A vision of Americana: The American Sign Museum

You get the idea that you’re about to enter a magical realm when you pass the 20-foot genie near the entrance of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. You walk in and you’re transported to a splash of flashing color and nostalgia, of names you recall and others long since forgotten. You’re also greeted by the museum’s creator, Tod Swormstedt.

A fourth generation sign enthusiast, Swormstedt looks a little like one of the Smith wild cherry cough drop brothers. He’s an unassuming man, but his exterior hides his creative vision.

Sign makers are accomplished crafts people, he says, and signs are an art form.

AlkaSeltzer AT 4-16.jpg“There’s a fine line between commercial and fine art. Look at those gold leaf signs,” he points to the large Beneiser cigar signs. “Those are certainly fine art.”

Ironically, he explains, while commercial art is more limited by its requirement to convey a clear message, this sometimes raises it to a higher level.

He certainly knows all about signs. In 1974, he began working on the family trade publication, Signs of the Times, which dates from 1906. His great grandfather, H.C. Menefee, its first editor, purchased the publication in 1911, and it has been in the family ever since. Today, it’s the company’s flagship publication that includes four other publications dealing with visual communication and printing. Its international distribution includes more than 100 countries and 20,000 subscribers.

Cars-RotatingtheGlobe AT 4-16.jpgIn 1998, after becoming the publisher of all five of its publications, he needed a new challenge. He started to ponder: “What do I want to do when I don’t grow up?”

He got the idea for a sign museum. His friends thought it was a great idea, and he approached family members who agreed to provide him with $200,000 in seed money to get started. However, all he had was the money and an idea. He had no experience or knowledge about how to start a museum, and though a collector of sorts, he didn’t have a sign collection.

Cigars AT 4-16.jpgHe had a purpose, though, which is articulated on his Web site: to preserve, archive and display a historical collection of signs in their many types and forms; to document and survey the products and equipment utilized in their design and manufacture; and to offer biographical information of those who were and are part of the industry.

In pursuit of this purpose, he has since collected 300 of some of the most interesting signs and has altogether about 3,000 items in his catalog that also includes books, slides, and pictures. It illustrates nearly a century of sign history, beginning with the fancy gold leaf glass signs popular at the beginning of the 1900s, HolidayInn-BigBoy AT 4-16.jpgthrough the pre-neon era of light bulb signs in the 1920s, to the heyday of neon from the 1930s to the 1950s, and to the plastic era from the 1950s to the 1970s.

He doesn’t go on the road to acquire signs, he says, but he does go to the petroliana shows, which feature collectibles and antiques from the petroleum industry, and of which there are about 20 annually nationwide. Among those, he usually attends are shows in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa. He also goes to coin-op shows, of which there is a major one in St. Charles, Ill. And he brings along his 16-foot flat-bed trailer, which he pulls with his pickup truck. His signs are as tall as 24 feet, and one sign is 16 feet high and 50 feet across. It was a sign for Mail Pouch tobacco and came from the side of a barn in Lanesville, Ind.: “We took it down board by board,” he said.

FostersFreeze AT 4-16.jpgIt’s in storage now, among many others, which he plans to install in his new museum that will open within the next year in the historic Camp Washington section of Cincinnati. That one will dwarf his present complex being about four times larger at nearly 20,000 square feet and have a 28-foot high ceiling in its central section that will accommodate his genies – he has two, which came from the Aladdin Carpeteria carpet cleaning company in 1960s Los Angeles – and other 20-foot-high signs.
“Signs are really restricted now,” he says. “Most of these fun signs would not be allowed today.”

Swormstedt sees himself as a kind of sign rescuer. Generally old signs are scrapped, he says, but preserving them is important not merely to display them but to preserve the history of the sign industry and its contributions to commerce and the American landscape. During the urban redevelopment period of the 1960s and 1970s, they had a slogan, “Scrap Old Signs” or SOS, and numerous signs were destroyed forever. InsidetheMuseum AT 4-16.jpgToday he’s adopted the same SOS acronym for his slogan, “Save Old Signs.”

Among the many intriguing signs in Swormstedt’s collection are a rotating Sputnik that welcomed customers in the 1960s to Satellite Shopland in Anaheim, Calif.; a 24-foot Speedy McDonald sign, also still in storage, from the days when McDonald’s had carry-out service to your car; a globe, around which rotates neon lights in the form of cars, that looks like an amusement park ride; and a small, rather unassuming sign that was one of the first images of Colonel Sanders. In many ways the colorful surroundings, mainly electrified pre-neon and neon light, evoke a feeling of being in an amusement park. It also merits a word of caution for children, as signs are posted throughout the museum with warnings of do not touch because of the hazards of high voltage.   

“Signs are icons,” Swormstedt says, “symbols of American prosperity.”

They began with the first branding of products in the 1880s when companies wanted to establish a corporate identity and create a logo that would reinforce the integrity of their product. A good example of this was the Holiday Inn chain started by Kemmons Wilson in 1952. He wanted to offer consistent quality to travelers, so that they could expect a guaranteed level of comfort and service wherever they saw the Holiday Inn sign. Every one had a restaurant, he says, and you knew exactly what your room would be like.Sputnik-Anaheim AT 4-16.jpg

Signs like this one provide a road map through American pop culture and the American Sign Museum is aiming to preserve that heritage.

They are also symbols of the past. You can’t help being touched by the brands of old that you might remember from when you were a child. In fact, though the museum has a definite intellectual component, and Swormstedt, who personally provides the tour, is well-versed in their history, the draw of the museum is emotional. It’s what he calls, the “I remember” experience that conjures up good memories.

Swormstedt is available every day of the week to do tours, which last about 90 minutes. However, an appointment is necessary. The cost is $10 per adult and children under 12 are free. Special group rates are offered and it is handicap accessible. Parking is free with ample space for tour buses.

An extensive and informative Web site of the American Sign Museum is available that includes a preview of his collections, contemporary articles about signs, information on sign history, and biographies of artists who created signs. You can access it at http://www.signmuseum.org/home.php

The American Sign Museum is located in Cincinnati, Ohio, at 2515 Essex Place in the Essex Studios building. Call Swormstedt at 513-258-4020 or e-mail him at tod@signmuseum.org.

COMMENT