Monday, January 16, 2012

Letters from Neon: Scripts

Since their advent more than 100 years ago, neon signs have had a special relationship with script letterforms.  By their sinuous nature, neon tubes lend themselves to script.  Moore tube signs used script in the early 1900s; Claude's first neon sign in the U.S. reproduced Packard's trademark script logotype. 

Claude's first neon sign in the U.S. featured Packard's script logotype.  (American Sign Museum)

Steven Heller and Louis Fili's recent book Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design's Golden Age celebrates classic script letterforms and provides some insight on their evolution and significance. "In commercial contexts, a script would never be used for, say, a railway sign or other official posting," they write, "but it was common and appropriate for virtually any other type of signage . . . which demanded an ad hoc or handwritten appearance."

Specimen sheet for Gillies Gothic Bold, from American Type Founders, 1934, reproduced in Heller & Fili's Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design's Golden Age.

"Neon Script," from Alf Becker's 100 Alphabets, 1941. First published in Signs of the Times magazine, July 1933.

Script lettering evolved stylistically through the twentieth century with changing fashions.  Midcentury scripts lend their appeal to some of New York's best old neon signs.  They have a particular ability to evoke the spirit of their time, like the stylized emblems on automobiles of the same period, or the jaunty signature of any given mystery challenger signing in on the quiz show "What's My Line."

TOP: Midcentury scripts scoped out at the 2011 Rhinebeck Car Show (T.Rinaldi); BOTTOM: Bette Davis signing in on "What's My Line."

In some cases, as at Long Island City's landmark Pepsi-Cola spectacular, the sign faithfully reproduces a logotype designed previously by others.  But in most examples, the lettering is the original work of sign painters in a neon shop's layout department.

Some New York signs that play the contrast between script and block letters. (T.Rinaldi)

Very often, sign makers played the contrast between an elegant script and matter-of-fact block letters.  This practice seems to have peaked in the 1950s.  Typically, the signs use script for the owner's name, as though the sign was a personalized invitation.   "Before the advent of modern logo design, scripts gave the illusion that the business name was a signature," write Heller and Fili:  "They made the impersonal personal."  

Smith’s Bar & Grill, 701 8th Avenue, Manhattan / DaNite Neon Sign Co., 1954

Rainbow Café (removed), 3904 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1955

Morscher’s Pork Store (removed), 5844 Catalpa Avenue, Queens / c. 1950

Kayton’s Specialty Shop, 723 East Tremont Avenue, Bronx / c. 1955*

Harold’s Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Avenue, Brooklyn / Super Neon Lights, Inc.,  c. 1946*

Antelis Pharmacy, 1502 Elm Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co. (attributed), c. 1955

Katz Drugs, 76 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co., c. 1955

Neil’s Coffee Shop, 961 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan / c. 1966*

Beekman Theatre (demolished), 1254 Second Avenue, Manhattan / 1952

Maimain’s Pharmacy, 821 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co., c. 1951*

Joe Abbracciamento, 6296 Woodhaven Boulevard, Queens / New York Neon, c. 1949* (alterations by Artistic Neon, c. 1998)

Goldberger’s Pharmacy, 1200 First Avenue, Manhattan / c. 1960

Long Island Restaurant, 108 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1951*

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan / c. 1960*

Egidio Pastry Shop, 622 East 187th Street, Bronx / c. 1967*

Eltingville Prescriptions, 3948 Richmond Avenue, Staten Island / Torrone Signs, c. 1961*

Uptown Wine Shop (formerly Julius Braun Liquors), 1361 Lexington Ave., Manhattan / 1952

Hinsch’s Confectionary, 8518 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1948

Garry Jewlers, 474 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1961

Bernard F. Dowd Funeral Home, 16520 Hillside Avenue, Queens / Grauer Sign Co., c. 1955 (alterations by Grauer Sign Co. 1982)

Sabatino Funeral Home, 321 Avenue U, Brooklyn / Super Neon Sign Co., c. 1959*

Carvel, 14901 14th Avenue, Queens / c. 1956*

Pepsi Cola, Long Island City, Queens / Artkraft Strauss Sign Co., 1938

Murray’s Sturgeon, 2429 Broadway / c. 1950

 Harold’s Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Avenue, Brooklyn / Super Neon Lights, Inc.,  c. 1946*

Holiday Motel, 2291 New England Thruway, Bronx / c. 1965*

 40 West 55th Liquors, 40 West 55th Street, Manhattan

Jay Dee Bakery (removed), 9892 Queens Boulevard, Queens / c. 1955*

John’s Restaurant, 302 East 12th Street, Manhattan / c. 1936*

Angelo’s of Mulberry Street, 146 Mulberry Street, Manhattan / c. 1955

Carnegie Delicatessen, 854 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan / Globe Neon Sign Corp., c. 1960

Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street., Manhattan / c. 1964

Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan / United Signs Corp., 1932 (alterations, c. 1940)

From the film Dames (1934), by way of the Movie Title Stills Collection.

* = Probable date based on records at the New York City Department of Buildings.

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