One of Cincinnati’s newest attractions, The American Sign Museum, attracts people from around the country with its historical anecdotes and bright neon signs of yesteryear. Located at 1330 Monmouth Street, in the Camp Washington neighborhood, it’s the only sign museum in the US. In fact, visitors outside of Cincinnati make up much of the attendance. “It’s not uncommon,” says founder Tod Swormstedt, for “relatives or friends to come in, and want to visit, so then a local person finds out about us.”
Patrons are welcome to wander the museum and enjoy the color, lights, and art on their own, but they’ll gain a richer understanding of the history and craft of signs by taking a guided tour. Swormstedt, a former second-generation editor of the trade magazine, Signs of the Times, begins with the basics. He starts with the museum’s origins, and continues with the evolution of letters from hand-carved wood letters, through glass, metal, and plastic letters. “I want to ground people with an understanding of how letters are made, and from there to how signs are made.”
A look at painted signs, including spinning Burma Shave signs, and show cards advertising early talkies, leads to glass and gold leaf artistry. The intricate works show that “There’s a fine line between fine art and commercial art.” And, in addition to their artistic value, the signs have historic value. “I see the museum as a history of America, as seen through the history of signs.” Swormstedt underscores his point with a framed gold-leafed sign inscribed with the pledge of allegiance. It’s missing the words “under God,” which were added, Swormstedt says, “by Communist-wary Americans as a sort of loyalty test.” Nearby, a life-sized sign for the D.A. shines with red, white, and blue bulbs, illuminating onlookers about a national organization with roots in Cincinnati. It aimed to help German immigrants find schools, work and housing, and still exists today to promote patriotism.
A few feet away, the iconic Big Boy promotes Frisch’s. Although versions of Big Boy still decorate Frisch’s restaurants, the figure has changed. Most notably, he no longer sports a three dimensional slingshot in his back pocket. In the era of zero-tolerance for weapons, the playful toy has disappeared. “We like this guy better,” Swormstedt says, patting the arm of the sling-shot toting icon. “He’s much more fun.”
Big Boy stands at the entrance of the electric signs. Here, light bulbs glow, neon flashes, and the signs are alive with movement and color. This section of sensory overload leads to the grand finale—a charming streetscape. “We designed the storefronts around the signs that we had.” All windows were hand-painted to compliment the signs, and the windows serve as themed display cases. “Instead of trees and fountains, we showcase our big signs.” Visitors can relax at tables and chairs and watch the animated signs, including one from a drug store, Howard Johnson’s, and McDonald’s, dating to when the fast food empire still sold burgers for 15 cents. There’s also a globe with spinning automobiles from a company that used to paint cars. “We restored it, and got it working again, but we didn’t repair the bullet holes.”
Just around the corner from the streetscape is the museum’s Cincinnati section, featuring signs from Hudepohl Beer, Habig’s Restaurant, and the Pops Orchestra. “People come through here,” says Swormstedt, “and they’ll see a sign, and they’ll say, ‘I remember that.’” People tell stories, and reminisce. The American Sign Museum evokes warm memories and nostalgia, a perfect place for every family.
Barbara Littner David is a local writer and mother of five. She is also the author of Cincinnati Trips for Kids, a collection of more than 40 great Cincinnat-area attractions.