The first neon sign is said to have been for a hairdresser

In 1912 the words “Palais Coiffeur” lit up the boulevard Montmartre

Ireland’s most famous neon sign at South Great George’s St in Dublin

Ireland’s most famous neon sign at South Great George’s St in Dublin

 

As a defining image of capitalism, consumer culture and 20th-century cityscape, the neon sign has it all. That’s a lot of sociological meaning contained in a gas-filled glass tube. Neon gas was identified in 1898 by British chemist William Ramsay who also noticed than when he applied electricity to the noble gas it produced a bright light.

The first neon lamp was created shortly after by French engineer Georges Claude and by 1910 he reworked his invention so that it was ready for display at the Paris Motor Show. The first neon sign is reputed to have been for a Parisian hairdresser in 1912 when the words “Palais Coiffeur” lit up the boulevard Montmartre. That started a trend. It took another decade for it to cross the Atlantic where neon – the epitome of advanced technology and modernism – was adopted by the motor trade, although there is some dispute over whether the first neon signs were in Los Angeles or New York. Most visual culture historians agree the first neon signs were for Packard cars in Los Angeles when in 1923 auto industry businessman Earle C Anthony commissioned two giant red neon signs spelling out “Packard” and perched them on top of a downtown hotel at the corner of 7th and Flower Streets. They were a sensation, drawing such vast crowds to see the “liquid fire” that it stopped traffic and the police had to be called.

The most famous neon sign in Ireland isn’t on a rooftop, or for something as glamorous as a new car – it’s the much loved “Why go Bald” sign erected by the the Universal Hair & Scalp Clinic in the 1960s on their wall at South Great George’s Street in Dublin. The much-loved sign fell into disrepair in the 1990s and was dark for five years before being restored, free of charge, by Taylor Signs, who built it 37 years before.

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