Learn about Life in the 1920s


BROADWAY BURNS A MILLION ELECTRIC LAMPS in its great advertising section—an aggregation of lights, we are told, not duplicated anywhere else in the world.


They give out 25 million candle-power and cost many million dollars to install. The rental value of some of the roofs in this section exceeds that of the whole building below. That such a "white way" has a psychological effect that is beneficial on those who live near it is asserted by Arthur Williams, vice-president of the New York Edison Company. In an address given to the public through broadcasting station WJZ, New York, and also distributed as a press bulletin, he gives the following historical and descriptive sketch of the modern electric-sign development in this city. We read:

"Thirty years ago New Yorkers were pleasantly surprized one night when the first large electric sign, erected on the present site of the Flatiron Building at Twenty-third Street and Broad-way, flashed its message upon their attention—'Manhattan Beach Swept by Ocean Breezes.' No one—not even the designers, the architects or the owners of this first sign—could have foreseen the Great White Way, the living 'Avenue of Light,' the largest and most effective thing of its kind, and so appropriately in keeping with this great city.

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"To-day no complete book of travel is without reference to the man-made aurora of light which blazes forth each night over the mid-town section centering on Broadway. Probably no visitor ever leaves Manhattan without seeing this spectacle. Few New Yorkers can walk along Broadway at night without marveling at this wonder of the century or noting every new message written against the sky, every new color scheme, every new sign-creation of the artist, architect, engineer, and advertising man.

"No record exists of the exact number of lamps in the first sign, but it is estimated that there were approximately two hundred. To-day there are more than a million lamps in the signs on Broadway alone, with hundreds of thousands additional on streets to the east and west of Broadway. The cost of the first sign was less than two hundred dollars. To-day many millions of dollars are invested in the construction of electric signs and in the rental of the roofs or the fronts of the buildings upon which they appear, and the designing of signs has become a profession comparable with that of the architect, artist, or engineer. Competent engineers estimate the aggregate candle-power meeting one's vision at this point to be fully 25 millions. There is, of course, no such aggregate of light anywhere else in the world. Were one viewing the earth from some distant planet—Mars, perhaps—-this would undoubtedly be the first spot upon which his eye would rest, and he would no doubt, wonder whether we were not trying to signal Mars as we have often wondered whether Mars was not trying to signal us.

"It will perhaps surprize many to know that the roofs of numerous buildings along Broadway have a greater rental value than the ground floors, and, in some instances, this rental value is greater than that of the entire building. One company pays approximately $600,000 yearly for the rental of electric-sign space on Broadway. A small four-story building only eighteen feet deep, but strategically located, which is now being used solely as a foundation for electric signs, yields a rental of approximately $90,000 yearly."

"What makes the 'Great White Way'?" asks Mr. Williams. There was a time, he says, when the theaters of New York were the principal users of electric signs. To-day, altho more than 500 theaters and moving-picture signs blaze on or near Broadway, the theaters take seventh place in the great array of business enterprises contributing to this pageant of color and light. It is interesting that 59 churches in the heart of Manhattan use electric signs, a number being large and inspiring, illuminated crosses. He goes on:

"New York has both the highest electric sign in the world and the largest—the latter, which is on Broadway near Forty-second Street, is 200 feet long, as tall as a five-story building, and contains 19,000 lamps and 21 miles of electrical wiring.

"Probably the most striking demonstration of the important influence of New York's Great White Way, not only on this city but on the nation as a whole, was afforded during the World War when, in response to public sentiment, the electric signs of. Broad way were darkened. The saving in coal was relatively infinitesimal, but the psychological effect was profound. New Yorkers realized then how drab—if not actually gloomy—this part of the city would be at night were it not for the Great White Way.

"Broadway had been dark only two or three nights before requests that the lights be turned on again began to pour into the headquarters of the Fuel Administration and the Edison offices. Visitors as well as residents of the city were struck by the depressing effect of a city without electric signs, and a great change came—a great relief—when the Great White Way again came to life.

"Broadway is not, however, the only spot in New York enhanced by light. It may seem strange that the beauty of Manhattan at night can best be seen as one leaves the island. If one has not seen Manhattan at dusk or immediately after dark from the bridges, from a Staten Island ferry, or from a North River boat; if one has not stood on the hills on the other side of the Hudson and watched the sun slip out of sight and the lights of Manhattan gradually appear, there are in store many never-to-be forgotten sights."

Source: The Literary Digest for September 12, 1925