Removing stains and neon signs.

Your clothes say a lot about you, but if they could literally speak, they’d tell you a secret: Dry cleaning and French cleaning are the same thing. The latter just costs more because it shows that the proprietor knows his history (thus, earning that history degree left him with student loans to pay off).

As the story goes, a Frenchman named Monsieur Jolly-Bollin noticed that camphene from a spilled lantern removed stains from a tablecloth. Sadly, his discovery was named “dry cleaning” and not “jolly cleaning,” which would’ve been more relevant (your clothes need cleaning after you’ve been jolly in them) and less misleading since the process is very wet. When clothes are dry cleaned they’re washed in a solvent called perchloroethylene or “perc” for short. The perk of perc is that it’s good at removing oil-based stains. Unfortunately, it’s also toxic and a source of ground-water pollution. And that smell? It’s actually caused by dirty perc, so if you don’t like the odor, find a place that consistently uses fresh perc.

The question of “organic” dry cleaning is a lint trap I’ll avoid right now, but I’ll share with you that when I pushed my dry cleaner to tell me what makes his process organic, he told me that he will wash my clothes in water (no perc) if I request that service. All-righty then.

What got me on the topic of dry cleaning are neon signs. Dry cleaners have some of the best ones around. In contrast to how neon is used for Vegas and beer signs, the medium is simplified and a bit architectural when it’s used to distill a white button-down shirt into a crisp illustration made with tubes. It’s simple and straightforward – a world where being wild means putting on a tie.

In a case of stating the obvious, I especially like the sign that says “SHIRTS,” as if that’s hard to find in a cleaner. It’s like me creating a sign for myself that says “WORDS.”

In a case of stating the obvious, I especially like the sign that says “SHIRTS,” as if that’s hard to find in a cleaner. It’s like me having a sign that says “WORDS.”

Neon is a noble gas, and that’s not a reference to Prince Charles and baked beans. Rather, the term refers to an odorless, colorless, monatomic gas that has a low chemical reactivity. When a high-voltage current is run through a glass tube filled with neon (or argon or phosphor), the gas glows. The tubes are often made of borosilicate glass, which is highly heat resistant. (We sell glass coffee mugs made out of this stuff.)

There’s an art to how the glass tubes are bent into words and images, and some of the most outrageous examples of neon signs appeared in the 1940s and ’50s in Las Vegas. Unlike the furniture that defines mid-century modern, the signs from this era are aces in decorative excess.

The Stardust Hotel in 1958 (left), and the updated façade and roadside sign in 1964 (right).

The Stardust Hotel in 1958 (top), and the updated façade and roadside sign in 1964 (bottom).

Doing justice to neon was the Stardust Hotel, with its façade covered in an exploding solar system and sparkling neon starbursts. Using 7,100 feet of neon tubing and more than 11,000 light bulbs, the sign was visible from 60 miles away. In 1991, the typeface was updated to a less groovy-age font but that wasn’t enough to save the hotel, which closed in 2006.

The first neon signs in the U.S. were in 1923, for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. At right, signs in the “bone yard” don’t appear to be as randomly placed.

The first neon signs in the U.S. were in 1923, for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles (top). Retired signs in the “bone yard” continue to make statements (bottom).

The Stardust building was demolished, however its signage went to the “bone yard” of retired signs at the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). In the mid 1990s, the Allied Arts Council realized that YESCO had hundreds of these cultural relics on their property, which led to the creation of the Las Vegas Neon Museum. The Museum’s holdings of decommissioned signs are currently stored in two open-air lots, but in 2011 it will open a park filled with neon artifacts from 70 years of Vegas landmarks. The Museum’s visitors’ center will be in the former lobby of the La Concha Motel, designed in 1961 by Paul Revere Williams.

The lobby of the La Concha Motel in its original location, before being moved to the Neon Museum’s property.

The lobby of the La Concha Motel in its original location, before being moved to the Neon Museum’s property.

Like a neon sign that was saved when its hotel was demolished, the La Concha lobby was rescued by local preservationists when the hotel’s owner wanted to make room for a larger casino. To move the lobby, with its 28-foot-high swooping concrete roof, the structure was cut into eight pieces and reassembled on the Museum’s property.

I look forward to checking out the Neon Museum when it opens, and I’m especially interested in seeing the museum’s own signage – will it be outrageous neon or simple and straightforward, like a dry cleaners’ shirt?

Gwendolyn Horton