By Katherine Hon | PastMatters
The history and art of neon signs
They have been identified as eye-catchers, treasures and community landmarks, and described as tacky, garish, dazzling, cool and elegant. They appeared first in Paris in 1910 and came to America in 1923. They are neon signs.
French inventor Georges Claude is generally credited with creating the technology that allowed glass tubes filled with gas, such as neon, and brightly lit by electrification to be commercially viable signage. Claude’s company — Air Liquide — was producing industrial quantities of neon as a byproduct of his air liquefaction business.
In December 1910, he lit an exhibition hall at the Paris Motor Show with two nearly 40-foot-long bright red neon tubes. Claude’s associate, Jacques Fonsèque, realized the possibilities for a business based on signage and advertising.
Over the next decade, signs began to appear in Paris, starting with a sign for Cinzano vermouth. In 1923, Georges Claude and his French company, Claude Neon, introduced neon signs to the United States by selling two signs reading “Packard” to a Los Angeles car dealership.
The color of neon signs initially came from the type of gas inside the sealed glass tube. Neon glows red/dark orange when electrified; argon, another commonly used inert gas, glows pale lavender.
A 1926 innovation by Jacques Risler in France involved coating the inside of glass tubes with a fluorescent material called a phosphor, which allowed the generation of an abundance of additional colors through a complicated process. Though signs often used gases other than neon, they all came to be known as neon signs.
The San Diego neon sign that has likely received the most press — and certainly is the only sign to receive a women’s business award — is the baton-twirling, marching neon majorette who made her debut on the back of the Campus Drive-In theater screen tower at 62nd Street and El Cajon Boulevard in 1947.
A combination of painted mural and neon, the rectangular sign measured 75 feet wide by 50 feet tall. It incorporated more than 1,930 lineal feet of colorful bended glass tubing. The sign highlighted a painting of San Diego State University (SDSU)’s hardy building and bell tower, a goal post, Cowles Mountain, and the famed majorette.
The infamous majorette was 42 feet tall, strutted in 6-foot-tall boots and twirled a 16-foot-long baton. She wore a multicolored feather headdress and short white skirt. Her story illustrates the complex process involved in bringing these signs to life and preserving them for the future.
In 1947, Sam Russo decided to build a drive-in theater near SDSU’s campus and asked multiple sign companies to bid on making a sign for the back of the movie screen. Joseph Schmith, a designer with Perry-Christensen-Campbell Co., created the winning design.
Predicting the drive-in would attract a lot of college students, Schmith studied SDSU yearbooks and was inspired by the photos of marching majorettes. He prepared a quarter-inch-to-the-foot scale drawing on black poster board material, creating what was called a “Show Card” for the client.
Schmith added the campus buildings and outline of Cowles Mountain emblazoned with an “S” for his own last name. Russo accepted the design, and the company received the go-ahead to construct the sign.
The next step for Schmith involved creating a full-size pattern for artists to trace and paint on the theater tower wall. He spent 30 days sweating and crawling on the floor of a vacant Convair factory building to make the big patterns.
Multiple-level scaffolding was built at the theater wall for artists to transfer the pattern and paint the mural. Other artisans hand-bent the glass neon tubing that was attached to the mural, completing the neon sign.
The sign lit the night at the Campus Drive-In until 1983, when the property owners closed the theater and demolished the screen tower to create the Campus Plaza Shopping Center.
Luckily for neon lovers, that is not the end of the majorette’s story. Thanks to community advocacy — especially artists Gloria Poore, Greg Calvert and Juliette Mondot, who created the nonprofit Save Our Neon Organization — the neon majorette was dismantled, carefully packed and stored in a warehouse for years until a new home could be found.
In 1988, the sign was installed without her background mural at the refurbished Marketplace at the College Grove Shopping Center adjacent to Interstate 94 and College Avenue. Except for a few years of downtime for repainting and repairs in 1998–2000, she has marched steadily onward at the shopping center.
The neon majorette had a banner year in 2001, when she received a special award at the San Diego Business Journal’s annual Women Who Mean Business awards ceremony. She was honored for symbolizing a long-awaited economic revival and new era of community pride in the neighborhood of her new home.
Earlier that same year, the shopping center owners donated the neon majorette to the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) for her protection and preservation. She is expected to continue twirling and lighting up the night for many years to come.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.