One of the interesting things of growing up in the 50's and 60's was the ease of access.
You could call a company for information and actually talk to a person, they would then transfer you to the engineer who actually designed the item or product you needed information on to actually help you with it.
You could go to almost any business and ask them to see how they made things, their operation and they would be more than happy to show you.
I remember during my high school days I had an teacher, Brother Edward. He would allow us to do research and write a reports on stuff that had industrial or science behind it and it would count as a grade or project credit.
I had found my niche.
I remember going to the Brumfield Sign Company, on Howard street, in the South of Market in San Francisco.
So one afternoon after school I went down to Brumfield Signs and walked in and told the person at the front office that I was doing a project for school and wanted to find something about their company.
I was asked to wait a minute and after a few minutes this short stocky man smoking a cigar came down and asked what I wanted.
I told him my task and he brought me up to his mezzanine office.
This was the typical company owners office, wooden roll-top desk, a few oak chairs, a large double door black safe and tons of catalogs and books all over the room. There was also a wall with lots of photographs of the signs that they had manufactured and installed.
One of which was very famous in downtown San Francisco. It was the Hamm's Beer sign. If you ask anyone who was in the city in the 50's & 60's they would surely tell you about it.
It was a large beer glass that filled up and then emptied every few seconds, this beacon of a sign could be seen from miles away. I think it was taken down in the early 70's after Hamms beer got merged with a beer conglomerate.
Thinking back and looking at old photographs, many city skylines where peppered with neon signs...not just in Times Square, but every city had their share of vivid huge neon signs..... must have been a great business for it's time?
Showing that I had interest in his business, was the key that opened the door to his generous offer to show me the whole operation!
After some more chitchat he took me up to an upstairs workshop with a massive carpet covered work table which was about 8 by 20 feet at least. This was the table where they put together the signs and made the glass letters and such.
The owner, then told the worker who was making some glass letters to show me how they make signs and to provide anything I needed for my school project.
Can you imagine that experience happening nowadays?
Impossible.... Unless you live in Mexico.
The worker showed me what he was working on and explained the various colors and type of gas that was injected into the tubes to achieve the desired colors. He showed me the different size glass tubes, the end electrodes and other glass accessories.
He showed me how to bend glass tubes, they had various burners attached to stands and various assemblies of glass tubes with valves and connections, rubber hoses and large glass bottles and tanks that contained the various gasses.
He then showed me how he bends the glass tube and made a few letters for the sign they were working on using a paper template which was laid out on his massive bench.
He then took out a glass tube and made me bend it, then showed me how to weld two end electrodes to the glass. Wow.
I had made a neon tube, by myself..........
What color do you want in it?
I said that I didn't know, so he showed me a few already made tubes that had red, orange, blue, green and yellow to them. He told me that it depended on the kind of gas they injected into the tube which color it would emit.
I chose blue.
He then put a drop of mercury into the tube, attached a narrow glass tube from the glass valve that had the gasses and stuck a rubber hose in his mouth and drew out the air at one side of the tube while putting in the gas at the other.
After a few seconds he ran the torch and sealed the little point at which the gas came in to the tube at the same time as he sealed the glass at where his mouth hose was attached.
He then attached a 10 Kilo volt transformer to the end electrodes of the glass tube, flipped on the switch and my newly made tube lit up with a bright blue glow......
He handed me the tube that we just made and told me to come back if I needed anymore information. I thanked him and on the way out, thanked the owner and proudly went home with my newly built neon tube.
You don't see very many neon sign companies around anymore especially in the states.
There are still a few in Mexico. The reason story was triggered from my memory archives was because I walked by a neon shop the other day in Morelia and decided to wander in.
The shop was a small one, a one or two man operation with the workbench opening up to the street sidewalk. That's what grabbed my attention immediately. I introduced myself to the owner and told him about my first experience with neon. He stopped and showed me some of the signs that he was currently working on and some pictures of the ones he had done. We spent at least half an hour discussing the business and how he got into it, which was passed down from his father, etc.
I was thinking of the reasons you don't see many of these types of businesses in the states is probably because of insurance rates....
Could imagine the insurance liability of allowing someone into the business, next to glass, gasses, mercury, voltages and such nowadays?. Not in the US.
I guess I was lucky to have been exposed to so many opportunities to see the workings of locally owned and operated businesses while growing up in the city. Kids nowadays simply cannot fathom that kind of openness to the manufacturing process anymore.
Kind of sad.
So, when you walk by a local artist whether it be the Blacksmith who is making the wrought iron fence or the wood worker making a front door, stop and look and see and enjoy....for all of that hand made stuff is a art form, just like the hands on business of making neon signs was, which is all done by machine in China now for the most part.......
Except for a independent businessman in Morelia Mexico.......