Where to See Some of America’s Coolest Neon Signs

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Where to See Some of America’s Coolest Neon Signs
Neon lamps were developed by French engineer Georges Claude in 1902 and patented in 1911, but the lighting didn’t debut in America until 1923, when Earle C. Anthony purchased two glowing red signs for his Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for U.S. businesses to see neon’s benefits for outdoor advertising: Not only were signs visible 24 hours a day, but they also were brilliant to behold. Neon boomed in popularity in the 1940s and ’50s but was on the decline just a decade later; plastic signs lit up with fluorescent bulbs were much cheaper to produce. Thanks to preservation programs like the Route 66 Corridor Restoration Act, as well as a handful of diehard neon collectors and revivalist museums, it’s relatively easy to find excellent examples of neon signage. Here are five to look out for on your next cross-country road trip.
By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
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    Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico
    In hot, dusty Tucumcari, another staple of Route 66, the promise of “100% Refrigerated Air” was all it took to siren call weary motorists. The family-owned motel has been kicking around since 1939 and still maintains its retro charm, thanks to original bathroom fixtures, rotary telephones in every suite, and classic cars parked beneath that iconic blue-and-white sign.

    Plan Your Trip: New Mexico
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    Weiss Liquors in Nashville, Tennessee
    This East Nashville liquor shop was founded in the late 19th century, but its Atomic Era signage didn’t debut until the early 1960s. It still blinks with neon abandon, catching the eyes of anyone cruising up and down Main Street. The liquor store itself is nothing special, but the sign is worth a brief photo op.

    Plan Your Trip: Nashville
    Courtesy of Weiss Liquors
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    Lo’s Chinese in Kingman, Arizona
    Route 66 had no shortage of eye-catching neon signs. Their sole job? To entice hungry, tired, cranky drivers to pull off and spend money. Lo’s Chinese American Food & Cocktail Lounge is one such marquee. Although the restaurant shuttered years ago (no great gastronomic loss, judging by the Yelp reviews), the rusty but colorful sign remains standing. It is missing most of its bulbs and its typography is a little, shall we say, racially insensitive—but hey, made you look!

    Plan Your Trip: Arizona
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    The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio
    If it’s bang for your buck you’re after, you can’t beat this 19,000-square-foot paean to roadside kitsch. Here you’ll find painstakingly restored billboards advertising Howard Johnson’s, McDonald’s, Persian rug companies, taverns, luncheonettes, Pentecostal churches, and more. Make your visit on a weekday and you can catch a live neon-bending demo at the museum’s in-house neon workshop, Neonworks.

    Plan Your Trip: Cincinnati
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    Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada
    Nowhere else in America did sign makers experiment as feverishly with kinetic animation as they did in Sin City. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, every casino, hotel, and restaurant was trying to one-up its neighbors, launching a neon arms race to own the biggest, brightest, and most dazzling sign. The 21-year-old Neon Museum leads hour-long guided tours of its “neon boneyard,” now home to 200 rescued signs; 60 or so additional signs are on display in a separate “urban gallery.” Tours are available day or night, although the time slots around dusk are the most popular for shooting pictures.

    Plan Your Trip: Las Vegas
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