email: roadarch@outlook.com

Reddy Kilowatt and Willie Wiredhand Signs

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The photos on this page were moved here from my Signs section to accompany an article I wrote for the Society for Commercial Archeology's Journal magazine.

As the commercial manager for the Alabama Power Company, Ashton B. Collins, Sr. was trying to come up with a marketing mascot. In the mid-1920s, electricity was still novel and most rural areas were still without service. Alabama Power was already using the slogan "Your Electrical Servant" to personalize the concept of electricity and stress its reliability. Advertising touted that the Electrical Servant worked 24/7 and never took a day off or called in sick. Collins wanted a friendly and personable character to tie in with that concept.

In 1926, while watching a lightning storm from his office window in Birmingham, inspiration struck. He turned to a co-worker, Dan Clinton, to create the original drawings of a stick figure man with a lightning bolt body. The figure had a lightbulb nose and electrical outlet ears. Two lightning bolts projected from his bald head. He wore rubber safety gloves and boots. While it's not known who came up with the Reddy Kilowatt name, it was most likely Collins who was a marketing whiz. The Reddy character was immediately used in national, print advertising. Before trademarking the figure for the first time in 1933, he had his artist-friend, Dorothea Warren, refine the design.

In 1946, Collins hired cartoonist Walter Lantz to tweak Reddy for a mass-marketed short film, "Reddy Made Magic." The cartoon was directed by Dick Lundy, a former animator for Walt Disney. It was booked nationwide at schools, movie theatres, power companies, and civic associations. This new and final version of Reddy was shorter and better proportioned. His eyes were bigger and had pupils. His grin was changed to an open-mouthed smile showing his tongue but no teeth. He lost a finger on each hand, making him similar to Lantz's other four-fingered characters, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda.

In addition to print advertising and television commercials, Reddy was used in an extensive marketing campaign with merchandise produced for licensed electric companies and the general public. His image appeared on cookbooks and aprons, pens and pencils, lapel pins and earrings, china plates and coasters, lighters and ashtrays, children's Halloween costumes, coloring and comic books, sports team uniform patches, and more. The slogan "Your Electric Servant" usually accompanied his image.

In licensed contracts with hundreds of individual electric companies, the ever-protective Collins insisted that the licensee always represent Reddy as "genial, likeable, well-mannered and even-tempered." Reddy Kilowatt Service (RKS) provided companies with a catalog of approved products and images which could be adapted for different purposes. RKS also produced a magazine which featured news and promotional ideas. His image was also used in many countries outside the United States. There were hundreds of neon signs with Reddy's likeness built in the 1940s and 1950s. However, only about eight Reddy signs are now on public display. By the 1970s, the use of the character was in decline. Only a handful of companies still use Reddy's image. For more, see these websites: 1, 2 and 3.

Alabama Power Company
Attalla, AL
Alabama Power Company
Abbeville, AL
Old Dominion
Power Company
Coeburn, VA
The two oldest surviving Reddy Kilowatt neon signs are displayed at Alabama Power Company offices in Attalla and Abbeville, Alabama. Dozens of these porcelain enamel, neon signs were produced by Dixie Neon of Birmingham from the late 1940s through the 1950s for display at APCO offices around the state. The letters were lit with red neon while the "bull-nose", rounded edge, was lit in white. Even after the Lantz's 1946 redesign, the old image of Reddy was still used for these signs in the early 1950s. Most likely, there was a surplus of the older, backlit acrylic Reddy panels. While some vintage photographs show the identical signs with the later rendition of Reddy, none of those signs are known to survive.

The Attalla sign was restored in 2015. However, the office closed in 2019. While locals would like the sign to stay, Alabama Power may relocate the sign to their museum in Birmingham. [map]

The Abbeville sign was not located at that office originally. Around 2010, it was discovered in APCO's Birmingham warehouse and either purchased or donated to Jimmy Rane. Rane has decorated downtown Abbeville with dozens of neon signs from his vast collection. He had the sign restored by Reliable Sign Service. New neon, transformers, and wiring were installed before it was installed in front of the local APCO office. [map]

The Old Dominion Power Company sign is a bit of a mystery. It was produced by Federal Signs and is most likely from the 1950s. Although the office has been closed and the space below has been vacant for many years, the sign is still lit at night. No one seems to know who owns or maintains the sign. The letters have red neon while the panel with Reddy is backlit plastic. Originally, the neon letters alternated between "Old Dominion Power Company" and "Your Electric Servant." The latter text is no longer lit. [map]

Reddy Kilowatt
Dallas, TX
Reddy Kilowatt
Vancouver, BC
Talbott Electric
Pasadena, CA
The 1950s-era Reddy Kilowatt neon sign in Dallas, Texas is displayed next to a former Dallas Power & Light substation that was converted into a residence many years ago. The owner does not know where the sign came from originally. For more, see this website. [map]

The Reddy Kilowatt sign in Vancouver is installed on the side of the B.C. Electric Company Building. Does anyone know when this sign was installed and if it was located at a different place on the building or elsewhere? For more, see this website. [map]

Talbott Electric was established in 1924. This sign features an unusual representation or simulation of Reddy Kilowatt. It is probably from the 1950s. [map]

More Reddy Kilowatt Signs:
Montevallo, AL [vintage; gone]
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Miami, FL
somewhere in FL [vintage; gone]
Sioux City, IA
??, IA [vintage; gone]
Indianapolis, IN [vintage; gone]
St. Joseph, MO: 1, 2
St. Louis, MO [vintage; gone]
Fergus Falls, MN: 1, 2 [vintage; gone]
Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis, MN [vintage; gone]
Butte, MT [map]
Raleigh, NC [vintage; gone]
Fargo, ND [vintage; gone]
Minot, ND [vintage; gone]
Albuquerque, NM: 1, 2 [vintage; gone]
Bend, OR [vintage; gone]
New Castle, PA [vintage; gone]
York, PA
Brookshire, TX [private collection]
Fort Worth, TX: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 [vintage; gone]
Richfield, UT [vintage; gone]
Spokane, WA: 1, 2 [vintage; gone]
Sheboygan, WI [vintage; gone]
Gillette, WY [vintage; gone]
Halifax, NS [vintage; gone]

If you know of any Reddy signs missing from this list, I'd love to hear from you.

Flickr group

In 1950, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association sought permission from Reddy Kilowatt Service to use the character, but they were turned down. The management at RKS felt that cooperatives were "socialist" enterprises. So, the NRECA developed their own character, Willie Wiredhand. He was designed by Andrew McLay in a contest sponsored by the association in 1951. The figure has an electric cable body, a light-socket head, a push-button nose, and an electrical plug for his lower torso and legs. The name came from the concept of a rural electric service being a farmer's "hired hand." The original name was "Willie the Wired Hand." That was soon shortened to Willie Wiredhand.

In 1953, the newly renamed Reddy Kilowatt, Inc. (RKI) sued the NRECA for trademark infringement, believing that the characters were confusingly similar. In 1956 and 1957, two courts found that the characters were different enough and Willie survived. The NRECA began using the slogan "He's small, but he's wirey" referring to Willie's ability to stand up to the much bigger Reddy. Willie's image was widely used in advertising, company uniforms, and marketing items like cups, pens, lighters, and bendable figures. Only about six Willie signs are still on public display. High Plains Power in Riverton, Wyoming continues to use Willie as part of their logo. The character rides a bucking bronco and holds the reins in one hand and a cowboy hat in the other. West Kentucky Rural Electric in Mayfield, Kentucky also continues to use Willie's image. He climbs a power pole next to a barn in their logo. For more, see these websites: 1 and 2.

Blachly-Lane Electric Co-Op
Eugene, OR
Hot Springs REA
Worland, WY
The Blachly-Lane Electric Co-Op was established in 1937. The company moved to its current location in 1964 and this backlit plastic sign is from then. In 2017, the building was remodeled, and the sign was restored at the same time. It took Eugene Sign & Awning several months to sand, repaint, and rewire the sign. During that time, local residents were freaked out with worry that the sign was gone for good. [map]

This Hot Springs REA sign is installed on the roof of the building. It is the only surviving neon Willie sign and is probably from the 1950s. The office closed many years ago and the building remains vacant. [map]

Harrison County
Rural Electric Cooperative [gone]
Woodbine, IA
Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative
Seminole, OK
Farmers
Electric Co-Op
Newport, AR
The embossed plastic Harrison County Rural Electric Cooperative sign featured the Willie Wiredhand mascot. It was probably built in the 1960s. This photo is from 2012. By 2016, the sign was gone.

The Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative was established in 1939. The backlit plastic sign was installed around 1968. It is about 40 feet tall. [map]

The Farmers Electric Co-Op was established in 1937 and serves cities in Northeast Arkansas. This sign with Willie Wiredhand is probably from the 1960s or 1970s. [map]

More Willie Wiredhand Signs:
Bottineau, ND [gone]
Watertown, SD
Tahoka, TX
Seattle, WA [gone]

If you know of any Willie signs missing from this list, I'd love to hear from you.

Bountiful
City Light & Power
Bountiful, UT
This Bountiful City Light & Power sign was inspired by Reddy Kilowatt signs. It has been there since at least 1983 and was probably built in the 1960s or 1970s. The sign may have been a replacement for an earlier Reddy sign. This one-off neon sign's character has a lightbulb head, wire arms, an outlet chest, and plug feet. At night, his hands and arms are lit with white neon while his bulb head radiates in yellow neon. He is about seven feet tall. Originally, the sign revolved along with the readerboard below. However, high winds kept breaking the motor and the sign has been stationary for many years. For more, see this website. [map]

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