application, and typically only creates warm colors like red, orange and pink. All of the cooler colors are made by filling the tubing with inert gas, argon and mercury. Lock that one away for those trivia nights, friends!

It wasn’t just colors that really started to diversify, the wackiest shapes started to roll out during the 50s and 60s era too. Because it wasn’t just letters anymore. Neon started implementing animation and shapes like full on over-the-top intricate neon pineapples and hot dogs flying into people’s mouths. Plus, as an industrial form of art, there was massive of underlying cultural symbolism going on then too. Because what was going on in America during the 1960s? Well…a lot. It was the nuclear age and many neon signs, specifically in Vegas, were shaped to deliver an underlying atomic blast message – lost of mushroom cloud shapes and explosive imagery in general going on, if you really start to pay attention. 

Travel Nevada Pro Tip

When you’re checking out the Neon Museum to get the serious lowdown on all things neon, be sure to ask about the shape of the La Concha museum building itself. You might just be surprised.

Designers were good at their jobs… really good. They had one idea in mind: to create something, whether that be a bold color scheme, animation or assemblage of uncanny shapes, as long as it caught you eye and captivated your attention. And they do! Some of these beauts that have been curated at the Neon Museum are proof positive of that entire school of thought, sometimes all at once, so that your eye doesn’t know where to look. Others have hidden cultural messages in the design, but most are just flat-out mesmerizing, reeling you into whatever business they promoted.

Today, tons of modern-day neon restoration is going on, and even a bit of actual new sign creation is happening. Yeah, you could probably chalk it up to trendy marketing during the time, but this neon sign-making was a legit art form that’s a bit tricky to source now a days. Although not as monumentally impressive in any capacity, signs are being made with bulbs, LEDs which are simply quicker and easier to mass produce, and more cost effective. Neon was was a hot commodity from the 1920s-1960s, but even moreso a treasure now because it swiftly documented what was happening in America during its heydey. Just making signs for car dealerships and hotels? Nope, more like succinctly logging everything about the time, ending up as physical time capsules. Pretty cool, right?

Looking After A Genre Of Lost Art 

The beauty in all this is simple. By the 1990s, due to the pace of “progress” and changing tastes, a lot of this art had been lost to time, or not perceived as “art” and left to fall into disrepair, or even straight-up trashed. That’s when the Neon Museum stepped into the light and began strategically rescuing these icons of Nevada, curating them and keeping them in a space for you to publically tour. THE NEON BONEYARD. The guides here know what they’re talking about in all the right ways, and remember that what I’ve spelled out above is just the tippy-top of the iceberg. So ask questions, LOTS of questions, because they’ll have all the answers and more. By coming here, you’re not on any old dusty doldrum of a museum tour, nah. At the Neon Museum, while feasting your eyes on marquees that once dangled stories about the most iconic locations of the original Vegas in one of the  most uncommon museums on the dang planet, you get the privilege of paying the homage it’s all so deservedly owed. That, and the inside skinny on which of these beauts they’ve so gracefully brought back to life. Now, ain’t that a kick in the head?

Vegas is in the drivers seat when it comes to neon, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the rest of the Silver State is loaded down with some pretty spectacular specimens, too. Boulder City is a throwback delight, along with Ely and Elko, and of course Reno. Even some locales like Pioche provide opportunities to spot original neon “in the wild.” Anyone down for one of these legendary Nevada road trips you all know I’m talking about?