Through the Years

Signs of the Times magazine; May 1931, By S. N. Holliday, General Outdoor Advertising Company

Thomas Edison invented the modern incandescent lamp in 1879, and shortly after that the old oil lamps and Welsbach gas burners began to fade from the picture. New York was then as now, the largest city and the mecca of travelers in the United States. It was there that we could logically expect the first real development in electrical outdoor advertising, and it came through the efforts of the former O. J. Gude Company. O.J. Gude and his associates had been working on this problem and they had visualized Broadway as the Great White Way. It is a fact that it was largely due to the vision and courage of the O. J. Gude Company that Broadway became the great lane of light that it is today.

Above is seen one of New York’s pioneer electrics, an O. J. Gude installation on the site of the present Flatiron Building.

The “first electric sign erected in New York, on the site of the present Flatiron Building, was the well-known Manhattan Beach electric sign, first lighted May 1892. It was on the uptown wall of the old Cumberland Hotel at Twenty-third Street and Broadway. This was real pioneering, and I supposed there were many who laughed at this venture and said it was simply a fad and couldn’t last. However, this display was the forerunner of all the wonderful advertisements which have since adorned the Great White Way. By the use of those somewhat primitive electric bulbs this sign flashed its story — “Manhattan Beach – Swept by Ocean Breezes.”
One of the most interested spectators of this sensational new kind of advertising was H.J. Heinz, and as he sat in his hotel watching the electric light message, a great idea formed in his mind. The following day he communicated with O. J. Gude, and not long afterward another electrical sign dominated the same spot. A huge green pickle flashed on and off, and some of the 57 varieties were featured in electric lights — preservatives, Indian relish, malt vinegar, tomato chutney, sweet pickles. It is interesting to note that even in those days Mr. Heinz was advertising in Atlantic City on the famous Heinz pier.


A recent view of famed Longacre Square, corner Broadway and Forty-seventh Street.

In pre-prohibition days there were many attractive displays for wines and liquors of all kinds. Among these might be mentioned the funny little Irishman carrying Burke’s Bottled Guinness, the man on the giant horse playing polo proclaiming Black & White Scotch whiskey, the golfer making a drive from a tee, heralding Coate’s Plymouth gin, and the giant mixing a highball many thousand times a night to influence the crowds to use “Wilson, that’s all,” which, by the way, was the most famous slogan of its time. There was also a very beautiful electric display for Cook’s Imperial champagne, featuring gigantic bunches of grapes and a sparkling glass of the “Bubble Water” made in St. Louis.

The old view of Longacre Square, at the corner of Broadway and Forty-seventh Street, shows the famous White Rock display. The two fountains, one on each side of the huge clock, gushed forth colorful water into a basin. The face of the clock was brilliantly colored, and at the time spectators seemed to delight in watching the hands move. This electric was well known and is still remembered as one of the most successful displays originated by the O.J. Gude Company. Then you will notice also the gigantic Kellogg sign on top of the Mecca Building. This evidently read “I want,” in the next flash, “I got, and I suppose the boy made a radical change in his facial expression between the two flashes.

During the period from 1900 to 1920, there were many fascinating electric displays in Broadway, and many of them are still remembered by New Yorkers, which shows the inherent quality of this type of advertising to stay in the minds of the spectators. Incidentally, the men who originated many of these displays and sold them are still with the General Outdoor Advertising Company, successor of the O. J. Gude Company of New York.

An old view of Longacre Square, dominated at the time by the White Rock clock and the Kellogg boy.

For example, there was the huge Anheiser-Busch eagle flapping his wings for Budweiser beer on the roof of the Hermitage Hotel. This was a splendid in-stance of putting life and action into a famous trademark. The King of Siam came to this country, and the moment he saw the eagle he knew he had to have one just like it in his capital, Bangkok. The O. J. Gude Company got the order and shipped in sections a new eagle to Bangkok, and for all I know, it is still burning there in the public square. Another spectacular built by the O. J. Gude Company for use in a foreign country was the one which the British American Tobacco Company ordered for Pirate cigarettes, to be shown in Shanghai, China.

Back in the days when petticoats really had influence, high above the sidewalks of Times Square was erected the famous sign which will never be forgotten by those who saw it. Each evening for the amusement of the crowds, the Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl ran into a wind and rainstorm, and her skirts were whipped about furiously. Although the petticoat is as obsolete as the dodo, through the use of this electrical sign Heatherbloom went down in petticoat history never to be forgotten.

New Yorkers and visitors to our Great White Way have long remembered the Corticelli Kitten at the corner of Forty-second and Broadway frolicking with the spool of silk thread until he tangled himself into great complication. Although the mechanism for this type of display was as perfect as possible to make it, some amusing mishaps occurred. Broadway laughed heartily the night the rain went upward in the Heatherbloom Petticoat sign, and it was equally entertained the time the Corticelli spool of thread chased the kitten. Although the sign inspectors were worried about these reversals, the throngs were much amused and the advertisers made no complaint — they derived thousands of dollars of publicity out of the occurrences.

When “The Merry Widow” played on Broadway, the Heatherbloom Petticoat Girl
display was making petticoat history high above the sidewalks of Times Square.

I shall close this part of the history by giving a few of the details in regard to the Chariot Race, and later the Clicquot Club display which was known as the largest display in the world.

The Chariot Race was a unique display erected for the Rice Leaders of the World Association, and the only one of its kind to appear on the Great White Way. When it went up, it was the largest ever operated in the world and is said to have taken more mechanical contrivances than any other sign. Its location was the roof of Hotel Normandy, Broadway and Thirty-eighth Street, facing Herald Square. The design depicted a scene in an old Roman arena. An amphitheatre was visible, and the people were cheering a chariot race. The leading chariot was hard pressed by the others. Dust clouds, flying colors, racing horses, dangerous corners all depicted a thrilling arena scene. Gold leaf was used for the background design, the harness of the horses was studded with cut glass jewels of all colors, and thousands of colored lights were used.

Above the scene of action was a curtain upon which flashed the message of 150 national advertisers. One message appeared at a time, for a period of fifteen seconds. There were four changes a minute, and the entire series of messages took forty minutes.

The story of “Clicquot Club Ginger Ale — World’s Largest Seller,” was told in a glorious manner through a spectacular display which has left an indelible impression on the minds who saw it. Nineteen thousand electric lights were used in its construction. This display appeared in the Putnam Building. It consumed 267 KW an hour and twenty-nine flashers were used in its operation.

The gorgeous Cliquot Club spectacular on the Putnam Building was another O. J. Gude Company installation.
Nineteen thousand lamps and twenty-nine flashers helped the Eskimo boys and their sled get over the frozen snow.

Against the night sky appeared a crimson glow, and as it gained intensity, beautiful color combinations appeared. Then, with a rush and a sparkle, there blazed forth the full radiance of the northern lights. As the crowds watched, the lights receded and vanished. Then attention was drawn to a plump, jolly-faced Eskimo boy, all bundled up in his white furs. He was seated on an Artic sled, and as he sped gaily along, streaks of sparkling snow shot backward from the runners. This Eskimo boy faced the crowds and grinned merrily. His team was composed of three little Eskimos, smaller editions of himself, and they dashed over the frozen snow. As the boy snapped his whip the runners jerked their heads to the front.

The driver carried on his sled a mammoth bottle of ginger ale, as tall as most three-story buildings. He cracked his whip (which was actually sixty-six feet long), and the word “Cliquot” blazed against the sky in light blue and white. At the next crack of the whip the word “Club” appeared, then “Ginger Ale,” the “World’s Largest Seller.” All the time the three little Eskimos kept running through the night; they never grew tired and never lost interest in their work — taking that precious bottle of ginger ale safely into camp. Overhead the aurora borealis blazed, bringing New York’s summer skies the gay splendors of the midnight sun.

In more recent years remarkable things have been done in the field of spectacular electrical display, and not alone in New York City. The Chesterfield cigarette electric display in Atlantic City is a splendid example of modern technique and color effects. Detroit has a very good looking spectacular electric display for General Motors, and the Pepsodent electric, with the girl in the swing, at the head of Longacre Square is now a familiar sight.