Times Square – A History of Signage

Times Square

When you envision the bright lights of New York City in your mind, chances are you are thinking of Times Square.  It’s the most popular tourist attraction in NYC with 39 million visitors each year.  It’s brightly lit signage gives the square it’s personality and has helped make it into an iconic landmark in the city. Signs in Times Square have greatly evolved throughout the years and embraced the latest technological advances.

Longacre Square: Then and Now

Times Square was initially called Longacre Square. The thriving business center was most widely known for candle making, manufacturing horse carriages, and was where the stables for horse drawn city carriages were located. The square got it’s name from London’s Longacre Square, which was where London’s horse carriage trade was centered.

42nd and Broadway, 1898.

42nd and Broadway, 1898.

42nd Street looks much different today:

42nd Street March 2009 photo by John Stephen Dwyer

42nd Street March 2009 photo by John Stephen Dwyer

The Astor Hotel

The Astor Hotel was completed in Longacre Square in 1904. The hotel encompassed an entire city block, had over 1,000 rooms and offered numerous ballrooms and restaurants.

This steel engraving, circa 1903 (?) could have been used as an advertisement for the hotel while it was being built.

This steel engraving, circa 1903 (?) could have been used as an advertisement for the hotel while it was being built.

Times Tower/One Times Square

With Astor Hotel adding excitement to Longacre Square, the owner of the New York Times, Adolph S. Ochs decided to move his newspaper’s operations to the square.  Times Tower was less than a block from the Astor Hotel.  Ochs convinced NYC mayor George McClellan to rename the area Times Square in honor of his newspaper.

 

This 1919 photo shows a crowd gathering to see the score of the World Series from a scoreboard on Times Tower.

This 1919 photo shows a crowd gathering to see the score of the World Series from a scoreboard on Times Tower.

On December 31, 1903, a fireworks display was set off on the roof of the building, kicking off an annual New Year’s tradition that still continues today. Today, the building is known as One Times Square, and it certainly looks a lot different than it did in the early 1900s:

New Year’s Eve, 2012. Attributed to Replytojain.

New Year’s Eve, 2012. Attributed to Replytojain.

Today, One Times Square is mostly vacant. It’s exterior is considered to be one of the most coveted advertising spots in the world. According to The Real Deal, One Times Square generates over $23 million per year in advertising revenue.

A Famous Subway Station

Mr. Ochs also convinced Mayor McClellan to put a subway stop at Times Square, which led to even more growth and development. The mosaic signs (pictured below) were installed in 1904, when the NYC subway system first opened.

42nd Street Subway Station. Courtesy Gryffindor, WikiCommons.

42nd Street Subway Station. Courtesy Gryffindor, WikiCommons.

Although the mosaic sign is still present and in pretty good shape, the most noticeable signage for the 42nd Street subway station is a bit flashier:

NYC Subway Station 42nd Street, 2005.

NYC Subway Station 42nd Street, 2005.

Duffy Square Now and Then

Duffy Square is the triangle island that sits right in the middle of Times Square, between 45th and 57th Streets. There, modern tourists will find the TKTS building and can also get a great view of One Times Square and its surrounding neighbors.

Duffy Square, 2008. The red roof of the TKTS building is in the foreground.

Duffy Square, 2008. The red roof of the TKTS building is in the foreground.

In 1904 Duffy Square only had a few signs with incandescent bulbs. These signs replaced the hand-painted wooden signs of previous years. The addition of so many lit signs gave Times Square the nickname “The Great White Way.” This was not necessarily a positive nickname, as many people felt that the lighted signs ruined the aesthetic.

Duffy Square, 1904. Just a few lit billboards.

Duffy Square, 1904. Just a few lit billboards.

The Smokin’ 1940s

The Camel billboard was Times Square icon from 1941 to 1966. It was installed on the exterior of the Claridge hotel, at the corner of Broadway and 44th. The man on the billboard blew huge, five-foot “smoke” rings generated by a machine placed behind the sign. The rings of steam were released out into Times Square every four seconds.

During WW II, the man on the billboard was depicted as a soldier, sailor and airman.

Camel Billboard

In April 1999, billboards advertising cigarettes were removed in 46 states as part of a $206 billion agreement. Well before then, the Claridge hotel had been replaced by a movie theater. More recently, the space was taken over by a filming studio for Good Morning America, whose signage reflects current trends in Times Square:

2004. Courtesy WikiCommons, Tjeerd from Amsterdam.

2004. Courtesy WikiCommons, Tjeerd from Amsterdam.

The Seedy Seventies and Giuliani’s Times Square

In the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square fell into disrepair. Buildings went vacant and many of the open shopswere selling pornography or showing X-rated films. The area was definitely not a tourist attraction.

August, 1973. 42nd Street and 7th Ave.

August, 1973. 42nd Street and 7th Ave.

In the 90s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and several New York City developers created the Times Square Alliance, which was responsible for making a plan to get rid of the seedy businesses and bring back the tourists. During the next decade, most of the XXX bars and clubs were ousted, and the theaters showing porn were replaced with theaters showing…Mary Poppins:

Mary Poppins, New Amsterdam Theater, 2012.

Mary Poppins, New Amsterdam Theater, 2012.

A host of family-friendly business replaced shops selling XXX DVDs:

Nothing is more family-friendly than Disney! Photo courtesy of Luigi Novi.

Nothing is more family-friendly than Disney! Photo courtesy of Luigi Novi.

The 25,000 square-foot M&M World store is the largest candy store in New York City. With its rainbow of candy-coated goodness, it’s every kid’s dream:

M&M’s World NYC, 2012

M&M’s World NYC, 2012

New Signage Technology

Due to new technology, the signage in Times Square continues to change and evolve. In 2008, the first sign powered exclusively by nature was installed at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Ave. Four wind turbines and 45 solar panels powered the sign by Ricoh:

Courtesy Ricoh USA

Courtesy Ricoh USA

At over 9,000 square feet, the LCD NASDAQ sign is the largest continuous sign in Times Square. It most certainly will be eclipsed by even newer technology as the signage industry continues to innovate.

NASDAQ Sign, Times Square 2012

NASDAQ Sign, Times Square 2012

What’s Your Favorite Times Square Sign?

Do you embrace the newest technology, or prefer something more quaint and historic? Does your favorite have flashy lights and design, or does it evokes a warm, happy feeling of one of the greatest cities in the world? Comment below and tell us which is your favorite!