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A blog dedicated to custom commercial signage, vehicle wraps and graphics, and business signs of all kinds!

American Sign Museum Keeps the History of Business Signs Alive

Posted on January 03, 2014 | Posted by Brooke Randell

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs. At least there are at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati Ohio. There you can find every kind of sign your heart desires, be it the classic neons of Americana gone by, channel letters, custom wood signs, the gaudy flashing bulbs commonly used before neon. You name it, they have it. 

But who is "they," anyway? The American Sign Museum actually began as the National Signs of the Times Museum in 1999 as a pet project of former Signs of the Times (a magazine devoted to the sign industry) publisher, Tod Swormstedt. Swormstedt called it his mid-life crisis project and personally gave tours to anyone who visited museum. In 2005 the museum was renamed The American Sign Museum and expanded to welcome in more visitors.

Collection of some of the signs displayed at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati

Thank you, Instagram, for providing us with so many cool pictures! We see a sputnik-era rotating sign, a variety of neon and channel letters, a giant genie, and an electric sign featuring bulb lights. Apparently the genie used to stand outside of a carpet emporium and held up a giant rolled carpet instead of a welcome sign.

There still wasn't enough room to display some of the larger treasures Swormstedt had in his collection, though, and he was renting the space that the museum was located in so he began to look for a more permanent location. In summer of 2012 the American Sign Museum moved to a HUGE building with over 19,000 square feet of exhibit space and more than 20,000 feet of space still being developed. The ceilings are 28 feet high so the giant signs that Swormstedt used to keep in storage are now in full display. There's also a working neon shop called Neonworks within the museum, which is pretty darn cool. Visitors to the museum can take a tour of the shop and see demonstrations of how neon signs are made when the guys are there during the week. You're less likely to catch the signmakers on the weekend but the museum would always be worth a guided tour even if you couldn't catch the live action. Swormstedt's vast knowledge and passion for signs completely enriches the museum experience.

A collection of signs from the American Sign Museum. Check out Colonel Sanders!

I don't know about you, but that fiberglass Big Boy kind of creeps me out. I do love the sleeping sombrero-clad figure on the Mexican restaurant sign and the classic Colonel Sanders cabinet sign, though! Interesting fact about the sputnik sign: the sign was made by a stripmall owner because when he approached sign companies with the idea for it, they thought he was crazy. FYI, 12-Point SignWorks thinks no ideas are too crazy to try!

One of the most awe-inspiring parts of the museum is the "signs of main street" display. Starting from the late 1960s and working backwards, there are replicas of storefronts and the time-appropriate signs that would be used on them. For many visitors this is more a walk down memory lane than main street. Even younger visitors who have never actually experienced the times being exhibited are sure to feel the same nostalgia for times gone by and signs that have become obsolete.

Examples of signs displayed at the American Sign Museum

What would a sign museum be without a classic McDonald's sign winking at you? It would be missing something, that's for sure!

The museum itself is a cornucopia of signage history. Although it may be what first catches the eye of visitors, the museum isn't all neon. It chronologically showcases the material history of signs including everything from handmade wood and gold-leaf signs, metal and plastic signs, and of course the electric wonders of 20th Century America and onward. And, like any museum worth its salt, The American Sign museum has archived documents, photos, and books about the history of signs and the craft of signmaking. As one visitor said on Yelp!, "this ain't no garage filled with beer signs," this is the real deal: a carefully curated and organized museum for the history of signs.

Signs at the American Sign Museum in Ohio

It's interesting to see what most historic signage is advertising: there are a lot of restaurants, motels, pharmacies, and shops. What would you say is advertised most today?

Because it's such a cool space, the museum can be rented out for events. There have even been a few wedding receptions there (I hope that there's a Vegas wedding chapel sign they used for it)! All in all, we think this is a great resource for sign-nerds like us or anyone interested in American history. What kind of sign do you feel best represents American history? How would you make your business sign iconic enough to one day be put in a museum? Click the button below to contact us or leave a comment below!


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