Throughout the 20th century, sinuous neon tubing illuminated public signs and commercial architecture. The glowing gas was a proven lure for customers.
Today, collectors have begun to preserve and display the best vintage work, while artists explore new ways to use neon.
Local collector Len Davidson gave up academia to become a neon bender. While still teaching in Florida, he says, "I got so interested in the neon that one day a week I went to a sign shop. I said, 'I'll apprentice for free if you teach me about neon.' "
"When I moved up to Philly, I started doing neon part-time. After about four years, I decided I would rather spend all my time doing neon."
Like most people in the trade these days, Davidson makes new signs and preserves and restores vintage examples of local importance.
He also created the Neon Museum of Philadelphia at the Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St., where 13 examples from his collection are on display daily. (His book, Vintage Neon, published by Schiffer, is available there.)
This installation mirrors what has been done on a larger scale by the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, which displays important landmarks such as the Brown Derby sign, offers exhibitions of new light art, and conducts "neon cruises" of the city.
Its Web site, www.neonmona.org, has a great interactive section that explains how neon works. For example, to produce different-colored light, argon is used in addition to orange-hued neon.
Neon signs appeared in France about 1910, and a Packard auto dealership in Los Angeles put up one of the first signs in this country in the 1920s. Restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs and gambling halls quickly appreciated the magic of outdoor neon.
"There used to be schools after World War II, and there were a lot of tube benders," Davidson says. "The apprentice process typically went on in families. If the teacher brought someone else in, he was afraid they would set up shop and become competitors."
A neon renaissance has been brought about, he says, by "people of my generation, who had grown up with this stuff. In every city I would go to, there would be one or two people like me who were involved with appreciating and saving the old neon signs."
Some signs were made in quantity and shipped to stores around the country: Buster Brown and his dog; the Howard Johnson lamplighter; Sherwin-Williams covering the Earth with paint.
Beer drinkers can think of a dozen classic signs that lit up the walls of taverns. Working examples often appear for sale at antique shows and flea markets, generally in the $100-to-$500 range.
One of Davidson's favorites is the Anheuser-Busch "flying eagle."
Animated signs present particular challenges with timing the light display. Some have a simple one-two-three movement. The Busch sign is more complex, based on actual footage of an American bald eagle in flight.
Six of these signs were made in the early 1950s by Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. One still flaps its wings at home base in St. Louis, another soars at the brewery in Newark, N.J.
Davidson had a hand in bringing back a great local sign, made for Giles & Ransome.
"They made an animated figural sign of a tractor with a man sitting on it, double-sided, porcelain. His arms change gears, and the tractor treads go around," Davidson says. "You can see it from the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Bensalem."
The sign originally topped the company's building on Hunting Park Avenue. Most of the glass was destroyed when it was taken down, moved and stored. Davidson worked from a black-and-white photo, poring over it with a magnifying glass to re-create the tube patterns.
Collectors treasure such one-of-a-kind creations, he says.
"You see the difference between something more stylized that might be done by a fine artist and the folk-art nature of a lot of these old neon signs. That's what I have against new neon - it's done by computers, typically. That figural element is typically missing."
Since the mid-20th century, neon has, indeed, been put to use by artists as well as craftsmen. American Bruce Nauman has worked in many media, but his light sculptures stand out.
One of his best neon creations, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another, Double Poke in the Eye II (1985), a play on traditional commercial animation, is on view at the Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art Gallery in Manhattan (www.carolinanitsch.com).
Fine art in neon brings major prices at auction. Five Words in Yellow Neon, a 1965 work by Joseph Kosuth, brought $337,000 in May at Sotheby's in New York.
Dan Flavin (1933-1996) was famous for his sculptures made from fluorescent light tubes, many of which are in museum collections. His "monument" for V. Tatlin (1969) sold for $1.5 million at the same sale, while Untitled (to S.A. lovingly) brought $445,000.
Younger artists around the country produce more affordable works that will light up a living room. David Svenson, Candice Gawne and Brian Coleman have been featured in exhibitions at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles.
Antiques: If You Go
Thirteen vintage neon signs from Len Davidson's collection are on display daily at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, housed at the Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St., near the Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. Admission: free. Information: 215-569-3188 or www.davidsonneon.com.
Read Karla Klein Albertson's recent work at http://go.philly.