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Sign Spotting: Shell

Spectacular is not just an adjective. In the world of neon, the largest signs – especially those that combine neon and incandescent lights in a moving display – are also called “spectaculars.”

Photo of Shell sign

The Shell sign still beckons drivers on Memorial Drive in Cambridge.

One of the oldest surviving spectaculars in the Boston metro area is the Shell sign in Cambridge. Located along Memorial Drive (technically at 187 Magazine Street) in a working gas station, the sign was built in 1933 and moved to its current location about 10 years later.

The 68-foot-tall sign is in the shape of a giant scallop shell, the familiar trademark of the Shell Oil Company, and was originally located on top of the Shell building in Boston. The sign was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and designated a Cambridge city landmark in 2009.

The Donnelly Electric Manufacturing Company built the sign. A division of John Donnelly & Sons, which was founded in Boston in 1850, the company eventually became one of the most prominent outdoor advertising companies on the east coast. In addition to the Shell sign, Donnelly also created the Gillette Company sign.  (Fun fact: Company execs also ran in political circles. Edward C. Donnelly, Jr., — a grandson of the company founder — was briefly married to Mary Curley, the daughter of Massachusetts governor James Michael Curley.) 

According to the Cambridge landmark designation recommendation, the Shell sign represents two significant trends: “the adaptation of neon and electricity to commercial applications and the growth of the automobile and recreational highways at the beginning of the 20th century.”

The sign originally used neon and incandescent lighting to create a sequenced display of moving lights. As it fell into disrepair, the original sign was replaced with an LED replica in 2011.  The sign fabricators, which included Boston-based Back Bay Sign, used the original drawings to ensure authenticity.  And while the use of LED might offend purists (including me), I have come to recognize that this cheaper and more reliable technology has helped to save more than one historic sign.  Which is pretty spectacular.

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