Talk about vital signs.
If you spend any time in a city, you won’t just see advertisements, you’ll be bombarded by them. Billboards, buses, marquees, skywriting. So much marketing jockeying for your attention that it often melts into a sea of white noise. But there are some signs, through a combination of good design and familiarity, that haven’t just cut through that noise—they’ve become beloved symbols of their hometowns.
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The Electric City Sign
WHERE: Scranton, Pennsylvania
In 1880, Scranton, Pennsylvania became one of the first cities to have electric lights and six years later it would become the first city to have electricity-powered streetcars. In order to commemorate this, a sign was created out of 1,200 40-watt lightbulbs that read “Scranton The Electric City.” Although its bulbs would dim for a period during the 20th century, the sign would come to life again when it was restored in 2004 and then a second time in 2014 when it was outfitted with LED bulbs.
The White Stag
WHERE: Portland, Oregon
The White Stag sign that overlooks Portland’s Burnside Bridge has advertised for a number of organizations since it was installed in 1940. It was originally animated to look like it was filling up with sugar in order to advertise White Satin Sugar and it promoted White Stag Sportswear after that. Though the sign has gone dark for a handful of periods over the years (and came close to being dismantled altogether) the sign became such a beloved symbol of the city that it was never dim for long. Currently, the sign is owned by the city of Portland and the lettering simply reads: Portland, Oregon.
Radio City Music Hall
WHERE: New York City
The signage for Radio City Music Hall is a signature element of New York City’s nightscape. With a marquee that wraps around the corner of the block and a vertical section that ascends seven stories high, this sign has been boldly adorning the grand venue since 1932.
Pike Place Market
WHERE: Seattle, Washington
Pike Place Market has served as a place for all types of vendors to sell their wares for over a century now. But it would be a couple of decades until it was adorned with the neon sign that would become the immediate symbol of the oldest continuously operating farmers markets in the U.S. The sign, which was erected in 1927, has the unique distinction of being one of the oldest neon signs on the West Coast.
Tio Pepe Sign
WHERE: Madrid, Spain
When advertising Tio Pepe brand sherry took to the Madrid skyline in 1936, there was no way of knowing what a tumultuous journey it would take over the course of its lifetime. Though it would spend most of its time installed on top of the Paris Hotel off the Puerta del Sol it would move locations (before ultimately ending up back in the Puerta del Sol). It would have a brush with obsolescence following a decision that neon signage would be removed—but its beloved status would find the sign being exempt from the rule. So the sign continues to advertise “Sol de Andalucia Embotellado” (“Andalusian sun in a bottle”) to the city center.
WHERE: Baltimore, Maryland
Presiding over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Domino Sugars sign has been dazzling Charm City for almost 70 years (with a brief respite in the 1970s due to the energy crisis). The sign clocks in at 70 by 120 feet, with the largest letter (the capital “D”) measuring at 40 feet in height. Getting the sign to glow takes 15 minutes—but it’s well worth the wait to see that orange-red glow.
The Winking Owl
WHERE: Barcelona, Spain
Not far from one of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks, the Sagrada Familia, is another unique attraction—a textless sign known as the Winking Owl. Perched on the top of a building is a sign shaped like a large owl with yellow, saucer-like eyes. The sign was first installed in the 1960s by Rótulos Roura, a company known for advertising via neon ads. Similar to the ordinance that nearly did in Madrid’s Tio Pepe sign, a similar ordinance in Barcelona that was intended to cut down on light pollution and advertising was implemented. But the owl had become such an indelible symbol of the city that an exception was made for it.
WHERE: North Hollywood, California
The Los Angeles area is home to quite a few well-known signs, but few stick with you (whether you like it or not) like the one at Circus Liquor that’s been lording over Burbank Boulevard for about half a century. The 32-foot clown stares down at patrons of the liquor store with what can only be described as menacing energy—he has x-es for eyes and his eyebrows are arched villainously and his mouth opens in a cackling sneer. This sign may be upsetting but you can’t deny that it makes a bigger impression than if he were just a happy, non-threatening 32-foot clown.
Fun Fact: Circus Liquor is where Cher gets mugged in Clueless.
WHERE: Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas might just be the neon sign capital of the world. But one sign in particular—Vegas Vic—is one of its most recognizable. Vegas Vic made his debut outside The Pioneer Club in 1951 and unlike most other neon signs, this cowboy-shaped sign could wave (his arm stopped working in the early ‘90s) and would audibly greet visitors with a friendly “Howdy Pardner.” Although The Pioneer Club closed in the ‘90s, Vic continues to greet tourists.
Farine Five Roses Sign
WHERE: Montreal, Canada
The Farine Five Roses sign looked a little different before 1977 when French was established as the province’s official language. It had previously read Farine Five Roses Flour but the English word “flour” had to be removed in order to be compliant (exceptions were allowed for brand names and so the “Five Roses” part remains). The sign was imperiled when the brand was sold to Smuckers in 2007, but the sign had become such a symbol of the city that Smuckers agreed to keep the sign on.
How, exactly, did you miss the Citgo Sign over Kenmore Square and Fenway Park in Boston? It's on TV every time the Red Sox have a home game, so I would wager that far more Americans have seen it than Circus Liquor or the White Stag at a minimum.
The Stomatol toothpaste sign in Stockholm should be on this list.