Tom Downs' introduction provides an appreciation of what neon light does for a cityscape. He recalls that fifty or more years ago, when neon was at its peak, the "collage effect" that it created within the night-scape. Neon is especially effective in the fog-socked city like San Francisco where it creates a film noir-ish atmosphere. In the book's "Neon Notes," Eric Lynxwiler writes that neon began to wane in the City in the 1970s as many locally owned shops shut down.
The endnotes of San Francisco Neon, written by Barna, Homan, Downs and Lynxwiler, provide addresses and background information for every image in the book. The images in the exhibit also provide this background. There is also a very helpful "Photo Index by Neighborhood." The entries in this index are color coded to indicate whether a sign exists and continues to be illuminated, exists but the neon tubes are damaged or gone, or has been removed.
For a wider, historical context, Architecture of the Night: The Illuminated Building, by Dietrich Neumann, traces the evolution of light as a feature used to enhance a structure and as signage. This became a feature beginning with the various World's Fairs beginning with Chicago in 1893. The first Neon sign appeared at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1910. The first American Neon signage appeared in 1923 with the brand "Packard" illuminated at a Los Angeles Car dealership
Companies started advertising in San Francisco newspapers to install neon lights around 1929. A search of the San Francisco Chronicle Historical database shows evidence of the growth in neon lighting in the City.
Advertisement from the San Francisco Chronicle April 5, 1929
The rise of neon lighting also result in the jobs for those who created and fabricated oneon light, as well as the profession of neon light salesmen.
Want ad from the San Francisco Chronicle March 27, 1931
By the early 1930s, San Francisco's Chinatown must have been bathed in neon light. A review of the 1933 film The Son Daughter, set in Chinatown, remarks that the of the film "The scene is not Grant Avenue today, but the Dupont street of the pre-Neon light era..." (San Francisco Chronicle (January 23, 1933)). Downs, in his forward to San Francisco Neon, notes how many remnants of Chinatown's neon light era remain in signs that no longer work that are still attached to building above street level.
The images and the book San Francisco Neon perform the excellent of service of documenting elements of our City's past and present. They also give us cause to notice our surroundings more carefully and appreciate these beautiful illuminations.
Architecture of the Night: The Illuminated Building by Dietrich Neumann with essays by Kermit Swiler Champa, et al. (Prestel, c2002).
San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons: Photographs 1976-2014 by Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan; foreword by Tom Downs ; neon notes by Erick Lynxwiler (Giant Orange Press, 2014).