Thursday, December 02, 2010

No Way Joe, but ok Jose.....

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.......


Pat said...

Wow, I had forgotten all about the Hamm's Beer sign! I remember seeing it on our trips to the City. It was so cool the way it filled up and emptied. I can't remember exactly where it was, but I think I remember seeing it from the Central Freeway - right? From the land of sky blue waters...

Tancho said...

Yep, it was at the junction of the Central Freeway and 101, in the area where the old Seals Stadium was, now it's all been redone with big box stores etc. The Sign also had the Big Bear on each side of the brewery.
There was also a huge Admiral TV Neon sign on the Embarcadero, in the area of the new Giants Stadium...It was seen from across the bay in Oakland too.

Don Cuevas said...

First rate story, Tancho!
(I was thinking about the risks of sucking air from a glass tube that held a drop of mercury. Who knew?)

But the discovery of how the signs were made was undoubtedly a great experience for you. Thanks!

Don Cuevas

Felipe said...

Neon is interesting. I´ve never seen it made.

Clever headline, seƱor Tancho.

Bob Mrotek said...

I love blog posts like this!

Steve Cotton said...

Our knowledge base is now reduced to techo-lite sources like Wikipedia. And hardly anyone knows how anything works. Instead of repairing through inside information, we now dispose. Sad.

Tancho said...

Gee, thanks all...I was a little worried that no one would find it interesting, but I got tons of stories like that... They may not all have a connection to Mexico and are hard to condense into 500 words or less.
Perhaps I'll try a few more?

In business I was constantly frustrated in the last 10 to 20 years because of how much time was spent on trying to actually talk to someone to get a answer to some issue we were having. In the good old days....we were able to talk to the engineer who designed the product and even develop relationships with them. During trade shows you would also meet the people that you needed to talk to, now even after you press 4 for this and 5 for that, you never are allowed to actually talk to anyone who knows anything. When you did, it made your day.

Tancho said...

I broke a piece of neon art that was given to me as a gift. I tried to find a neon sign company that I could take it to and have it repaired, which as I knew was very easy to do, but they were all gone. The one or two that I did find would no longer handle the mercury vapor mix, so needless to say I wasn't able to repair it.
And yes, it was the martini glass....

JerryL said...

Great story Tancho, brings back of how easy it was to get issues resolved by interacting with business people. Virtually impossible now.

Anonymous said...

New age communications solutions were invented to make business easier to conduct. Endless hours of telephone tag certainly discredit that notion. I myself have lost 20% productivity due to not being able to talk to someone on the first call. Businesses had someone at the end of each extension that had to answer the telephone when it was ringing. Now they are able to hide because of technology.
HD Fla.

Calypso said...

excellent post AMIGO! Was that company related to Brumfield relays? The hippest dudes had neon signs in their pads as I remember ;-)

Tancho said...

Yes over all productivity has gone down in my opinion, but everyone looks like they are working harder, longer and have more stress then we ever did,, go figure...

Calypso..ah...Potter and Brumfield relays, used a ton of those in various electronic projects over the years....funny you mentioned that.
I asked him that question and his answer was, "No, I wish".
Just for jollies, I looked up to see if they were still in business...
Nope....gone. Looks like they closed up shop in the 80's...

Anonymous said...

Hola Tancho,
What a great story. Yes, it is unfortunate that so few companies will allow visitors into the 'shop' nowadays. Yes, neon is very cool. When we land in Newark from Mexico, one of the landmarks you see is the huge Budweiser neon sign, an Eagle that flaps his wings, the logo lights on and off. When we visited Santa Clara we heard the sound of hammer on metal and peered around the corner into the workshop. The owner invited us in to watch the artisans heating and working the copper. He was very willing to explain the operation. He was obviously proud of his shop. Good for business too, we bought! We did get a note from US Customs telling us they searched our bags. Two large copper sinks will do that. More stories please.

Tancho said...

Hola Tony, in NY!
I am sure that NYC still has a blossoming Sign business which is probably held by 2 or 3 old families. If fact, I remember seeing a story on TV about 5 years ago when they were interviewing a elderly woman in her 70's at least, who was the head of the business that won the bid for the New Year's sign. She had mentioned that the business was over 100 years old then. I always enjoy standing in Times Square for at least 15 minutes and gaze at the art work that is created by different sign companies. That has to be the most expensive place in the country to display one's moniker!

Two sinks in your baggage? My my, the Santa Clara Visitor and Convention bureau should be very happy! I am surprised that they didn't keep one for the example of one two many sinks....

La Corista said...

Tanchito-If you remember the Hamm's sign, I know you remember Mr. Peanut--in front of the Planter's Peanut factory on the bayside of 101 before you hit the Alemany turnoff. As a little girl, I lived distances, not in terms of time, but in terms of landmarks. These were my absolute favorites. I couldn't wait to see them, as we traveled home, either from the East Bay or from the south. Thanks for this perfect memory. I didn't know there were other neon kindred spirits out there.

Tancho said...

Oh Yes LaCorsita, I remember Mr. Peanut,that building last time I saw it was turned into some storage place and was also a Uhaul warehouse for awhile.
There were lot of neat signs on the 101 from the south to Oakland, and on the Oakland estuary also. Clorox was the big one I remember, along with the seafood restaurants west of the freeway.....
I tired to find an old photograph of the bay looking from Treasure Island and YBI but couldn't find any, maybe if you buy an expensive photo book of SF in the 50's and 60's.
Thanks for stopping by!