When Signs Ruled America: The Surprising History of Motel Neon

Categories Culture

Motel neon signs once ruled America. They gave life to cities from New York to LA. But on the road they became truly mythological. Down Route 66 and the interstate highways, their wild colors blazed in the night. Beckoning the weary driver with the promise of modern comforts, they made far-off places seem welcoming. The history of American motel neon is fascinating, and it starts, oddly enough, in France.

In 1910, French electrical engineer Georges Claude made a research breakthrough in lighting, making neon usable for the first time. He built his first advertising sign in 1913 for a Parisian barbershop – not the most extravagant start. But word of Claude’s new, unique lighting spread. It finally arrived in America in 1923 when he sold two signs to a Packard Motor Co. showroom in LA. The signs weren’t cheap, but the publicity stunt paid off, causing traffic jams as motorists stopped to gawk at their wild blue glow. Neon mania was on its way. Claude’s company monopolized the industry until the late 1920s, when prices dropped and things really took off. By the 1940s and 1950s neon signage was everywhere in USA, becoming a bonafide symbol of American culture.

The iconic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, NM perfects motel neon ambiance and no-fuss parking.


Route 66 Motel Neon – Cars Follow the Light

Neon became huge at the same time that car ownership and highway construction was switching into overdrive. As a result, you really can’t separate the history of neon in America from the history of motels. Car ownership meant mobility, it meant being modern and up-to-date. Having a neon sign on your motel was a way of communicating that you had cutting-edge conveniences like radios, televisions, and kitchenettes, that your business was clean and safe. The motels they advertised were light years ahead of the ‘tin can’ cabins that passed for roadside accommodations in earlier times. While these signs may look kitschy and even truly oddball to our eyes today, they really were state-of-the-art back then.


Cowboys, Route 66, and an exotic Spanish name? I think we just reached peak Motel.


Vintage Motel Signs, California Style

Later neon signage deliberately borrowed from automobiles. The “Googie” style, which blossomed in California after World War II, was hugely influenced by car body shapes and the new consumer demands that grew up alongside car culture. Featuring crazy curvy, space-age geometry, with details like upside-down, upswept roofs, and generous amounts of glass and steel, Googie architecture fully embraced the motorist’s lifestyle – just drive up, get out, and walk a few feet. Unheard-of convenience!


The ‘Googie’ style Caribbean Motel wraps neon, easy parking and Jetsons curves into one neat package.


The Clock is Ticking, Buy a Neon Sign or See a Neon Sign!

Sure, when it comes down to it, the place with the neon sign might just be a room for the night – but there’s something thrilling about that glowing light (excuse the rhyme). Back when few people had the money or means to travel very far, neon signs were the promise of escape from the everyday. The world was smaller. Neon let people dream of exotic, thrilling experiences and places. Neon also tied into car culture perfectly by tying into the American dream perfectly. It promised a new modern world away from history’s baggage – a world where you could get in your car, drive where you felt like, and stay where you pleased. These days, neon signs are enjoying a big comeback thanks to retro-themed shows like Mad Men, but they’re still an endangered species. So get out there and see these rare beasts now! Or.. go buy one and refurbish it. Show this article to your friends to get them inspired, and get working on that next big road trip!


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