Blub signs of yore (top) and today (bottom). (Signs of the Times, top; Brooklyn Bown, bottom)
In the neon book, I explore how incandescent bulb signs became icons of obsolescence in the 1930s. Before Hollywood hung flickering neon signs outside dingy, disreputable hotels and bars in the 1940s and 50s, film directors used bulb signs to bring audiences into the demimonde establishments of drifters and grifters, gangsters and conmen as early as the 1930s.
The incandescent bulb sign had its heyday in the early decades of the twentieth century. Thomas Edison gave us the incandescent lamp in 1879, and bulb signs became a signature part of New York's urban landscape by the 1890s. Sign makers found ingenious ways of arranging untold numbers of bulbs into hyper-elaborate contortions almost unimaginable today, animated spectacles that soon came to define the frenetic pace of urban life.
Typical incandescent bulb signs for storefronts, as illustrated in an early 1920s brochure for the Reynolds Electric Company. (Signs of the Times Magazine, used with permission)
Bulb signs held sway for 30 years or so, until neon blew them away with its lower maintenance and energy costs in the late 1920s. Within a few years, the bulb signs were gone. Well, almost gone: in New York, they became so closely associated with the iconography of roaring-twenties gaiety that Broadway theaters almost universally re-installed bulb signs on their marquees, even after many had gone neon in the 1930s.
Bulb Signs over Broadway. (T. Rinaldi)
In the last few years, bulb signs have become what one might call "a thing," cropping up in retail establishments and trendy restaurants all over town. The new signs are typically vague approximations of their predecessors: in their lettering and other details, they don't seek to fool us into thinking they're the real thing.
(New York Magazine, Nov. 3, 2011)
Yet with their latent ability to conjure up the aura of all things way-before-our-time, the new bulb signs fall in with similarly old-timey details (from penny tile floors to mustached bar tenders to those beautiful if ubiquitous lacy-filamented incandescent bulbs) that have become de rigueur decor for even the most slightly aspiring new restaurants.
Rare Bar & Grill, 152 W25th St. (T.Rinaldi)
That these signs buck the otherwise overwhelming Mad Men tendency toward all things midcentury begs some reflection: is the appeal of the bulb signs just that they offer some visual stimulation amongst the drab monotony of our vinyl-awninged streetscapes? Or is there something more cerebral going on here, perhaps that these signs herald little makebelieve respites from a city where anything actually old doesn't stand a chance against the locust-swarm of glassy highrises casting ever darker shadows over Central Park?
Peel's, 325 Bowery (T. Rinaldi)
The history of bulb signs in their glory years is worthy of a book unto itself, and their revival merits at least a good anatomy-of-a-trend type dissertation. Alas, the bulb sign revival will likely expire before anyone puts finger to save button on either of the above, so for now, lets enjoy them while they last.
P.J. Clarke's, 250 Vesey St. (T. Rinaldi)
Comedy Cellar, 117 Macdougal St. (T. Rinaldi)
Mickey Spillane's, 350 W49th St. (T. Rinaldi)
Bowlmor Lanes, 222 W44th St. (T. Rinaldi)
Toshi's Living Room, 1141 B'way (T. Rinaldi)
Lucy's Cantina Royale, W34th St. (T. Rinaldi)
Bounce Fitness, 55 W21st St. (T. Rinaldi)
Joe Coffee, 9 E13th St. (T. Rinaldi)
Ace Hotel, 20 W29th St. (T. Rinaldi)
IN OTHER NEON NEWS:
• It's not too late to sign up for my neon walking tour of the East Village TONIGHT (May 8, 2014)!
• Did anyone catch the virtual Kentile re-lighting in Gowanus, Brooklyn? It happened this past weekend. If you missed it (as I did!), get caught up with a few links, here and here. (For some background on the Kentile sign, check out this NYNeon post.)
• Controversy stalks the neon "WELCOME TO THE BRONX" sign in the South Bx. Just light it back up already!
• Debra Jane serves up a few more batches of neon beauteousness from SoCal.
• Some interesting appreciation and exploration of Italian neon from Paul Shaw.