A Flashing & Glittering Wonderland!
Times Square -- first known as LongAcre Square -- was a “carriage and harness district" where William H. Vanderbilt’s American Horse Exchange sold horses, horse buggies, and milk. The neighborhood would become a brightly illuminated "Great White Way," home to one of the world's most respected newspapers and to America's most famous theater district. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it turned into a shocking illustration of urban decay in American cities. Today Times Square is an internationally known flashing and glittering neon wonderland.
This neighborhood was renamed Times Square in 1904 when the New York Times moved its lower Park Row Manhattan office to the Great White Way in uptown Broadway. “The Great White Way” was a term coined by advertising display designer O.J. Gude in 1901 when eccentric outdoor advertisements became a vital part of Broadway and Times Square. Gude designed numerous signs including ones for Maxwell House Coffee and Wrigley's Spearmint gum.
New York City's first outdoor electric sign advertisement was not erected in Times Square, but in Chelsea in 1892 at the location where the Flatiron Building is now located. The Chelsea sign advertised Manhattan Beach. H.J. Heinz of the Heinz Company stayed at a hotel across the street, saw the Manhattan Beach sign and commissioned his own large electric sign of a huge flashing green Heinz pickle.
There was nothing in America quite like the Great White Way (sometimes also called "the Great Gay Way)." The Great White Way became a crowd pleasing public sensation attracting crowds of New Yorkers and tourists who stopped traffic to gawk at the flashing electric signs of "animated kittens, waterfalls, raindrops, and chariots." By 1910, Times Square had become a "nocturnal landscape" of over 20 blocks lined with sky signs and theater marquees by 1910. It was "a delirious exaggeration of American culture," according to Fran Leadon, author of BROADWAY A History of NEW YORK CITY in THIRTEEN MILES. To advertise the Broadway play, Ben-Hur, a huge sign 72 feet high by 90 feet wide was erected on an eight-story hotel featuring a chariot and galloping horses.
From the years 1941 to 1966, a handsome man smoking a Camel cigarette and blowing five-foot-wide smoke rings every four seconds greeted passing pedestrians on a large and unforgettable billboard. The smoke rings emitting from the sign were steam provided by an utility company. By the early sixties, the gentleman had switched his brand of cigarettes to Winston’s. Later a big and steaming cup of coffee replaced the smoking man.
Today's Times Square with its glittering and dazzlingly neon signs is a far cry from the crime-ridden Times Square of the 1960's and early 70s when it was one of urban America's biggest and best known eyesores. An abundance of porn cinemas with large marquees and pornographic video peep shows lined its streets as did prostitutes and male hustlers. It was a menacing "for adults only" part of the city accurately portrayed in the films Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976). The seediness of Times Square became a symbol of the New York City of the 1960s to the 1990s as gritty, dangerous, and desperate.
On December 31, 1907, the opening of the Times Tower was greeted with a midnight fireworks celebration, a tradition that has continued on New Year's Eve along with the dropping of a New Year's ball. The new triangular shaped 25-story Times Tower (at Broadway and W. 42nd Street) was of Italian Renaissance style and based on Giotto di Bondone's design of the companile in the Florence Cathedral. A strip of lights around the top of the New York Times building brought the latest news to Times Square passersby and the building became the second largest skyscraper in the city.