In 1902, Georges Claude, a French engineer/chemist/inventor, created the first neon lamp by applying an electrical discharge to a tube sealed with neon. Two decades later, he brought his neon signs to America, selling two of them for $24,000 apiece to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. The rest, as they say, is history, as neon lighting rocketed across the country.
Nick Freeman, a fine artist from St. Charles, has captured 130 neon signs in Chicagoland in his delightfully charming book Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago. A colorful journey across Chicago and the suburbs and into neighboring states, this pretty little package of a book captures a fun collection of “gaudy, garish, and downright spectacular signs.” In doing so, Freeman has shared with his readers an adorable assemblage of images that provide a unique history of Chicago—bright lights in a big city.
Arranged in four parts, the book features signs in the areas of food, lodging, liquor, and “everything else.” This latter section includes signs on everything from bowling alleys to churches to dry cleaners to florists.
Readers who have spent any time in Chicago or the suburbs are sure to recognize at least some of these signs: The Berghoff, Superdawg, Seven Dwarfs Restaurant, Brer Rabbit Motel, the Biograph. The list goes on and on. Freeman has captured the icons as well as the unfamiliar. Some of the signs are long gone—Horwath’s, the Arrowhead Hotel, Grand Bowl Lounge—and we’re lucky that Freeman photographed them before they found their way into neon sign graveyards.
Freeman’s images, some shot in day, some in night in their neon splendor, are evocative, capturing the feel of a bygone era, a neighborhood, a business. Section introductions are well written with a clear admiration for the subject matter, pointing readers to a few specific images and providing a brief glimpse into the businesses they adorn. “Schnee’s,” Freeman writes, “located in one of the remotest corners of northern Illinois, is a glorious example of classic ’40s styling. Long shuttered along with its strip club neighbors, it boasts a largely intact façade of vitrolite panelwork very much in vogue in that era.”
The signs Freeman features in these pages bring a smile, a laugh, a sense of nostalgia. Good Old Neon is a charmer, the perfect stocking stuffer for a Chicagophile, a fun housewarming gift, a touching souvenir. It’s a short and sweet book, but one you’ll pick up again and again, revisiting the signs of the city.
October 2014, Lake Claremont Press
$17.95, paperback, 140 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen