Italian Village is a rather genteel, residential neighbourhood of Columbus, Ohio. Historic buildings, brick streets, little parks. It’s the last place you’d think to find a giant, neon sign advertising Wonder Bread. And that’s exactly what drew me there.
How long had it been here? And who was supposed to look at it? It’s such an oddity but it had to have a purpose: no one would have spent the money building it otherwise.
To find out, I did what anyone would do: I googled it. I turned up a page on the excellent Waymarking site which answered some of my questions, but posed a whole lot more. The sign is at one end of a largely empty parking lot, at the other end sits a large, low, vacant building. According to Waymarking, it used to be a bakery, owned by Interstate Bakeries Corp. (Now Hostess Brands Inc.). Hundreds worked here in its heyday; the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the neighbourhood. A victim of falling demand for Wonder Bread’s less-than-healthy products, the bakery closed in 2009.
And that raised question: just what was an industrial-sized bakery doing in a residential district?
The Waymarking article said something else that also didn’t sound right: “The Wonder Bread neon sign … was built in 1916.”
The thing is, it can’t have been built in 1916. While neon gas had been discovered in 1898, it wasn’t until 1912 that Georges Claude started selling neon advertising signs in France. They were introduced into the USA in 1923. So, while the building may be from 1916, the sign certainly isn’t.
Not only that, but Wonder Bread wasn’t invented until 1921. Even then, it was just a local brand of bread produced in Indianapolis. It wasn’t until 1925 that Continental Baking bought the brand and started to market it nationally. Here’s an early advertisement, from the October 23, 1928 edition of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review:
So, I figured, it’s safe to assume that the 1916 bakery was taken over by Continental Baking some time after 1925. The neon sign must have come later. I wondered if I could narrow down the timeframe a little more.
I leafed through some more old newspapers. When I saw this one in the November 24, 1943 edition of the Deseret News, I knew I was onto something:
The advertisement from 1928 uses a serif font, while the one from 1943 uses a blocky, sans-serif font very similar to the one in the neon sign.
It was about this time that I stumbled upon an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from July 16, 2009. An apartment complex had just been completed on the site of an old Wonder Bread Factory in Seattle’s Central District. In a nod to the building’s heritage, the original neon Wonder Bread sign had been preserved and put on top of the apartment complex. And you know what? That neon sign looks an awful lot like the one in Columbus:
As you can see, it’s not quite the same sign. It’s bigger than the Columbus one and the neon piping is a bit different. The Seattle sign dates from 1952, so the Columbus sign is probably from around this time too. Let’s say late 1940s to the early 1950s.
So, that settles the date the neon sign was put there. But what was a factory doing in the middle of a residential district in the first place? It turns out that it’s a remnant of an industrial park at the eastern side of Italian Village which had been thriving since the late 19th century. There’s not a whole lot of the industrial area left today, the bakery was one of the last outposts.
Ok, so now we know why the bakery was there, and roughly when its neon sign was built. That just left one big mystery: what was the point of the sign being there at all?
Today, it’s just about visible from the I-670 which forms the south border of Italian Village. The thing is, though, that construction on the I-670 didn’t begin until 1975, so the sign definitely wasn’t built to advertise for drivers along that road.
This sent me looking for old maps of Columbus. Did the I-670 replace an older Route, perhaps? But as far as I could see, there had been no other major roads in that area. Certainly, none big enough to justify a neon advertisement.
Fearing I wouldn’t be able to figure it out, I started to think outside the box. In 1929 Transcontinental Air Transport (which would later become TWA) opened an airport nearby (you can still see the original Art Deco buildings). Perhaps the sign was meant to be visible from the air to passengers as they took off or landed? No, that was silly: if they’d wanted it visible from the air, they’d have probably just painted “Wonder Bread” on the roof of the bakery. And anyway, cheap mass aviation didn’t really take off until at least the late 1950s. Before then it was restricted to the more wealthy: people less likely to be Wonder Bread’s target audience.
One thing I did notice, however, was that passengers arrived at Columbus airport by train. By train! Why didn’t I think of that before? I pulled out an old map from 1901. The first thing I notice is that every single railroad going into Columbus passed just a block away from the Wonder Bread sign (marked with a white arrow in this image), and would have had an unobstructed view (source):
By the mid-1950s, rail travel was on the decline. In 1956, there were only 42 passenger trains per day travelling to Columbus, the lowest number in 80 years. Automobiles and planes were taking over. In 1979, four years after work on the I-670 began, not only was the airport remodelled at a cost of $70 million, but the city train station was finally demolished. Today all that remains is a single archway from the station, preserved at one end of a park.
So finally, I’d figured it out. The neon sign has stood here for at least sixty years. A survivor. Its original target audience long gone. In fact, it can only have stood there a very few years before the railroads started to die. Then, not only did the bakery close, but Hostess Brands recently went into receivership—the second time in a decade. Maybe that sign, so magnificent and out of place, will outlast even the product it was built to advertise too.
Neon Wonder Bread Sign
Address: Hamlet & Warren, Columbus Ohio
Hours: Visible 24/7