The oldest sign on display in this exhibition, this GE Radio sign dates from the mid-1920s, when Claude Federal dominated the production of neon signs in the United States. Georges Claude, the French inventor who first mastered the production of commercially-viable neon tubing in Paris, began selling neon signs in the US in 1923. Claude pursued partnerships with large companies like General Electric, which had a vested interest in the success of his technology. Small merchants like Bill’s Radio and TV in Roxbury embraced ready-made signs like this one as an easy, affordable way to add glamour to their storefronts.
When Bill Weiner opened his store in 1925, he would have primarily sold radios, as regular television broadcasting did not begin in the United States until 1948. This neon sign, with its up-to-date vertical lettering and Art Deco styling, advertised both a new communication technology and a local destination where consumers could find the necessary products for enjoying the new technologies.
Although signs like this one are now rare, General Electric has a long history in Massachusetts. The company was founded by a merger of Lynn’s Thomson Houston Electric Company and the Edison Electric Company of New Jersey in 1892. Plans for the new GE Headquarters in Fort Point depict a large illuminated logo on top of the building, forging a glowing sense of visual continuity with old signs.
Small, single-story storefronts like Bill’s were once typical along Blue Hill Avenue and other significant transit routes in Roxbury. Commuters, enticed by affordable horse car fares, had begun moving out of central Boston as early as the 1850s. By the 1920s, Blue Hill Avenue and the streets around it contained a bustling mix of small-scale retail and residential triple-decker buildings. Projecting from the front of Bill’s shop, the GE Radio sign fit well in its environment: simple capital letters of the word “radio” were large enough to be seen easily from a passing street car. Yet like the European Restaurant sign also on display in this exhibition, the GE Radio sign was small enough to fit within the pedestrian scale of the buildings around it.
Bill’s store quickly became a neighborhood institution; it is possible that many of the working- and middle-class residents saw their first televisions in his window. Bill’s name became a constant in the changing worlds of both communication technology and Boston neighborhoods. When A.A. Viale bought the store in 1967, he found it easier to allow customers to call him by the previous proprietor’s name than to assert the change of ownership on the front of the store.
Photos of the store from the late 1980s record the passage of time in Roxbury, as well as the manner in which many early neon signs were modified by individual store owners to personalize their storefronts. The use of neon signs like Bill’s GE Radio sign declined after 1932, when Georges Claude’s American patent expired. Although some store owners would continue to reach for ready-made signs through the Great Depression as a means of inexpensively updating their storefronts, the stage had been set for neon’s next phase. After WWII, a new generation of entrepreneurs reached for neon’s greatest potential in the American marketplace. Neon’s low production cost in the postwar period, along with its fall from grace among corporate clients, led thousands of owners of family-run diners, hotels, factories and repair shops to commission their own signs. These postwar signs, often larger than their prewar predecessors, were as distinctive, ambitious and creative as the small businesses which flourished from the 1950s to 1970s.