The first advertising electric bulb sign appeared in Manhattan in 1892 and stylistically mimicked existing print advertising conventions. Over time, however, the sign developed its own unique style of visual iconography shaped in part by the limited representational capacity of the sign itself and its commercial message. Film, a medium with similar origins but with fewer limitations, ultimately modeled itself after the theatre trope by incorporating both narrative elements and establishing fixed spaces of cinema display.
While a single sign may have been considered either vulgar or harmless enough, a constellation comprised of multiple signs threatened to overwhelm its environment though refutation of textual presentation, its level of performativity, dimensions and position in the landscape, its relation to the promoted commodity, and its degree of luminosity. The balance of the study offers possible readings of multiple electric bulb signs in Manhattan. The urban spaces transformed by electric bulb signs may have been read by audiences as liberating, confusing, spectacular, amusing, threatening, or a combination thereof, each position presented substantiated by theoretical arguments by such scholars as McLuhan, Bahktin, Baudrillard, and Debord. No preferred reading is endorsed by the author; however, she suggests that electric bulb signs may be considered early examples of postmodernist media.