Neon came to Vancouver in 1927 and city streets were never the same

Invented in Paris in the 1910s, neon signs took Vancouver by storm when they arrived here in 1927.

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The Nov. 17, 1927, Vancouver Sun had an astonishing 35 stories on its front page.

A Vancouver judge was promising “no mercy for drug dealers,” a citizen had been shot in the leg and hand by a mysterious prowler, and Hollywood star Marie Prevost was divorcing her actor husband Kenneth Harlan after he hosted a 4 a.m. “bathing suit party” in their home.

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One of the most intriguing stories is crammed in between the ads on Page 10: “Use of Neon Gas Signs is Legalized.”

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“To permit and regulate the use of neon gas signs in the city, C.H. Fletcher, city electrician, submitted a draft bylaw to the civic fire and police committee Wednesday,” The Sun reported.

Thus began a decades-long love affair between Vancouverites and neon signs. According to an Aug. 1, 1953, story in The Sun, at that time there were 18,000 neon signs in the city of 345,000 — one for every 19 residents.

“Vancouver business spends $2 million a year spelling out its virtues in this gas that was discovered by accident, developed by a French traitor who invented the robot bomb and imprisoned in glass tubes by gentle-lunged craftsmen who dare not burp,” said The Sun.

“Neon is the modern barker for funeral homes and milk bars, and seven Vancouver neon companies keep busy fabricating neon pendulums to swing from neon clocks and neon bubbles to sparkle out of neon pop bottles.”

Local neon historian John Atkin said the concept of “trapping noble gases in glass tubes” dated to the 1800s. (Noble gases are a type of naturally occurring gases like neon and argon.) In the 1910s French businessman Georges Claude perfected a method of adding an electrical charge to the gas in the glass tube, which resulted in different colours.

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“He created and patented the electrode which delivered a consistent electrical charge to a sealed tube,” said Atkin. “And that’s what made what we now think of as neon possible.”

The neon sign for the Smilin’ Buddha cabaret was donated to the Museum of Vancouver by rock band 54-40. Photo by Les Bazso /Vancouver Sun

After the First World War neon took off.

“Most (original) signs were blue or red,” said Atkin. “Red is the natural colour of neon, the gas. You can take other gases like argon, add a pinch, a minuscule amount of mercury, and that’s what gives you blue.”

Claude patented his invention, and licensed it in North America in the early 1920s.

“According to legend the first local sign was the Marmon automobile dealership that was underneath the Granville Street Bridge,” said Atkin. “Marmon was a popular brand of cars in the 1910s and ’20s. They somehow got the patent licence. Apparently on the first sign the backboard was painted here, but they went to Seattle to get the tubes made and drove them back to Vancouver in the back seat of a car.”

The signs quickly started to get very big. A Malkins Best ad in the Dec. 3, 1928, Province boasted of the company having “the largest neon sign in the British Empire,” a 17-foot-high, 150 foot wide sign with “blood red letters emblazoned in the inky blackness.”

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“Vancouver seemingly more than half the year gets dark at four in the afternoon,” said Atkin. “And it rains, and there’s nothing better than neon in the rain and that glow on the street. It was really moths to a light bulb, it really attracted everyone.”

Signs also became more elaborate and animated.

“A good glass bender could bend it in all manner of different shapes,” said Atkin. “You could make these things move. (If you) put clicker switches in, it flashes like animation, it really did fuel the imagination.”

One of the great neon signs was for The Sun when it was located in the Sun Tower at Pender and Beatty streets. “THE SUN” was spelled out in red letters, while golden sun rays/lightning bolts flashed on-and-off.

But neon came to be regarded as a civic blight by civic crusaders, and in 1974 the city enacted bylaws that essentially killed the era of the neon spectacular. A few gems remain, but many of the great remaining neon signs are at the Vancouver Museum.

Georges Claude started the Claude Neon company, which licensed its patent to Neon Products, which is still in business as part of the Jim Pattison empire.

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But Claude fell from grace in his homeland after he collaborated with the Germans when France was occupied during the Second World War.

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Montage of Neon Products neon signs, 1949. Williams Bros Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-11508 Photo by Williams Bros /jpg
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Montage of Neon Products neon signs, 1949. Williams Bros Vancouver Archives M1545-S3-: CVA 586-11509 Photo by Montage of Neon Products neon si /jpg
Neon lights on Granville Street in Vancouver, Sept, 25, 1960. Ken Oakes, Vancouver Sun, 1960. Photo by Ken Oakes /Vancouver Sun
The neon sign at the Sun Tower on Sept. 17, 1946. The Sun Tower was the home of The Vancouver Sun from 1937 to 1965. Dominion Photo Co./Vancouver Public Library VPL 27181 Photo by Dominion Photo /PNG
Aristocratic Restaurant Dine In Your Car neon sign, June 11, 1948. Williams Bros. Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-16620 Photo by Williams Bros. /jpg
The Aristocratic restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Granville streets was covered in neon signs. This Art Jones photo is from 1951. Another Aristocratic sign later replaced the Downflake Do-Nuts neon. VPL Accession No.: 81669 Photo by Artray /Vancouver Sun
Former Aristocratic restaurant owner Hank Oliver in front of the restaurant’s famous neon sign when the restaurant closed in 1997. The sign was saved and is now in the Museum of Vancouver collection. But it’s too big to get in the doors of the museum, so it’s in storage. A replica of the sign is now inside the Chapters-Indigo bookstore at its Broadway and Granville Street location. Photo by Steve Bosch /VANCOUVER SUN
malkin's best
Malkin’s Best ad in the Dec. 3, 1928, Vancouver Daily Province.
Hastings Odeon neon sign, 1949. This was the former Pantages Theatre at 20 West Hastings St. Williams Bros. Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-12561
The Strand theatre neon sign, 1949. Williams Bros Vancouver Archives AM1545-S3-: CVA 586-12539
neon ad
Neon sign inventor Georges Claude created the Claude Neon company, which licensed his patent to Neon Products in Vancouver. This ad is from the Dec. 17, 1929, Vancouver Daily Province.
Neon suit
Neon sign inventor Georges Claude created the Claude Neon company, which licensed his patent to Neon Products in Vancouver. Several other local neon companies started up without paying attention to his patent. This ad is from the Dec. 17, 1929, Vancouver Daily Province.

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