Ask yourself what is the main, consistent and oft-repeated image that you remember from cross-country rides on your bike. My answer? Neon signs.

Neon signs, you might be surprised to know, were originally produced by the French company Claude Neon. They came to America in 1923, when the company’s owner Georges Claude introduced neon gas signs to the United States by selling two to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. Earle C. Anthony purchased the two signs reading “Packard” for $1,250 apiece, a munificent sum at the time. That’s the story, anyway, although it seems that neon signs had travelled across the country from New York before they reached LA.  Whatever the truth, neon lighting quickly became the must-have form of outdoor advertising all over the country.

And why not; the searing colours of neon signs have, in living memory at least, always promised the latest and the brightest, not only along the highways which seemed to be their natural home but also in cities and towns, wherever someone wanted to stand out from the crowd. Of course the crowd followed suite, and that placed more and more emphasis on the ingenuity of design.

Probably the best-known neon sign along Route 66.

One way to stand out even more was to use colours. When an electric current passes through the neon gas in a tube, it gives off its distinctive orange/red glow. But the technology is not limited to that one color. There are two methods that allow many other colors of light to be created. The first involves using different gases, each of which produces its own distinctive tints.

But there is another way, and it allows you to make a far greater number of colours. This is done by using phosphor coatings on the inside of the light tubes. Mercury in the tube emits a spectrum rich in ultraviolet light, and this excites the phosphor coating to glow. And as phosphors produce many different colors, up to 250 different tints of neon lighting were possible at the time. Today there are many thousands of different colors, which I guess makes it a pity that neon lighting is being superseded by LEDs.

America’s Main Street is the graveyard of many an inventive neon sign.

After World War 2, many of the neon lights which had been turned off under wartime regulations were not ever turned back on. To the latest-is-best crowd, neon was no longer trendy. The signs were weathered, rusting and breaking, as well as being expensive to maintain and repair. Every neon sign is hand-made, nobody has ever discovered a way of replacing the painstaking skill of heating, bending and blowing the glass tubes it requires.

Which is why the neon signs that do remain are so noticeable and so deeply loved. Today you can admire them at The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Museum of Neon Art in LA, the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati and even the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. The Skipping Girl Vinegar sign in Melbourne, Australia, is an absolute icon. But the best place to see them, whether they’re working or not, is on the road.

JUst plain burgers — a sign that promises only what it can provide.

The Hill Top Motel is probably the absolute essence of the Route 66 motels. Its sign is working, and it brightens the road. Others, like the Frontier Motel sign, will never glow again but carry in their desolation the message that nothing is forever. The Roadrunner sign, high on its poles over Route 66, sends the same message.

One that I particularly like is the “Burgers” sign. No branding here, this was put up before different companies “owned” the hamburger business. It doesn’t promise Big Macs or Whoppers, it just offers hamburgers and I prefer it for its simplicity.

There is a lot of emotion behind this simple, inexpensive sign in Oatman AZ.

Finally, here’s a sign that does not rely on neon’s glow to get its message across. This rather indignant sign takes us back to America’s entry into World War 2, and one of the many unregarded side effects of that entry. A side effect that rolls on to 1944 and the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, better known as Bretton Woods.

What does the Bretton Woods accord have to do with the hokey and fake-to-the-bone but nevertheless quite engaging tourist town of Oatman, its streets filled with donkey manure, in outback Arizona? Yes, I know, some economists would be quite comfortable equating John Maynard Keynes with the product of Equus Asinus but that’s not it. This time.

War Production Board Limitation Order L-208, issued on Oct. 8, 1942, forced the closing of gold mines not only in Oatman but all over the US. The idea was that production of metals for the war effort was more important than that of gold.

Mining historian Ed Hunter has the story behind L-208, from a post by RESTLESS NATIVE, 14/11/2008.

“We’d get more of a metal that could be made into shells and bullets rather than that gold stuff,” he noted, although “a  great many hands went to the service which probably didn’t leave many to go to other mines.” He hinted that there may have been even bigger and more complex political agendas to consider. After all, this is America, native home of the conspiracy theory.

“Seemed kind of funny that Roosevelt and Churchill decided to cut out gold mining in the US but Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, etc. could keep on gold mining throughout the war. About that time there was reference in the trade journals to leaders in both countries wanting to go off the gold standard culminating in the Breton Woods accord. I’m afraid that is all way beyond me.”

Were the gold mines of America closed down so the US dollar could become the world’s currency?

(Photos The Bear)


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