Neon nights: how advertising signs lit up the city

neon signs on a building in a snowy city

Neon lighting’s distinctive glow has been brightening cities across Europe and the world all through the 20th century. Neon signs and lighting animate city centres, evoking both a modern, urban world, both futuristic and nostalgic.

Neon signs first lit up the skies in Paris in the 1910s, less than two decades on from neon’s discovery. British chemists Sir William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers had first identified the gas neon in 1898, naming it for the Greek word neos, meaning new.

Neon – dubbed ‘liquid fire’ – gives a distinct reddish-orange glow when used in tubes and lamps, which was soon put to use in industrial settings, particularly in advertising signage and lighting.

Neon is a rare gas, but French engineer and inventor Georges Claude’s company L’Air Liquide produced a lot of neon as a by-product of their activities. In the 1910s, Claude demonstrated the use of neon in tubes to create eye-catching advertising signs.

The neon sign as we know it was born, and was instantly successful.

Through the roaring twenties and 1930s, the intense vibrancy of neon suggested progress and modernity, giving cities colourful urban landmarks.

Skilled workers known as glass benders, neon benders or tube benders can shape neon tubes into curving artistic form, such as letters or pictures.

As the signage and advertising developed, although tube lights with other colours are often called “neon”, different gases were used to create fluorescent lighting.

Neon lighting and advertising made our cities brighter, more commercial. Symbols and signs adorn buildings and walls, inspiring artists to capture their distinctive character.

RELATED: Check out this neon-inspired entry for GIF IT UP 2019 – the annual cultural heritage GIF-making competition

Neon particularly seems to evoke the night-time and leisure economy – their use as signage or advertising for hotels, bars, nightclubs, beauty salons and more became commonplace.

Through the 1960s and 1990s, neon signs became associated with run down areas of inner cities. Their popularity waned somewhat, with today’s LED signage adopted more.

Neon signs today can be considered landmarks in our urban landscapes, cherished and preserved as part of the industrial and social heritage of cities across Europe.

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation


Europe at Work – Share your story

Did you or your family work in the neon or advertising industries? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

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Feature image: Lilletorget 1, Atelier Rude, Oslo Museum, CC BY-SA

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