FABRICATING HOUSINGS FOR EDGELIT GLASS NEON PRODUCTS INC (NPI) NEON SIGNS AND THEIR HISTORY
[Photo of Goetz Country Club Beer 'On Tap' and 'In Bottles' etched glass neon sign taken in clients home]
As so often happens collectors purchase a sign that is missing parts and incomplete. My client, Matt Russell faced the same dilemma: he had acquired several etched glass panels to add to his collection, but could not display them properly. For several years they sat around his Marshall, Michigan home in boxes or leaned up against other advertising.
After seeing my work for other customers Matt reached out to commission me to handcraft four Neon Product Inc (NPI) styled housings so his etched glass signs could be brought back to life and properly displayed in their original glory.
My company handmade the housing and furnished the polished stainless trim and Matt did a fantastic job painting the housings himself and commissioning a local neon artist to make the neon and electrify the sign.
Here is a peek at how this project turned out and more about the history of this storied manufacturer.
The style of the housings are based off of the art deco styling offered by Neon Products of Lima, Ohio which they used in their neon window advertising signs. Neon Products was founded in 1930 and grew rapidly into an enterprise that by 1948 was doing “well over 3 million signs had been produced at the Lima, Ohio, factory. Sales reached $3.5 million a year. The 250-employee plant was stepping fast to keep up with postwar demand” according to an article published by Kiplinger.
Neon Products (NPI) is well known for their neon clocks and edge-lit glass signs. Their edge-lit signs featured illuminated graphics that were either acid etched or sandblasted on the backside of the glass, then the areas that were etched were infill painted. When lit with neon the light travels through the optically clear low-iron glass to illuminate the etched graphics, creating a stunning effect.
The man who designed these signs, Sam Kamin, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the neon sign industry. A high school dropout, Kamin arrived to America from Canada with $2 in his pocket and went on to build NPI into one of the world's largest manufacturers of illuminated signs.
[Photo of Goetz Country Club Beer 'On Tap' and 'In Bottles' sign after housing was painted in red, polished stainless steel trim added and before neon.]
The first step to creating the housings started with having the client draw an outline of the original glass insert, the largest of which measured 21-1/2”-Wide x 11-1/4”-Tall. Using an original housing as our template we sourced the same gauge thickness of metal and then using a hand break press and an English Wheel the sheetmetal was cut and formed by hand.
Featuring their distinctive Art Deco styled curved ends and polished stainless steel metal trim the housings are as beautiful to look at as is the graphics themselves.
With this being our first attempt we thought they turned out quite handsome. What matters most is that our client is happy. Finally, Matt is able to enjoy these signs as they were intended to be used: illuminating his etched glass Goetz Country Club Beer, Sterling Ignition Cable and Widemanns Fine Beer signs with neon in all of their original glory!
[Photo of Sterling Ignition Cable 'An Auto-Lite Product' sign after housing was painted in black, polished stainless steel trim added and before neon.]
[Photo of Sterling Ignition Cable Auto-Lite Product sign with neon.]
[Photo of 'We Serve' Wiedemann's 'Fine Beer' sign after housing was painted in green, polished stainless steel trim added and before neon.]
[Photo of 'We Serve' Wiedemann's 'Fine Beer' sign with neon.]
Depending on the complexity of the project, size of the housing required and what features we are being asked to re-manufacturer these signs can range starting at $375 per housing. Since neon tubing is fragile and subject to damage in shipping we are, at this time, only providing the housings for projects that are in need of canisters.
Neon Products is a company that is near and dear to my heart. Their logo served as inspiration for my Small Batch Sign logo and pays homage to their legacy.
ABOUT NEON PRODUCTS, INC
(Article Originally Appeared in January 26, 2015 Edition of 'The Lima News')
"Modern electric illumination is rapidly giving Lima a metropolitan aspect by the establishment of an ever-growing ‘great white way,’ and by stimulating the general tendency of people to stay out of doors more and to stay up later at night,” The Lima News observed March 17, 1929.
Lima’s “great white way,” the News noted, had been “reproduced in miniature” in a window display at the Ohio Power Co. on Main Street. “Electric signs flash at intervals, producing a realistic effect and emphasizing the power of light. The display was arranged by the Artkraft Sign Co. and the design is the work of Sam Kamin of that concern.”
A native of Toronto, Canada, Kamin was director of art and engineering at Artkraft. In 1931, he would join with James A. Howenstine, another Artkraft employee, to found Lima’s Neon Products Inc. with a “joint stake of only $453,” according to an Aug. 29, 1955, article in the News.
Over the next four decades NPI would be responsible for putting those flashing signs — first in neon and later in Plexiglas — in every corner of the country. Kamin and Howenstine also would contribute to the U.S. war effort in the early 1940s, challenge the dominance of The Lima News in the late 1950s and create WCIT-radio in the early 1960s.
The neon sign was introduced to the U.S. in 1923 by the Claude Neon firm of Paris. As the French patents expired, companies producing neon signs proliferated.
On Aug. 31, 1930, the News reported, “Sam Kamin ... and James A. Howenstine ... announced the opening of the Neon Products Inc.” at 217 E. Elm St. The firm “will produce a line of neon window advertising specialties as well as manufacture and market neon tube plants.” Howenstine came to Lima from Columbus in January 1930 to be general manager of the Artkraft plant. Kamin arrived in Lima in 1922 and had worked at Artkraft since 1923.
By June 1932, NPI had offices at 310 E. Market St., a plant on Shawnee Street and an order for 600 neon signs from Procter & Gamble. “The heavily laden motor truck left Lima Thursday afternoon bound for St. Louis,” the News reported June 17, 1932. “Sam Kamin, president and general manager of the concern, said the signs (advertising P&G soap products) will be erected at as many groceries in St. Louis and immediate vicinity.”
After just more than a year in business, NPI moved in October 1932. The Lima Morning Star & Republican-Gazette reported on Oct. 24, 1932, that NPI was moving into a factory on East Wayne Street that formerly had been occupied by the Gramm-Bernstein truck company. Kamin successfully petitioned City Council in April 1933 to have the name of the Wayne Street extension leading to his plant changed from Paper Mill Avenue to Neon Avenue.
Not even the Great Depression could slow NPI’s growth. Under the headline “Neon Co. thrives in depression,” the News reported Sept. 30, 1937, that NPI had gone “from scratch to $40,000” in monthly sales while employing more than 125 people. Kamin and Howenstine led an aggressive sales force. A photo in the March 27, 1938, edition of the News shows Kamin and Howenstine standing next to an airplane. According to the caption “The pair flies about the nation with nonchalance to hawk their wares in this fine new Stinson cabin plane which Howenstine pilots.” NPI eventually would have sales offices in New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
NPI’s flight to the top was not without its bumps, however. In September 1936, 16 men walked off their jobs in the tube department after the company began hiring women, who, according to a headline in the News on Sept. 22, 1936, were “seen as a menace.” The 13 women were hired to replace men removed from the assembly line to learn tube bending.
“The workers left their benches claiming the employment of women is inimical to their earning capacity,” the paper wrote.
Women’s presence in the workforce was viewed as essential during World War II. “A huge work room with 20,000 square feet of space lay vacant two months ago at the Neon Products Inc. plant,” the News reported Jan. 9, 1944, “but today the same room is a beehive of activity with more than 100 women and men doing an important job to help keep those bombers over Berlin. The new operation, latest to be started in Lima in the war effort, is the manufacture and assembly of electric wiring harnesses for B-24 Liberator Army bombers.”
By 1948, according to the November 1950 edition of the Kiplinger Letter, “well over 3 million signs had been produced at the Lima, Ohio, factory. Sales reached $3.5 million a year. The 250-employee plant was stepping fast to keep up with postwar demand.”
Most businessmen “would be tempted to rest comfortably on top of such a prosperous enterprise,” Kiplinger wrote, but Kamin and Howenstine began experimenting with Plexiglas, which had been used in World War II for airplane canopies, and devised a sign “superior in many ways to the neon sign. Essentially it was a simple box with steel edges and Plexiglas sides, lighted from the inside with fluorescent bulbs.”
As a result, Kiplinger noted, “in just 18 months sales climbed toward the $4-million mark. Better than in the best days of neon. About 400 nationally known firms like Philco, Sherwin-Williams, Philgas and Firestone use the new signs to advertise their wares.”
Business Week on June 10, 1950, ran a story on NPI’s switch. “Employees had to be retrained, too. Of 75 tube benders, only 10 are still bending tubes. The rest were absorbed into silk-screen and hand-painting work. Other employees learned to work with the ovens and handle the plastic sheets on the presses.” Neon signs became a small part of NPI’s business.
NPI, which occupied 379,000 feet of production and storage space and employed more than 400 people, was sold to Essex International Inc. of Fort Wayne, Ind., in March 1969.
On March 31, 1977, the News reported that NPI, by then known as the Kolux NPI Division of General Indicator Corp., would cease operation in Lima on May 31, 1977. “About 100 salaried and hourly personnel are affected by the decision,” the News wrote.
Howenstine, 75, died in December 1973. Kamin, dubbed “Mr. Sign” by the newspapers, died at 82 in September 1984.
Article published with the consent of The Lima News and AIM Media Midwest Operating, LLC of Lima, Ohio.