Neon: A brief History

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As a child growing up in the 80’s when I hear the word neon it brings up images of brightly coloured garments, usually with massive shoulder pads. Wasn’t that the best?? Colours so bright you had to wear shades?! Kind of like our futures?
Man those were the days!

Now as a professional working in the sign industry the word neon means something completely different to me. Neon is long luminous gas discharge tubes that contain rarified neon or other gases.
So within the sign industry these are electric signs illuminated with these glass tubes. The signs could often be quite vibrant due to the many colours available at the time.

The word neon has also started to take on a bit of historical value within the sign industry. As technology progresses and we move on to more eco-friendly, energy efficient sources of illuminations such as the LEDs. Older technologies such as the Neon Gas tube are becoming much rarer to find.

WW Arcade - Sign restoration
Sign preparation

Even repairing and restoring a neon sign has become harder to do over time as there are fewer skilled technicians able to manipulate this fragile substance. It is quickly becoming a lost art.

Did you know that neon was first demonstrated at the expo in Paris in 1910 by George Claude? It’s ok, I think I can count on one hand the people I know that would know that and I work with them!

But what does that REALLY mean? It means that this technology, no let’s say art form…because let’s face it have you seen some of those old school signs??! These are works of art! I mean have you ever been to Las Vegas?! Come on, these things are impressive!

Ok. I digress. Where were we? Oh Yes, what does it all mean? It means that this art form is over 100 years old. There is so much history behind some of those old signs you see today.

 

Edmonton neon sign museum - WW Arcade
WW Arcade Fully restored sign

Here’s another did you know moment. Did you know that Edmonton is home to the Neon Sign Museum? It is the first of its kind in Canada.

Truly a labour of love originating with the collection of discarded neon signs back in 2002. Edmonton Heritage Planner David Holdsworth saved the first sign when he saw an old Canadian Furniture sign being removed and heading for the dumpster. He continued to collect them too until the idea for the Neon Sign Museum was born in 2008.

Looking to see if any local sign professional be willing to repair the signs for free he approached Tom McGeachy the Vice President of the Alberta Sign Association (ASA). The ASA did eventually get involved in 2009 where more ideas began to take flight.

With help from the Edmonton Business Council for Visual Arts they were able to begin raising funds and searching for a suitable location. They were even able to secure funding for the $180,000 frame grid that needed to be specially engineered to protect the historical building the signs were being mounted on.

WW Arcade - Historical Building
WW Arcade - Historical Building

Restoring these signs such as the W.W. Arcade sign restored by Hi Signs the Fath Group breathes new life into an amazing story. The W.W. Arcade building first opened back in 1912 in Edmonton’s main commercial section and even though the building was renamed in 1942 the sign remained until 1991. Incidentally, neon fashions were still around then too!
The Edmonton Downtown Development Corporation (EEDC) donated the sign to the museum where it currently hangs today.

The sign was lovingly worked on by many dedicated employees at Hi Signs the Fath Group with over 100 of hours repairing and repainting the structure. When the sign first came to Hi Signs it had been in storage for quite some time and there was quite a bit of rust damage to the sign. The sign had to be completely stripped down and part of the sign needed to be rebuilt.

 

WW Arcade Bird's Nest
Birds' nest pulled out of sign

It is a little known fact that many old signs tend to become home to birds. Workers actually found a birds’ nest with eggs still inside the nest while the sign was being stripped down. There was no original neon left on the sign, so a pattern for the sign had to be created by hand by Hi Signs employees. This was given to a tube bender by the name of Tom Beaudreau who did a wonderful job recreating the neon.

The sign was rebuilt and repainted. Cut vinyl graphics displaying the name W.W. Arcade and the new neon was the added to the sign. When the project was completed the sign looked as though it were new. To date Hi Signs the Fath Group has refurbished 2 of the W.W. Arcade signs, helping to preserve a little bit of our cities history.

In all 20 signs have currently been added to the Neon Sign Museum. There are plans to add up to ten more over time. There is so much craftsmanship and skill put into the creation of these signs they really are a real sight to see.

If you don’t already know how amazing Edmonton is with all its city sights, probably the most popular being the new Roger’s Place arena down town right now. It is worth checking out. Head down to 104th street and 104th Avenue Edmonton in the evening to see all the signs lit up. Get a coffee, take a walk. I promise you it will be worth it!

 Edmonton Neon Sign Museum - Night view

 

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