Everyone associates bright, colorful neon-lit signs with the United States and most for people they define Route 66.
Neon lit signs, which work when an electric current is sent through gas in a glass tube, were first introduced in Paris barber in 1912. By the 1920s, neon was seen as the most modern and stylish way to advertise and been a hallmark of American roadside commercial advertising since. Neon signs were brash, colorful and eye catching, a revolutionary form of advertising for business owners and often great entertainment for travelers.
Each sign was unique and handcrafted and could be made to reflect the creativity of the business owner. The colors, shapes, sizes and messages conveyed by neon signs through their long association with Route 66 are as varied as the businesses that made up the road during its long history. The significance of neon signs goes further: the evolution of these signs over time and the aims of the sign-makers reflected cultural and economic trends of American society during much of the 20th century.
The amazing neon sign at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcai
By the 1950s, however, neon sign production began to diminish in favor of less expensive and more esily produced plastic back-lit signs. By the 1960s and 1970s, when urban renewal became a priority, zoning regulations often banned new neon signs so that when businesses were sold or remodeled their neon signs often were thrown away. By the 2000s, hundreds of neon signs along Route 66 were become badly deteriorated, as they were replaced by cheaper forms of advertising or - worse still - the Interstates destroyed businesses in hundreds of small towns which had previously benefitted from Route 66 traffic.
Examples (above and below) of abandoned neon signs on Route 66
So after being the advertising method of choice for many years the neon signs declined in popularity. But everything goes round and guess what? Neon is now the target for a restoration project.
In 2001, New Mexico’s State Historic Preservation Office recognized the historical, cultural and artistic value of its neon signs and received a $50,000 cost-share grant from the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. With the New Mexico Route 66 Association serving as project leader, nine neon signs in the communities of Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup were selected for restoration and sign owners participated actively in the project. The New Mexico Route 66 Neon Sign Restoration Project resulted in the restoration of nine classic neon signs in. These signs include motels, restaurants, and a curio shop that served Route 66 travelers. The neon sign for the Wig-Wam Motel in Holbrook and the Frontier Motel sign in Truxton, Arizona, and the Sno-Cap in Seligman has also been recently restored by Jeff and Kathy Register, two Arizona neon sign restorers.
Examples of restored neon signs along Route 66
The project has increased awareness of neon signs as outstanding examples of American folk art and ignited interest in their long- term care and protection.
The neon project is just one of a number of restoration plans for Route 66. The Friends of the Mother Road has been involved with the preservation of various forms of signage including the Vega Motel in Vega, Texas, and at Vernelle’s Motel near Arlington, Missouri.