LIMA — If the fact Samuel Kamin was dubbed “Mr. Sign” by The Lima News, or that Neon Products Inc. (NPI), the firm he and James A. Howenstine founded in 1930, was the country’s leading sign manufacturer, wasn’t proof enough that Kamin knew his business there was this: In March 1956, NPI purchased Artkraft Sign Co.
“The purchase is of particular interest,” the News wrote March 26, 1956, “because Kamin and James Howenstine, Neon secretary-treasurer, were with Artkraft until 1930, starting their own company in August of that year with a joint stake of only $453.”
Kamin’s success with NPI, however, was not a sign of rigid single-mindedness. He had many interests. He served as chairman of the board of the National Sign Service, was a member of the Lima Area Armed Forces Advisory Committee, a member of the Better Business Bureau and Lima Area Chamber of Commerce and was on the St. Rita’s Medical Center advisory board.
A member of the Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek, he was a past president of Shaare-Zedek Synagogue and was instrumental in the construction of the Shaare-Zedek Synagogue in the 100 block of South McDonel Street in 1937. Kamin also put his money where his beliefs were, contributing to many local charities. In 1957, he and Howenstine became the major backers of the Lima Citizen, which challenged the much better funded News for seven years. In 1963, Kamin and Howenstine opened WCIT-radio with studios on the second floor of the Citizen’s headquarters on West Vine Street.
Kamin was born June 18, 1902, in Toronto, Canada, the son of Isaac and Esther Bina Kamin. He moved to the United States in 1923 and became an American citizen in 1931. He married Elizabeth Bloom and the couple had two sons, Milton and Robert, and a daughter, Molly.
“His first job in the country — and the beginning of his career in sign making — was with the Artkraft Sign Co. of Lima, where he was in charge of the design and engineering department,” the News wrote Jan. 20, 1967. “During his final two years with the organization, he also had full responsibility for sales and built Artkraft into the largest firm of its kind in the country.
“But Kamin wanted to chart his own course,” the News added, “In 1930, he left Artkraft and formed a sign company of his own — Neon Products Incorporated.”
On Aug. 26, 1930, NPI began operations in a small storeroom at 217 E. Elm St., moving six months later to 310 E. Market St. “Sam Kamin and James Howenstine, founders of the company, found that the 25 by 150-foot room on East Market Street was cramped. They eyed the buildings of the defunct Gramm-Bernstein Corp. and finally bought one of them. As business increased and more employees were added the partners purchased the other Gramm-Bernstein buildings,” the News wrote Sept. 15, 1950. The sprawling plant was located on a stub of a thoroughfare at the end of East Wayne Street known as Paper Mill Avenue. Several years later the name was changed to Neon Avenue.
“During the early days the imagination and talent of the founders were taxed to the limit,” the News wrote. “Kamin made layouts for the first general item, a framed neon sign with interchangeable letters or cards. Howenstine took over the production, often bending tubes himself. Kamin assumed sales responsibility. He loaded finished signs into his car and sold them throughout the Midwest.”
NPI grew even while the country struggled through the Great Depression. “Neon Products, Inc., occupies an unusual position among the industries of Lima,” the News observed Sept. 30, 1935. “It is a child of the depression, grown to stalwart proportions despite the depression.” By 1935, the company employed 125 and the News attributed its success to “the sagacity and energy with which the Lima men responsible for its management have attacked and solved problems.”
A visual example of that problem-solving ability appears in a 1938 photo in the News showing Kamin and Howenstine proudly posing beside a plane. “The pair flies about the nation with nonchalance to hawk their wares in this fine new Stinson cabin plane, which Howenstine pilots,” according to the caption.
“The ‘can-do’ spirit which has characterized the development of Neon Products Inc. was never more evident than during World War II,” the News wrote Sept. 15, 1950. “When war clamped the lid on neon sign production, co-owners Sam Kamin and James Howenstine searched the country for war work.” The U.S. War Department “ordered M-14 floating cartridge cases,” the News added. “The Navy ordered illuminated floating airplane buoys. The Air Force needed complex wire harnesses for B-24s.”
After the war, Kamin and Howenstine began experimenting with Plexiglas, which had been used widely during the war for airplane canopies, producing a sign they considered superior to the neon sign. Their customers agreed and sales climbed toward the $4 million mark. By 1950, NPI workers were learning to work with the new materials and neon signs, 3 million of which had been sold by then, became a small part of NPI’s business.
On March 26, 1956, Kamin announced the purchase of Artkraft Sign Co., the company he joined in 1923. The following year, Kamin and Howenstine sank $100,000 into the Lima Citizen, setting up shop at 711 W. Vine St., the former site of North Star Woolen Mills. In August 1963, radio station WCIT, owned by Kamin and Howenstine began broadcasting.
By October 1963, Howenstine had cut back on active participation in the business. He died at the age of 75 in December 1973.
On Oct. 15, 1964, the News wrote, “Neon Products Inc. today is a far cry from the business founded in Lima in 1930. The company has grown from a small building manufacturing neon signs, to a ‘hive’ of buildings, encompassing more than 960,000 square feet for the manufacture of plastic signs. The company, which has sales offices in New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and St. Louis, employs approximately 400 Limaland residents …”
Less than five years later, on March 2, 1969, the News announced that an “agreement has been signed on sale of a major Lima Industry, Neon Products Inc., to Essex International Inc.” Kamin remained as president, while his sons, Milton and Robert, also retained positions with the firm.
In 1974, the company, now known as the NPI division of Essex International, was sold to General Indicator Corp. and became known as the Kolux NPI division. On March 31, 1977, General Indicator announced the company, which employed about 100 people at the end, would close on May 31, 1977.
In September 1984, Kamin died at the age of 82 in Media, Pennsylvania.
Next week: The Lima Citizen
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.