As quintessentially American as it seems now, neon was actually discovered—and first made into lights and signs—in Europe. The ultra-bright placards didn’t make it across the pond until several years after they first came glowing to life in Paris in 1910. But once Americans got ahold of the stuff, they made up for lost time—and New York City led the way. Between 1916 and 1960, according to Thomas Rinaldi, author of New York Neon, there were more than 100,000 neon signs lighting up bars, clubs, restaurants and marquees throughout the five boroughs.
The city hit its neon peak in the 1930s, when, as Rinaldi writes, neon was “almost inescapable” and epitomized “the popular image of New York as a glamorous metropolis.” Yet within three decades of that peak, the lights had dimmed considerably. Most of the city’s vintage signs had gone dark.
Fortunately, a handful of those Golden Age signs have survived, and, like several other cities around the country, New York is experiencing a neon renaissance at the moment. The upshot is if you stroll the city’s streets nowadays, you’ll find much more “liquid fire” than you might expect, including a wealth of neon bar signs, both vintage and new. Here, a sampling of some of New York’s must-see neon bar signs.