The tube glowed with a beautiful orange-red color, and thus was constituted the first commercially successful neon tube sign,
wrote Mel Morris in an October 1928 issue of a neon enthusiasts’ magazine called Signs of the Times, which Todd has collected for years. This sentence is proof that almost 100 years of neon history is based on misinformation.
“The legend has it that the first neon ever in America was installed in February of 1923 in Los Angeles at Earle Anthony’s Packard dealership,” Todd says.
This legend was debunked in 2013 with an LA Times article quoting two experts who scoured images of 1920s Los Angeles and found that the first neon sign didn’t actually appear until 1925 — muddying up the waters of neon history as it is well known that New York City had neon in 1925. Now, according to the article, it is unclear which American city possessed the first neon sign.
Hidden away in Todd’s magazine collection is the answer, and it’s neither Los Angeles or New York City that has bragging rights — it’s Newark, New Jersey. Even more interesting is the year in which the Newark sign appeared: 1909, 14 years earlier than the previous claim and one year before neon was even patented by Georges Claude in Paris, France.
There are piles of old 1920s and ‘30s signs that they took down and melted down for the war effort.
“These guys got some electrodes from a mercury vapor lamp and made their own neon and it burned for three years,” Todd says of John Madine and Russell Trimble, the creators of the Newark neon sign who have evaded fame all these years.
The original sign, according to Signs of the Times, spelled out the word “Ingersoll” and was kept in the Ingersoll Watch Company. According to Todd, he has never read anything else that claims Newark as the trailblazer.
The fascinating history of neon signage doesn’t stop there, however. The iconic “liquid fire,” as it was called when it first entered American popularity, was forced to take a break just as it was reaching its heyday; neon signs were melted down and used as WWII supplies.
“There’s an ad in one of these (magazines) that says ‘give your soldier a neon sign’… There are piles of awesome old 1920s and ‘30s signs that they took down and melted down for the war effort,” Todd says.
Neon art wasn’t without its trends, of course. It was American neon artists who animated the lighting method, turning it into a spectacle, whereas previously, neon was mostly mundane white or light blue. After plastic became readily available in the 1950s, a new style popped up using the Sputnik era to create space age pieces.
Todd’s personal favorite eras were 1938-1939 and 1948-1950. “They were mixing this art deco streamlined modern look with neon and making some of the finest neon signs that ever were created,” he says.
With his passion and research, Todd is helping to keep neon art alive, along with preservationists like Lili Lakich, founder of the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, and followers of Rudi Stern, one of America’s most famous neon artists.
“There is stuff in (these magazines) that is not even known by living people anymore so I’m going back through and gleaning like an urban archaeologist,” Todd says. “I’m a neon archaeologist.”
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Photography: Molly Winters