Almost any time I need to track down an old photo of anything in New York, I go to the New York Public Library's incredible collection of historic photos gathered together under the rather ungainly collection heading of "Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s." The collection includes more than 54,000 photographs, four of which appear in the neon book. For many years viewable only on microfiche, today the photos can be found (and prints purchased) online, at the NYPL's digital gallery.
"Splended Lunch Bar" ~ 125th St., N. side, looking east from Madison to Park, Aug. 3, 1936, P.L. Sperr. Then and Now.
Among many other remarkable things, the photos record thousands of old neon signs long vanished from the city streets. The bulk of the collection dates to the 1930s, most of them taken by the (vastly underrated) photographer Percy Loomis Sperr (1890-1964), whom the library commissioned to "document the changing face of New York City, with a particular emphasis on new building construction, and on the structures torn down and replaced." As the photographs show, neon signs had spread like wildfire all across the city by the 1930s, defining the character of the midcentury New York.
Browsing these photos, the signs are impossible to miss. What follows is a random assortment of 1930s New York neon, spotted while browsing the collection. Not a single one of these remains today, as you'll see by clicking the Google StreetView links below the photos (the "Now" links below). Watch for the stylistic transition that played out in the mid-1930s, as sign shops abandoned stamped metal edge moldings and serifed letterforms in favor of a more streamlined aesthetic. The full, un-cropped photos can be viewed (and purchased) at the NYPL's digital gallery (follow the "Then" links below).
"Hyman Spitz Florist." (and "Miles Shoes," etc.) ~ Pitkin Ave., north side, looking east from Rockaway Ave. P.L. Sperr, May 8, 1936. Then and Now.
Dinner Jackets "To Hire" ~ Brooklyn: 5th Avenue, North from 6th Street, Brooklyn - P.L. Sperr, Nov. 5, 1941. Then and Now.
"Cut Rate Drugs" ~ 2nd Ave., looking north from 76th St., Manhattan, P.L. Sperr, Dec. 28, 1936. Then and Now.
"Perry's Luncheon-Candy-Soda" ~ 3rd Ave looking north from 76th St., P.L. Sperr, March 29, 1937. Then and Now.
"Peper Bros. Paints" (And "Bradley Cafeteria") ~ Sixth Ave., west side, looking north from 14th St. P.L. Sperr, April 26, 1934. Then and Now.
"Village Grove Nut Club" ~ Seventh Ave. South, east side below Grove St., Manhattan. Feb 18, 1933. Then and Now.
IN OTHER NEON NEWS:
• Just when you think you've seen it all: Junior's, the downtown Brooklyn institution, is selling its flagship location for redevelopment.
• Neon artist Chryssa has died. Among the first artists to begin working with neon, in the early 1960s.
• Did anyone check out Keith Sonnier's neon work at the Pace Gallery this month?
• At HuffPost, more neon art, from the UK.
• And still more neon art, closer to home: works by Iván Navarro at Madison Square Park.
• From NPR, some interesting perspective on the ongoing LED revolution in lighting.