Cincinnati has some very unique museums and the American Sign Museum is one of them. I’ll admit that this one is a little more near and dear to my heart than most museums. My father is a retired sign painter and I grew up around signs. The first time I visited the sign museum was with my father and our tour was geared toward sign professionals. On my most recent visit, I went with my book co-author and our kids (plus or minus a few). The American Sign Museum recently celebrated its grand re-opening in a new location, in the Camp Washington neighborhood of Cincinnati.
As you arrive at sign museum, the first sign you are likely to spot is not the museum sign itself. Approaching the museum, we spotted an old-fashioned Holiday Inn Sign, a giant pig, and a giant hammer, among others.
In case any confirmation was necessary that we were in the correct place, we did find the museum sign.
Now, how often do you receive a giant welcome greeting like this one when you enter a museum?
We received a tour by Tod Swormstedt, the founder of the museum. Tod’s family also owns the trade journal, Signs of the Times, which I remember my father reading when I was a kid. Our tour started with a brief history of the types of letters used in signs, starting with wooden letters. We learned that around 1900, the first electric signs appeared and used light bulbs. Materials evolved from wood to metal and glass. Neon became popular in the late 1920’s and plastic came on the scene after World War II.
Tod shared lots of interesting facts with us. For example, we learned that the Big Boy from Frisch’s Big Boy originally started out with striped pants (he has checkered pants now) and had a slingshot in his back pocket. Vandals kept breaking the slingshot, so they changed it to an embossed design instead of a slingshot that stood out from the pocket. Eventually, they got rid of the slingshot altogether. Incidentally, we had breakfast at Frisch’s the other day and I verified that the Big Boy did in fact have checkered pants with no slingshot.
We also learned what a trade sign is. A trade sign is one that needs no writing at all because the shape of the sign tells potential customers exactly what kind of establishment it is. Can you guess the types of stores that these signs were for?
The Sign Museum had examples of signs from all of the eras. Their collection is comprised of signs from 1890 to 1972. About half of their collection was donated and the other half purchased. Tod says you could almost learn a history of America from the signs in the museum. We saw beautiful historic signs made with gold leaf and glass.
I just love these light bulb signs from the pre-neon era.
Now, put on some sunglasses, because here comes the neon!
Kids just love the colorful neon signs. There’s also plenty of history and pop culture to absorb in the museum. Check out this satellite-shaped sign, perhaps inspired by Sputnik, that guided customers to a shopping center in California.
One of the highlights of a visit to the American Sign Museum is the Main Street exhibit that simulates a street in the center of a small town. Storefronts were recreated with amazing attention to detail and additional signs are displayed in the windows. Each section represents a different era. The effect is stunning.
We loved the antique gas pumps.
The museum contains a large room that can be reserved for special events. It is adorned with a Mail Pouch sign that was painted on the side of a barn.
Another new feature that came with the museum relocation is the addition of a sign shop on the premises. Neonworks of Cincinnati is located in the building and museum visitors can watch them work (usually just on weekdays). The kids were fascinated as they watched the skilled craftsmen heat and bend glass.
Here’s a close-up where you can see the flames.
Once the glass is hot enough, they bend it to the correct angle. The glass tube tends to flatten at the bend, like a garden hose, so they put a cork in one end and blow in the other end to expand it again. That was very interesting to watch! We also watched them paint parts of the tube black (between the letters) and then fill them with neon or argon gas.
The kids really loved watching the guys at Neonworks, who were really terrific about showing us around. It was like a 2-for-1 deal: both a museum and a factory tour rolled into one!
I think this would be a fun museum for grandparents to take their grandchildren to. I can see many of the signs sparking conversations about how things were different when the grandparents were growing up. You are able to do a self-guided tour through the museum or visit during one of the regularly scheduled tours which you can reserve on their website. Tod and the museum curators are able to put a different spin on their presentation based on the interests of the audience. Even if you’ve been to the museum in its old location, you’ll want to visit again to see the Main Street exhibit and Neonworks observation window. After our visit, my son’s best friend said he’d never look at a sign in the same way again.
Ready to visit?
Address: 1330 Monmouth St., Cincinnati, OH 45225
Phone: (513) 541-6366
Hours: Wed. – Sat.: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Sun.: Noon – 4 p.m., tour at 2 p.m.
Cost: $15; children under 12 are free