Original Citgo Sign in Boston Built by Nancy’s Great-Grandfather’s Company

By Nancy Marshall, with research assistance from son Craig Marshall, July 2012

My mother has always told the story of how the neon sign was introduced in the United States by my ancestors. I never really thought about it until recently, but I realize that I may have inherited the gift of wanting to advertise and promote brands from my ancestors. My great-grandfather’s name was Charles Iver Brink, the man who founded the C.I. Brink Sign Company that went on to build the famous Citgo sign in Boston’s Kenmore Square.

Brink family portrait

Back row, left to right: Bessie Brink Woods, my maternal grandmother; John Brink, my great uncle; Pearl Brink McDonald, my great aunt

Front, left to right: Svea Brink Robinson, my great aunt; Charles Brink, my great-grandfather; Augusta Brink, my great-grandmother

C.I. Brink was born in Engelholm, Sweden, in 1867 and moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1892 with his wife Augusta, who was my mother Martha’s grandmother. Charles started his company soon after his arrival to the United States and began to get involved with the Swedish-American community around his home in Newton where he had relocated from Dorchester. Charles and Augusta had four children: Svea, Bessie, Pearl and John. Bessie eventually married Lawrence Woods and they had three children, Lawrence Jr., Phyllis and Martha, who is my mother.

Brink eventually turned the company over to his son, my great grandfather John C. Brink, who was in charge of the company when the Citgo sign was constructed. John Brink made a trip to Europe to study the newest innovation in lighting technology: neon. But first, a little background in the history of outdoor signs.

European scientists were the innovators in the field of neon before advertising pioneers began to cash in on the new technology. William Ramsey and M.W. Travers first discovered the element neon in London in 1898. A Frenchman named Georges Claude decided in 1902 to create a lamp filled with neon. The experiment went well and Claude went on to receive a patent for the neon lighting tube in 1915. In 1923, his company “Claude Neon,” imported the first neon sign to the United States. The two signs were sold to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles for $24,000. They read simply “Packard.”

Georges Claude changed outdoor advertising forever with the invention of the neon lighting tube. The lights were entrancing, causing people to stop and stare for hours at what they called, “liquid fire.” John Brink began aggressively advertising his new expertise in neon upon his return from Claude’s laboratories in Paris and Vienna. One Brink Sign Company advertisement read, “Neon signs in Europe are far ahead of anything ever seen in this country. Our president (John Brink) has been there for three months, in the laboratories, studying the signs, and has returned with new ideas and methods for advertisers in New England.”

In another article Brink wrote, “Signs reflect growth and pride in product and plant; they are important to advertising.” As the first manufacturer of neon tubing in New England, the Brinks understood that they had tremendous potential in dominating the sign construction market.

In 1965, the Cities Service Oil Company decided that they wanted to go in a new direction with their marketing. The name Citgo and the current tri-mark were the results. The sign was built with miles of neon tubing and flashed throughout the night.

Another neon sign that had been built in 1939 advertised the White Fuel Company and preceded the Citgo sign. Kenmore Square became a hot area for nightlife due to Boston University’s acquisition of much of the local real estate (including 660 Beacon St. where the sign is located — originally a Cities Service office) and the bright signs. The sign became part of the skyline of Boston and was adored by many who associated it with fond memories. Yet as time went on, some looked at it as a waste of energy that should be shut off.

On September 4, 1979, the sign was turned off due to concerns that the sign was using too much energy. The nation was going through a widespread energy crisis and many people thought the sign represented America’s irresponsible energy habits. As time went on, more and more people missed the glow of the sign and in 1983 it was turned back on, but not without some disagreement from the public.

Letters to the editor in the late ‘70s showed the mixed reactions to the sign’s presence. Walter Guertin of Belmont wrote, “As one who had to learn the streets of Boston through trial and error (mostly error), I remember that the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square was my savior on more than one occasion. It’s Boston’s very own “North Star.” Keep the sign!” Barry A. Kroening of Newton Upper Falls wrote, “Everyone, and that includes major companies, in America has been asked to conserve energy with the prospects of shortages looming ahead. Isn’t it fair to ask a company like Citgo to set a good example of energy savings to the public instead of a glaring show of energy waste? Or, should we instead begin asking ourselves whether or not the energy crisis is, indeed, fact or fiction?”

Citgo sign turned on again

After the sign was turned back on, a movement to make the sign an official landmark was rejected. The city decided that they would allow the Citgo Company to control the fate of the sign because it was so expensive to maintain and operate. Luckily, the company has renovated the sign multiple times over the past thirty years.

In a city full of history, the one thing that Boston lacks is a large number of tall landmarks. The Citgo sign is that. The Citgo sign no longer belongs to an oil company; it belongs to the soul of a city and the hearts of its residents. It’s no wonder that TIME Magazine named it an “Objet d’Heart.” This is the true brilliance of the creation, the brainchild of my ancestors Charles and John Brink and the C.I. Brink Company. It is the simplest form of a brand possible, yet its historical presence ensures that whenever a New Englander thinks Citgo, they think of the sign.

I never knew my Brink ancestors, but I wish I could sit and talk to them today about the advancements in public relations, marketing, advertising and even social media. I think they would be amazed by the massive shift that has happened in the industry since the early 1900s. That said, I am amazed by their accomplishments and how they had a big enough vision to create a company on the cutting edge of technology nearly a century ago.

Citco sign on Boston skyline today