|Opal Glass Signs|
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|The photos and links at this page are meant to accompany an article I wrote for an upcoming issue of the Society for Commercial Archeology's Journal.|
Opal glass signs were built from the 1910s through the 1930s. The letters were made of translucent glass and backlit with light bulbs inside the sign. Many people refer to these letters as "milk glass" since the majority of them were white. However, other colors were produced as well. The Opalite Sign Company, one of the largest manufacturers of these signs, made letters in white, blue, orange, red, green, and two shades of yellow. Opal glass letters also came in a variety of sizes and typefaces. The Charles Sign Company of Chicago bragged in an advertisement of having 33 alphabets in stock. The Flexlume Sign Corporation produced 80 alphabets. Based on vintage photos and surviving signs, the most popular typeface appears to have been Copperplate Gothic. Some sign companies also produced opal glass shapes such as arrows, stars, pointing hands, and mortar and pestle designs.
Each of these letters was produced on a separate plate and installed inside the sign. The faces of the sheet metal sign cabinets were perforated to allow the raised letter shapes to protrude. These letters had a couple of distinct advantages over flat painted signs. The wording could be read at an angle by pedestrians and motorists. In addition, the brightness of the letters increased the sign's visibility.
These signs were produced for businesses of all kinds and sizes. They advertised for car dealerships, dentists, jewelry stores, hardware stores, gas stations, and restaurants. They appeared at subway entrances. Banks, hotels, and office buildings also used interior, small-scale opal glass letter signs for teller windows, elevators, and directional signs. Department stores used the changeable letters for message boards. Theatres used the letters on marquees to announce titles and showtimes. Movie theatres continue this method of advertising today but with plastic letters instead of glass. The majority of opal glass signs were custom built for individual businesses. However, there were production signs made as well for the Gulf Oil Company and chain stores.
In the mid-1920s, sign companies were enthusiastically promoting opal glass signs. However, all of that was about to change. Neon was introduced in the late 1920s. By the mid-1930s, production of opal glass signs had all but ceased. Over time, most business owners scrapped their glass letter and bulb signs, replacing them with new neon signs. Some businesses simply added neon borders to their signs. Other signs were updated with neon tubing installed directly over the glass letters.
Only a few dozen of these opal glass signs remain on display across the country. The majority of them are not maintained and only a few are still lit. Many of them have broken or missing letters. Some businesses replaced these letters with white plastic sheeting inside the sign cabinet. This low cost fix made the sign's characters at least readable and has kept these early signs still hanging.
Glass letters are rarely produced any more. The Flexlume Sign Corp. in Buffalo, NY is possibly the inventor of these signs. The company began producing them between 1904 and 1910 at their original location in Canada. Flexlume still makes these letters using the original technique. Each letter requires the creation of a separate, heat-resistant mold. A sheet of glass is then placed over the mold. When heated in a kiln, this glass melts or "slumps" over the mold. Opal glass letters are sometimes referred to as "slump glass" because of this process. Some companies produced glass letters by pressing the glass into molds. This video shows one of the ways that these letters can be made.
|L&H Shoe Shop
Valley City, ND
Ellicott City, MD
|Montgomery Shoe Factory
The L&H Shoe Shop opened in 1949 and is still in operation. This sign is probably from an earlier business.
Caplan's Department Store is gone but this sign remains. An antiques store is in the building now.
The Montgomery Shoe Factory sign was updated at least once with neon. There are two types of housings for the tubing. It appears that the neon border and arrows over the boot’s laces were either part of the original sign construction or they were later additions. At some point later on, the neon was applied over the sign’s glass letters. This is the only opal glass sign known to still exist that was built in the shape of something.
NewSouth Books owns the building and occupies the retail space below the Montgomery sign. Around 2007, the owner stabilized the sign and repainted it with brown, rust-inhibiting paint. It was previously painted a light olive green. The switch for the sign is difficult to get to so it is usually left on all the time. However, only a few of the white neon letters are still lit. The owner plans to restore the sign at some point. He is considering changing the neon "Shoes" lettering to "South". If the cost is not too high, he may have the opal glass letters relit as well. A flashing mechanism would allow the neon "South" to turn on and off, revealing the “Shoes” letters underneath.
|Manning's Coffee Store
Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, CA
The Manning’s Coffee Store sign was built in 1933 during the waning years of opal glass letters. The arrow and "Manning's" raised letters were lit with neon. The "Coffee Store" glass letters were secondary features. The border detail was a typical element for early pre-neon signs. Sign companies carried stock designs which were usually made of tin. These border pieces were cut to size and soldered onto signs.
The Manning's restaurant chain originated in Seattle and expanded throughout the western United States. At one time, there were 19 locations in Los Angeles. This sign was originally installed in Hollywood, California. It was moved to this Highland Park location in 1936. After the restaurant closed in the 1950s, the sign fell into disrepair. The opal glass letters were stolen in the 1990s but were later recovered. In 2012, the sign was meticulously restored and relit with funding from the National Trust and the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.
The Bradbury Building was built in 1893. The sign is probably from the 1910s or 1920s. It is lit at night. For more, see this website.
The Hotel Bixby was built in 1911. This sign features hinged letter plates. This made it easier to replace the light bulbs inside the sign.
This address sign from the Belasco Theatre features interchangeable opal letters. The theatre opened in 1926. It is now used as a performing arts venue.
New York, NY
New York, NY
|Hotel Monte Vista
This IRT Subway sign near Wall Street was lit in 2005. I don't know if it still is. For more, see this website.
The Barbetta Restaurant opened in 1906 and moved to this location in 1925. This sign is believed to be from 1931. It is lit at night. The owner is interested in restoring the sign. For more, see this website.
The Bisbee Review newspaper was published from 1901-1971. I believe the paper's offices were located here.
The Hotel Monte Vista was built in 1926 and the sign is most likely from then. It is not known when the neon was installed over the glass letters. The letters are no longer backlit but the red neon is well-maintained. The hotel also has a couple of neon signs. For more, see this website.
|Hotel San Carlos
|Hotel Del Sol
The San Carlos Apartments were built in 1910. This sign is probably from around 1930. Most likely, this was a combination sign of neon and opal glass letters. The "San Carlos" was probably composed of raised neon letters affixed to the sign like the Hotel San Carlos sign.
The Hotel San Carlos was built in 1930 and this sign is probably from then. The "Air Cooled" letters at the bottom of this sign are made of opal glass. The neon on the hotel's signs has been restored but the opal letters are not lit. For more about the building, see this page.
The Hotel San Carlos' sign faces are made of "ripple tin" which has a rippled texture. Although this sign has been repainted a number of times, the patterning is still visible. This crimping process was not just decorative. It straightened the faces of the sign after the holes had been cut for the letters. Ripple tin signs also held paint better than a flat sign and enabled the sign maker to use lighter metal. This material was popular during the opal glass sign era and was used with many other signs shown on this page including the Hotel Monte Vista sign shown above.
The Hotel Del Sol was built in 1926 as the Del Ming Hotel. The name was changed to the Hotel Del Sol in 1936. It has been vacant since 1981. The city now owns the building and hopes to restore and convert it into a transportation center someday. The opal glass sign is probably from the 1930s. Neon was installed on top of the letters later on. That tubing is now mostly gone. The rooftop neon sign was here by the 1940s. Originally, there was another row of text on top of the sign which spelled out "New". There was also a Nite Club sign on the building which has been restored and relocated. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.
San Luis Obispo, CA
|The Wineman Hotel was built in 1930 and this sign was installed then. The sign was removed in 1999 when it became dangerously close to falling from the building. During a 2009 restoration of the hotel, the sign was found at a junkyard. The sign was restored and is lit at night. The "Hotel" letters are lit in sequence. It is the only animated sign in San Luis Obispo. The hotel now houses apartments and retail space. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.|
|Shepherd Laundries Co.
The Rosemont Hotel was built around 1893 and has been vacant for many years. This sign is probably from the 1920s. It was still installed vertically in 2002. It may have been blown off the building in 2005 during Hurricane Rita and reinstalled.
The Shepherd Laundries Co. was established in the 1890s. I believe the company is still in business as Shepherd's Uniform & Linen Supply Co. This sign is probably from the 1920s or 1930s.
Rock Springs, WY
|The Rex Hotel opened in 1924 and this sign was installed then. The sign features opal glass letters at the top and Federal Electric modular letters in the middle. At some point later on, maybe the 1950s, the bottom panel was added. That panel was lit with neon. At the same time most likely, neon was applied over the bulb letters in the middle of the sign. Originally, the modular letters were surrounded by navy blue porcelain enamel like this sign. The panels had faded badly by 2005 and were repainted light blue sometime shortly after that. The remaining neon was removed from the bottom panel and it was painted over at that time as well. The photos above are from 2012.|
Bay City, MI
Plotkin Furniture was founded in 1919 and moved to this location in 1953. This sign must have been moved with the business. It is lit at night during business hours. The top part of the sign originally read "Glendale Ranges".
The Lahiere Restaurant opened in 1919 and this sign is most likely from then. It was produced by Flexlume Sign which was one of the biggest manufacturers of opal glass signs. The restaurant closed in 2010. The space was being renovated for another restaurant when this photo was taken in 2012. It's not known what will happen with this sign.
Keit's Flowers opened in 1930 and this sign is probably from then. The top line of text is composed of opal glass letters while the rest of the sign had neon.
|Jensen's Recreation Center
Los Angeles, CA
|Jensen's Recreation Center was built in 1924. The building originally had a bowling alley and a pool hall. The rooftop sign has been here since at least the 1940s. It very well may have been built in the 1920s or 1930s. The sign is 28 feet long and 17 feet tall. It features an animated bowler rolling a strike. There are an estimated 1,300 red, green and white bulbs. It also features two opal glass blade signs on both ends. The sign was restored and relit in 1997. However, it is only partially lit now. The bowler is not lit but the rolling ball and pins are lit sequentially. The letters are also lit sequentially. The night photos above are from 2013. For more, see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.|
|John J. Ferry & Sons Funeral Home
|This sign for John J. Ferry & Sons Funeral Home is probably from 1937 or earlier. For more, see this website.|
Fort Scott, KS
|The Tribune-Monitor Building was built in 1925. The building features the original copper or bronze signs with opal glass letters. For more, see this website.|
|Victor Lundeen Company
Fergus Falls, MN
|The Victor Lundeen Company building was constructed in 1919. This sign was there by 1923. The sign is backlit at night with bulbs inside the sign. The flat letters appear to be translucent glass or plastic with each letter surrounded by some type of black material. It is not known if this was the original style of the lettering or if this sign had raised opal glass letters originally. For more, see this website.|
More Opal Glass Signs:
The Star (Mena, AR)
Ambassador Dog & Cat Hospital (Los Angeles, CA)
Bendix Building (Los Angeles, CA) [in storage]
Hoot Hoot Ice Cream (Los Angeles, CA) [vintage; gone]
California Theatre (San Jose, CA)
Hotel Oliver (Santa Rosa, CA)
Delta Hotel (Stockton, CA)
Southern Plate Glass & Paint Co. (Ocala, FL)
Hotel Northampton (Northampton, MA)
Richardson's Stationers (Baltimore, MD) [vintage; gone]
Kingston Theatre (Cheboygan, MI)
Chinook Motel (Chinook, MT)
Southern Hotel (Elizabeth City, NC)
Guilford National Bank (Greensboro, NC)
Glassman's Drugs: 1, 2 (Paterson, NJ)
Shultz & Co Hardware (Angola, NY)
Parkside Candy Company (Buffalo, NY)
Palace Theatre: 1, 2 (Geneseo, NY)
Ayres & Galloway Hardware (Middletown, NY)
Interborough Subway (New York, NY)
American Sign Museum (Cincinnati, OH)
Billups Funeral Home: 1, 2 (Richmond, VA)
Opal Glass Flickr group (various cities)
If you know of any other opal glass signs, I'd love to hear from you.
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