Mastering the 'Visual Groove'

Animated Electric Bulb Signs, Locations, and Loops

How to Cite

Weigel, M. (2002). Mastering the ’Visual Groove’: Animated Electric Bulb Signs, Locations, and Loops. M/C Journal, 5(4).
Vol. 5 No. 4 (2002): Loop
Published 2002-08-01

The implications of digital media have been partly responsible for re-energizing debates concerning multiples, repetition and loops. But in fact, looping media dates back to the days of revolving stereoscopes and other mechanized Victorian amusements first employed as laboratory tools. In the following article I suggest that, much like grooves in music, the repetitious nature of an animated electronic bulb sign's "visual groove" can, over time, encourage a certain level of cognitive mastery of the material. Furthermore, since such signs are wedded to their environment, they can become both an integral component of the landscape, and a treasured one at that.


As of July 1892, Manhattanites in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Broadway between dusk and midnight were greeted by the following lines of text sequentially lit in green, red, yellow and white lights from the side of a nearby building: "BUY HOMES ON/LONG ISLAND/SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES/MANHATTAN BEACH/ORIENTAL HOTEL/MANHATTAN HOTEL/GILMORE'S BAND/BROCK'S RESTAURANT". The "Swept by Ocean Breezes" promotion, widely recognized as the first commercial electric bulb sign, was manually animated; in a wooden shed on a adjacent roof, workers tripped the appropriate circuits by hand to light each line individually.

A generation later, Broadway's large-scale electric bulb sign spectaculars featured brief, repetitive performances of whimsical intent designed to catch passing eyes. Controlled by increasingly sophisticated animation technology, the services of the rooftop circuit-trippers were no longer needed. 1905's "Petticoat Girl" sign debuted with "the illusion of fluttering skirts produced by a series of very rapid flashes of bulb form the bottom of the skirt and the petticoat, while the rain was switched on and off every twenty seconds" ("Half a Million" SM13), The Corticelli Spool Silk sign featured a frolicsome kitten playing with a spool of silk snatched from the pumping needle of a sewing machine and the brief tagline "Too Strong to Break". The Eyptienne (sic) Straights Cigarette Girl appeared to balance coyly on a tightrope, dancing with her parasol. Porosknit Summer Underwear's electric bulb sign featured the "Man-Boy Boxing Match" as two illuminated fellows clad in longjohns engaged in a little hand-to-hand combat. The Lipton sign highlighted a teapot which appeared to pour chubby drops of tea, while a phalanx of dancing "spear-men" promoted Wrigley's Gum to passersby at 44th and Broadway in 1917.

Reactions to this aerial spectacle conformed to other media-inspired moral panics throughout American history, from dime novels to video games and TV. Electric bulb signs were accused of not only damaging one's eyes and confusing the individual but promoting a degenerate, secular, commodified and anti-humanist vision of society. Two discrete characteristics of the animated sign, however, are particularly relevant to this discussion of the looping nature of the "visual groove": the automated, cyclical and ultimately modern essence of an electric bulb sign spectacular's performance, and the variety of cyclical patterns of their viewers.

Loop I: The Sign Performance

The content of signs, unlike dime novels or TV, mechanically looped without viewer's direct agency. Barring technological failures, a match was lit, a teapot poured tea, and a girl smoked a cigar along Broadway hundreds of times each night, every night, for months or even years on end. Unlike human performers, electric bulb signs never tired, never missed a show, and never had an off-night.

The length of an individual sign performance loop was relatively brief, ranging between a few seconds to close to two minutes. One of the longer performances was White Rock's 1915 electric bulb spectacular for its table water; the sign featured fountains, streaming sprays of gold-tinted "water" and a minute-long sequence in which the illuminated face of an operational clock transformed from blue to pink to yellow and back to blue (Starr 65)."It is no longer considered sufficient to have signs, no matter of what size, to shine in various colors," moaned one electric bulb sign critic. "Instead they must appear and disappear in alternations of brilliancy and darkness" ("Topics" 8).

The brief, looped performances of electric bulb sign spectaculars were also considered mesmerizing in the truth sense of the word, akin to the repetitive arcing swings of a hypnotist's pendulum. Psychology and modernism converged here, as access to the subconscious mind was presumably gained through the mechanized repetition of charming commercial messages.

Loop II: The Sign Audience

Elaborate electric signs were read in multiple ways, with divisions along age and class lines. But reactions can also be classified according to the frequency of an individual's exposure to a sign. Sign loops were designed to be brief and eye-catching in part because it was believed that the average individual was exposed to an outdoor advertising message for about six seconds (Tocker 15). This advertising approach of "grab 'em and go", however, disregarded the reading practices of a relatively stable audience traveling past to home or work, whose daily six seconds or so of sign exposure was repeated day after day, week after week.

The sign displays were a source of attraction for new arrivals to Manhattan, be they immigrants or tourists. Already by 1903, Times Square and its vividly lit advertising displays graced postcards and other promotional materials (Berman 76-83), and numerous reports testify to newly arrived immigrants glued in front of a spectacular for hours, transfixed by the marvelous display.

Locals who frequented Broadway on a regular basis, however, had a significantly different experience of electric sign spectaculars than did newcomers. With familiarity comes the possibility for the incorporation of electric signs as just another component in one's mundane landscape: the visual experience of a sign performance, repeated over time, could be cognitively "downgraded" just as familiar buildings, signs and objects in one's environment cease to be noticed. Like nursery rhymes, repetition can breed familiarity, and with knowing comes the opportunity for mastery, implicit security and affection (a truism which was not lost on advertisers) (Lears 377).

Such signs, despite their explicitly commercial mission and ephemeral nature, have the capacity to be upgraded to beloved icon status, treasured local markers. A good modern example of this phenomenon is the neon Citgo sign in Boston's Kenmore Square. In 1982, workers attempting to dismantle the sign were met with fierce opposition from angry neighbors, and the sign lived on ("It's No Go" 17). Although the unique character of animated electric bulb signs is directly related to their preservation, similarly iconic objects in the landscape, be they bridges or oversized novelty milk bottles, are subject to similar preservationist drives.


Though electric bulb signs continue to figure prominently in Broadway and Times Square, significant changes after WWI marked the end of an era. Zoning regulations, the introduction of the automobile into urban spaces, the standardization of advertising campaigns, the high costs associated with maintaining and replacing electric bulb signs, and the normalization of signs within the context of the visual urban landscape all contributed to the demise of the electric bulb sign as both a flashpoint for controversy and as an attractive advertising vehicle. However, one can read electric bulb signs' legacy of light, repetition and spatial branding in displays throughout the world. The current trend of employing decorative lighting schemes as architectural elements bathes the environment in colored lights, but without the visual groove of the repetitious loop, it's hard to dance to it.

Author Biography

Margaret Weigel