Travel log: The American Sign Museum

Last week, we visited the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. The museum features signs from the late 1800s to the 1960s. The museum was extremely well curated with explanatory pieces describing the significance of the items on display. That’s not too surprising. The museum was founded by Tod Swormstedt, a man who can claim a long lineage in signs. Tod served as the editor of Signs of the Times Magazine, a leading industry journal (not to be confused with Signs of the Times Magazine published by the Seventh Day Adventist Church). Tod’s great grandfather founded the magazine in 1906 and Tod was the fourth generation editor. Tod started the museum in 1999, as the National Signs of the Times Museum. In 2005, it was renamed the American Sign Museum.

Cameras are not allowed in the museum, but photos shot with cell phones for personal use are permitted.

The collection begins with wood and metal hand-crafted signs from the late 1800s to the 1940s. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

The next era in signs was the lightbulb era, during which signs were illuminated by incandescent lightbulbs, which the museum dates from 1900 to 1930. The Kelly Springfield Tires sign was crafted in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Neon lights were introduced in the 1920s and continued in use into the 1960s.

I thought this sign for a pentacostal church was particularly interesting, completed as it was in the art deco style.

Having grown up in the shoe business, I was interested to see all of the signs promoting shoes. (I actually sold Freeman shoes.) The yellow Freeman sign is an example of a sign that transitions from the neon era to the next era, the plastic sign. Plastic signs, lit with fluorescent lights, began to be introduced in the mid-1940s and predominated until the introduction of LEDs.

The collection includes two signs that took me back to my youth. Signs for the Howard Johnson’s restaurant used to dot the country’s highways. Today, there is only one such restaurant left, in Lake Placid, New York.

Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the Fair.

The museum also includes a McDonald’s sign, which as been restored to its original condition. Who remembers the “Speedee Service System,” and a 15 cent hamburger?

The McDonald’s sign was acquired from a franchisee in Huntsville, Alabama. The local community tried to raise funds to restore the sign and keep it in Huntsville, but the effort was unsuccessful.

Rohs Hardware was a store in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. When the building was repurposed, the museum acquired the sign and the entire front of the building which was constructed of porcelain.

Here’s a few, quite recognizable signs from the plastic era.

The museum continues to add to its collection. These items are recent acquisitions awaiting permanent display space.

There are several versions of Big Boy around the country. This is an early version of the Frische’s Big Boy, with red hair and a slingshot in his back pocket to symbolize his mischievous nature. Today, the hair is black, the slingshot is gone, and Big Boy has a more svelte physique.

Another sign that has disappeared from the roadside.

This sign was made for the owner of the Satellite Shopland in Anaheim, California, by a local metalworker who designed and built it in his garage.

The American Sign Museum is a great nostalgia trip for us Boomers and a fascinating look at the history of signs in the 20th century. It is well worth the visit if you are in the Cincinnati area.