Americana: Neon Signs

Broken Spoke sign

Our eye is often caught by things that seem a little exotic. This week’s photo challenge (names) has reminded me to share images of neon branding signs you can hardly miss seeing. The last sign in particular is the kind we don’t often see in the UK.

The first decorates the entrance of Broken Spoke, on Lamar Boulevard in Austin, TX. Dating back to 1964, you’ll see this country music venue variously described as a honky-tonk, the earliest stomping grounds of Willie Nelson or the last of the true Texas Dancehalls. 

Friends will vouch for the fact that organised dancing has never really been my thing. I’m only just starting to ‘get’ country music (“Tell ole I ain’t here he better get on home”). Still, I had lots of fun learning the two step here one Guy Fawkes Night (in lieu of bonfires, fireworks and treacle toffee, which just goes to show that a girl can’t have everything).

Lowell's Restaurant sign

A few thousand miles up the country, the area around Pike Place in Seattle, WA, offers a fantastic choice of places to eat, many of them with queues snaking hungrily down the street. Seattle, like Austin, seems to be home to more than its fair share of artists and graphic designers. Branding is not just a duty for them but a joy.

The first of the market signs belongs to Lowell’s Restaurant, famous for their breakfast menu, in particular the Dungeness Crab Omelette which every major newspaper in the land appears to have lauded. Their Historic Hangover Fry with oysters looks back nostalgically to the days when successful gold rushers celebrated their good fortune by ordering the most lavish breakfast they could find in the city. Their byline is ‘Almost Classy Since 1957’.

Walker's Drive-In Fondren

The neon signage of Walker’s in Fondren, the Arts District of Jackson, MS, remains true to its 1950s heritage. No longer a drive-in, Walker’s menu features Portobello fries with horseradish comeback dressing, tamales and blue plate lunches in the daytime, with elegant dining in the evenings.

Magnolia Cafe sign

After those two, The Magnolia Cafe South in Austin seems like a newcomer, dating back only so far as 1979. Their sign is pure Americana and the menu is a classic too: Fish Tacos with voodoo spices and some tasty vegetarian options including Martian Landscapes (this is Austin, after all). The Magnolia Cafe has its own song which staff traditionally stand still to sing during the busiest time on Saturday morning. It ends:

shop shoo wah, yeah yeah yeah…… yummmmmm.

I’m not making any of this up – if you doubt me, take a look online.

Something about this reminded me of a quip printed on the menu of a diner on New Orleans’s Bourbon Street: “If you are not served in 5 minutes, relax, it may be another 5. This is not New York City.” The service, needless to say, was very prompt.

It’s a marker of how much time I’ve spent in the US that bold, eye-catching neon signs no longer seem the least bit strange: they fill me with joy. It’s good to be proud of who you are.

31 Replies to “Americana: Neon Signs”

    1. We live in an era where we take science like this for granted, but the different colours still have a touch of the miraculous.

  1. I love your neon signs. Even the last one, which reminds me of when I first arrived in South Africa and went to an open air drive-in movie house on top of a gold mine heap – to watch of all things, Roger Moore in the film Gold (1974)

    1. Was that just a coincidence? You’ve reminded me of staying in Portmeirion in Wales and discovering that episodes of The Prisoner were being streamed to the village rooms.

      1. Now that does seem somewhat surreal! The story of Gold was based on a South African gold mine incident so maybe the showing was a premier or something? I really don’t know.

  2. I’m going to have to take a new look at neon signs. Of course, your commentary contributes to their literary/artistic stature, but, up until now, I’d not paid them much heed. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to figure out why “dating back to 1964” implies great age. 1964 wasn’t yesterday?

    1. It all depends on what the norm is. An octopus could be considered elderly at the age of two. Garden tools and accessories have to be 50 years old or more before they’re classed as antiques. An old house in England might be centuries older than those in historic districts in the US.

      In these days of rapid branding / re-branding rollouts, I’d say 1964 is something to celebrate. It’s certainly ample time for a brand to have acquired a sense of its own heritage.

      1. So an octopus and my computer have more in common than I’d have thought. I take your point about a brand from 1964 even though to me 1964 still seems like yesterday. OK, maybe day before yesterday. What interesting conversations you have sparked with your neons!

        1. Sadly (regarding the octopus/computer connection) – or so they would have us believe. My ‘ancient’ iMac still does fine – so far at least!

  3. I love the Magnolia Cafe sign. I thought it looked more 1950s than 1970s, though I suppose the sign might be newer than the cafe and thus “retro”.

    1. Good point! I don’t know if the styling or techniques used create the signs have changed significantly. Answering these comments has made me think I ought to find out a bit more about them!

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