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"Liquid Fire": The dubious debut of illuminated signs

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Call them sign-hunters, or myth-busters, but either way the tale that two researchers uncovered in the process of attempting to verify the origins of the neon sign, makes for one hell of a tale and sets up an even juicier mystery. It all began quite innocently, academic Dydia DeLyser, like many before her, assumed the tale of how neon first appeared in the United States when a brightly illuminated billboard (with the letters P-A-C-K-A-R-D glowing blue and four feet high) was erected at the corner of Flower and Seventh streets in Los Angeles in 1923 to be 100% factual.

Tales of the novelty of the first neon illuminated billboard, which rested atop a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, became a central thread in the cultural fabric of the city, which for decades boasted being the first city to have one in the nation. Articles from the 30’s told of people driving for miles to see the signs which they dubbed “liquid fire” and of congestion so bad that the police had to be called in.

This popular recounting of the debut of neon was taken as fact and the businessman responsible for it, Earle C. Anthony, was a celebrated figure. But, without intending to, Dydia DeLyser, and her partner and fellow researcher Paul Greenstein, have called that “common knowledge” into question. DeLyser simply wanted to document the history of neon.

A year into the research, DeLyser (a professor of Geography) was still unable to turn up hard evidence to support the Los Angeles-was-first claim that had been taken as gospel for the better part of a hundred years. Though she found plenty of newspaper articles and neon-industry publications on the story, she could find no original source materials.

DeLyser poured over countless 8-by-10 glossy aerial photos of Los Angeles, scoured newspaper articles, permits and building records, and ultimately ended up locating the missing link in a vault-like room at UCLA. But, before that discovery, there was a mystery building: Los Angeles history (or legend) had it that the Packard sign went up in 1923 (roughly one year before New York’s first neon sign appeared), but the Los Angeles Building Department billboard permit obtained by Anthony, the Packard dealer, was dated December 1924.

Seeking physical evidence – the first photograph of the billboard – DeLyser and Greenstein hunted the archives of a pair of photography companies that shot the city from 1918 to 1971. With a magnifying glass and an eagle eye, the pair found that photos taken of the location of the billboard didn’t show it until 1925 in a photo dated Feb. 10 of that year, two months after the permit was issued.
Cross-checking the photo with another shot from a different angle confirmed that it was the illuminated Packard sign. Needless to say, neon and illuminated sign enthusiasts and historians were not exactly elated by the discovery. "It pretty much proves that the supposed Earle C. Anthony sign at 7th and Flower could not have been the first neon sign," DeLyser said, adding, "By 1925, there were neon signs in New York, for sure. It has to be that the whole story was wrong."

But, one possible consolation for those Angelinos who wish to retain the bragging rights of having erected the first illuminated sign exists in another discovery made by the two which, if verified, would allow Californians to boast having been the first to erect a illuminated sign, but in San Francisco instead of Los Angeles. And, there are those who dispute the veracity of the DeLyser findings, and perhaps their passion will fuel additional research in the attempt to upturn this latest twist in the tale of neon.


Sita Cole is an expert in marketing industry specializing in creative brand marketing. She has helped many companies create and design illuminated signs for exterior or interior signage. To learn more about illuminated signs for business, visit this website:



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