Eagle Electric - Day - Collection of the New York Historical Society. © Pamela Talese
About Eagle Electric
Eagle Electric Manufacturing Company, a maker of electrical devices, switches and circuit units, was founded in 1920 and based in Long Island City, Queens. The giant, illuminated billboard for Eagle Electric, a triumph of design and the combined efforts of sheet-metal workers, light- designers, and sign painters, overlooked the Queensborough Bridge and boldly stated in neon: “PERFECTION IS NOT AN ACCIDENT.” Above this claim, deftly depicted, were three of the over 2000 electrical products manufactured in Eagle’s many buildings between 21st Street and Jackson Avenue.
My first encounter with the sign was in 1989 and completely by accident. I was on my way to interview for a position at the New York Times Magazine. I had worked there as a copy girl years before, and was familiar with the IRT subway having taken it to Times Square every weekday for two consecutive summers. This time, however, I mistakenly took the train in the opposite direction. After seven minutes underground, I was greeted by daylight and the glittering neon sign for Eagle Electric Company featuring a noble looking eagle, beak in profile, wings flared, and the famous motto on perfection. When I arrived thirty minutes late to the interview and told my story about the sign, the editor asked me if I really wanted to stop painting and work for the Times magazine. I don’t remember how I answered but I wasn’t offered the job.
Four years later I was living in Long Island City. During another period of full-time work, this time as an interior designer in Manhattan, there were late nights when I took a taxi home over the Queensborough Bridge. What made the ride worth the fare was to see which of the letters in Eagle Electric’s slogan were functioning. Sometimes it was PERF____ON IS NOT AN ACC_____, or ____ECTION IS ___ __ACCID___, or other variations. Perfection was elusive, but nevertheless occurred on nights when all the lights were working in full neon blaze.
By the late 1920’s, with increased automobile ownership and commuter rail transit, billboard advertising expanded as well. Eagle Electric shared space along the elevated tracks with other area manufacturers. A few stops east, the Swingline Staple factory (temporary site of MoMA QNS) displayed an enormous neon stapler for “Swingline Easy Loading Staples.” Near the Long Island Rail Road, the banner-size lettering of the Adams/Chiclets Chewing Gum Factory floated above the roofline of the factory’s elegant art deco building. Today, along with the famous Pepsi Cola sign, the only remaining example of grand signage in the Hunters Point area is Silvercup Studios, once a baker of bread.
I painted the first version of Eagle Electric (Day) almost entirely on site during several consecutive afternoons in the summer of 2000, a few months after leaving my job to paint full time. (Refinements were done off-site a bit later, which is why this painting, now in the collection of the New York Historical Society, is dated 2001.) I also wanted to do a Night version of the illuminated sign, and as with the Day version, I stood on the pedestrian path on the south side of the Queensborough Bridge (now a roadway for cars). I was able to paint there without much trouble during the day, but as night fell, this became increasingly difficult. Cyclists zooming down the ramp were surprised to see me despite the many blinking lights attached to my backpack. Also, now a cyclist myself, I realized that taking up one side of the path was dangerous. After two evenings of painting and lots of swearing, I was so rattled by both bicycle traffic and some of the people on the bridge that I quit and finished the painting in my studio using Eagle Electric (Day), my drawings and my memory of what it looked like at night as a guide. I tried to remember the look of the red cars of the number 7 train, which ran in both directions on the elevated track, always screeching at the curve.
That September, the Eagle Electric sign went dark. I watched for its illumination but it did not come. My journal entry dated October 28, 2000 reads: “It’s gone. I could tell it was gone even though I couldn’t see out the window of the crowded subway car last night. This morning when I went out to look, all that remained was the steal armature that held Eagle Electric aloft.”
What strikes me about difference between the billboard advertisements of Eagle era and those of today, is not only the loss of the ‘hand painted sign’ but the change in the products themselves and their target market. In neighborhoods where light industry once thrived, these well-crafted and exuberant signs reflected local pride in the manufacture of solid, useful products. Such products were often purchased by the same community that made them: the working middle class. The situation is very different today.
Outdoor advertising (predominantly printed vinyl or printed paper) mostly focus on luxury goods and services, or emerging ‘brands’ predominantly made abroad. The impact of globalization goes far beyond this aspect of advertising, but to my thinking, it is a pity that signage from the middle 20th Century was not preserved in some way. – Pamela Talese – [email protected]
Eagle Electric - Night - Collection of Ellen Abrams and Kevin Baker © Pamela Talese