vintage neon signs - close up shot of a red and blue vintage neon sign

Going Retro: The Rise, Fall, & Revival of Vintage Neon Signs

The world has been in a significant throwback era in recent years.

From the return of 80s fashion trends and music heard on Stranger Things and Silk Sonic to the rise of the Y2K or early 2000s aesthetics due to artists like Olivia Rodrigo and NewJeans, it’s no surprise even vintage neon signs are making a huge comeback.

However, many individuals still need to be convinced to use these rad light sources. Why? 

Let’s uncover the world of neon signage and learn the fuss behind retro neon signs.

Diving Into Neon Wonderland

Don’t let its hypnotizing glow fool you into thinking that the neon sign is a postmodern invention. Despite its frequent association with futuristic aesthetics and all things advanced, the traditional neon sign is quite an old creation.

Humble Beginnings

The first neon sign popped up in history before the first World War began. The neon sign’s creation is often credited to Georges Claude, who presented the first revolutionary neon tube lights at a Parisian motor show in 1910.

What is so impressive about glowing tube lights anyway? To give you a bit of context, let’s get into how the French engineer invented the classic neon sign. 

Claude discovered that trapping and sealing noble gases (in this case, neon) in glass tubes and sending volts through electrodes in these tubes can light the gas molecules up, resulting in that distinct fluorescent red-orange glow.

The colour of the neon sign depends on the noble gas trapped in the glass tubes. However, neon sign makers may also coat the glass with a layer of a colour-emitting substance called phosphor to give the sign different colours.

Contrary to what many may believe, traditional neon lights and signs aren’t typically factory-made. Instead, they are patiently and skillfully crafted and bent by hand, giving these signs and tube lights more artistic value.

Vintage Neon Sign Fever

Because of its electrifying and attention-grabbing glare, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to predict how successful neon signage would be once it made its way into the Land of the Free by the 1920s. 

Neon light usage skyrocketed during the roaring 20s as dozens of businesses began using neon signs for commercial advertising. By the 1930s, hundreds of neon signs lined the busy streets of America, Times Square in particular. Neon signage became the symbol of urbanization and the future.

Several neon lights and signs lit up downtown Las Vegas by the 1940s, effectively drawing customers and tourists into the city. Vegas had so many signs that it even gained the name Glitter Gulch because of the number of neon lights in the area.

The Neon Renaissance

However, indicative of this article’s title, the neon sign’s impressive exponential growth won’t continue for the following years. Despite its initial success, the signature neon glow suddenly dimmed when the second World War began.

It continuously diminished as the 60s rolled around, leading to its steep decline in popularity and usage. Neon signs and lights quickly became old news, and the neon craze began to die following the global economic crisis in the 60s.

Besides the inevitable blackouts following the World War and the unexpected recession, business owners also struggled with traditional neon signage for the following reasons:

  • Neon signs became too expensive to produce, use, and maintain for simple outdoor advertising.
  • Traditional neon tube lights are incredibly fragile, leading to the signs frequently being broken.
  • The lights also became heavily associated with vices, such as gambling and alcoholism, as several casinos and bars began to use them.

Fortunately, the 70s and 80s gradually brought the spotlight back to neon signage, its retro and old-school vibe once again appealing to the masses. Additionally, people began to admire the artistry behind neon sign making, even going so far as to create museums showcasing old unused traditional neon lights.

The neon renaissance was in full force as artists also started appreciating neon signage as an art form and began using neon tube lights for artistic expression. Neon art flourished during the 80s with notable works from Young British Artists.

shot of a vintage budweiser neon sign shaped like a guitar

The Rise of LED Neon Signs

While glass neon signs have warmed their way back into the public’s hearts with their magnetic and eye-catching glow, the question stands: was the revival indeed a success?

Because of its production and maintenance costs, plenty of entrepreneurs still stayed clear of using traditional neon lights for advertising. Instead, business owners turned to a safer and more cost-efficient alternative: LED neon signs.

LED neon lights and signs use energy more efficiently than regular glass neon. For instance, a traditional neon sign continuously running for 12 hours will consume almost 5,000 watts, while an LED sign will use less than half of that number. LED neon signs also last longer than traditional signs, lighting up a space for approximately 100,000 hours.

On top of that, LED neon light production costs less and is much safer than traditional neon signs because it doesn’t use rare, expensive, and hazardous materials like noble gases and glass tubing. LED lights are much easier to modify and shape because of thin, flexible plastic tubing.

Though they’re back on the market, traditional glass neon costs more than regular LED neon signs. A vintage Budweiser neon sign can create that distinct nostalgic vibe, but you would have to spend thousands of dollars.

The table below highlights their differences further.

LED neon signsTraditional glass neon
Uses 1,400 watts for 12 hoursHas a lifespan of up to 100,000 hoursProduced using heat-resistant and safe materials like flexible plastic tubing and small LED lightsCan be easily bent, and comes in various shapesLow-cost maintenanceDoes not make any sound when turned onLess risk of damage due to plastic materialLess health-related risksLess tendency to overheatEasy to install and hangConsumes almost 5,000 watts for 12 hoursLasts up to 30,000 hoursProduction involves materials such as noble gases and glass tubingWould need several degrees of heat to bend and modifyHigh and pricey maintenanceEmits a continuous, annoying buzz when litProne to breaking because of fragile casingMay cause poisoning due to gas leakage and excessive heatingNeed professionals to install

Hang Up an LED Neon Sign from Neonize

While reminiscing the past and the power of nostalgia can bring back the traditional glass neon signage reign, these won’t be enough to go toe to toe with LED neon signs

Wondering where you can find a durable and high-quality neon light sign? Try Neonize’s lights and signs!

From business signage to simple house and room decor, Neonize has tons of creative and visually stunning neon light designs for any occasion. Our neon signs are made with LED neon flex, PVC, acrylic materials and flex rubber tubing, ensuring their quality and durability.

Browse our collection and site for more details about our neon signs and lights.

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