Neon gas is red, but neon signs use other gases, too. Different noble gases produce different colors. Argon, which can make a bright blue or light lavender color, is the most common. Xenon, krypton, and helium are also used but less often. You can also put a gas in a tube colored with a phosphorescent powder coating. So if you put neon in a yellow tube, you get an orangish color.
One amazing relic of the golden age of neon are the suitcases carried by neon salesmen. They contained every color they could make. The suitcases are so beautiful. You open them up, and there’s a little switch for each tube. If you turn them all on—which you’re not really supposed to do—you just get this incredible rainbow radiating out of the suitcase. It must have been so magical when a salesman walked into a little shop and opened up his suitcase, especially when neon signs were first starting to catch on.
Documenting the signs today can help save them:
If even one person goes into a store, besides me, and says, "I love your sign," then it’s more likely the owner’s going to keep their sign, take care of it, and be proud about it. But neon is in a hard period of history, when it’s no longer new enough to be cool or high-tech, but it’s not old enough to fall under the protection of historic preservation. That’s a difficult period of history to try to preserve anything, but I don’t think neon’s going to disappear. It has enough of an appeal that it’s at least going to thrive as a niche market.
(Vintage neon-salesman suitcase photographed by Marna Anderson)