Balton Sign Company's Neon Display at the Tri-State Fairgrounds

Photo courtesy Balton Sign Co.

In the current issue of MBQ: Inside Memphis Business, I tell the story of the Balton Sign Company, which has been manufacturing signs and displays in our city for more than five generations.

The company's archives hold nice photos of some of the great signs they have made here over the years, and while looking through them, I found this old (somewhat grainy) photo of the company's booth promoting its newfangled neon signs.

Neon — an inert gas that glows bright orange when exposed to high voltage — had been discovered in the late 1800s, but it really wasn't until the early 1920s that scientists figured out a good way to use it commercially, by encasing it in narrow colored-glass tubes. One problem was that neon didn't really produce enough light to illuminate a room, but somebody eventually realized that it worked very well for other purposes — especially forming the letters and shapes for signs.

The story goes that the very first neon sign in this area was mounted atop a Shell gas station in West Memphis, and people drove from miles around to see it switched on.

It's not clear where, exactly, this picture was taken, but I suspect this was a Balton trade booth set up in the Shelby County Building at the old Tri-State Fair. Since so little of the building is visible, it's impossible to say with any certainty, so if anybody has a better idea, please let me know.

Isn't it too bad the old photo isn't in color?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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