Neon signs

Do you like neon signs? I sure did when I was a kid. My family owned a restaurant, and one of my first chores when I was old enough was to turn on the outside lights. I loved pushing the button and seeing the neon sign flicker and light up the night. Next I would light an array of high beams and lamps. We were open for business!

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Display of neon signs from the 1976 Bicentennial exhibition, “A Nation of Nations”

Around the same time that I was doing my chore, museum curators were traveling to New York to look at neon signs from various ethnic restaurants for the 1976 Bicentennial exhibition, A Nation of Nations. It was an imaginative way to illustrate the multicultural influences that made up 20th-century America. The curators offered the restaurants brand new signs in exchange for the originals. A large number of signs were collected and displayed, but after the Bicentennial exhibition closed, the signs were carefully crated and put in storage. Since starting to work at the museum, I’d heard about these signs; yet for many reasons, arranging a visit to do research never seemed to work out.

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Trying to decipher the writing? Scroll down to see these signs from the front, out of their crates.

And then Sweet and Sour happened, a display about Chinese food and restaurants in America. I was thinking about what objects would best tell the story of the Chinese restaurant experience. Ding! The neon signs! I would finally get my chance to see these long talked about signs. I was able to arrange a trip last July. Even unlit, the signs had a presence. I was eager to take them out of storage and into the showcase.

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Too fragile to be lit, these neon signs are now on view as part of the "Sweet and Sour" exhibit at the National Museum of American History!

Two signs were chosen for “Sweet and Sour.” The “Mr. Egg Roll” sign came from Broadway, a restaurant in Manhattan, and the “Chinese American & Spanish Food” sign came from the Principle restaurant on W. 72nd also in New York. Sadly, my hopes of pushing the button once again and lighting up the signs had to be put aside. These signs are fragile, and cannot be illuminated. But seeing them on display still fuels my childhood nostalgia from my family’s restaurant.

What objects best represent your Chinese restaurant experience? You can share a story, object or memory below by using the comment section.

Curator’s Note: Thank you for following along on our Sweet & Sour Initiative blogs. Through them we have had success in reaching out and working with the community, capturing stories, collecting information, and making new connections. The showcase opens on March 17. We hope to see you at the museum!

Cedric Yeh is Deputy Chair and Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 1:15 pm EDT