The American Sign Museum is a Cincinnati treasure—a 20,000 square-foot gem, glowing with lightbulbs and neon. Be a tourist in our own town and take in the sights of 500 signs from the last century for a colorful mash-up of history, art and science.
Designed to celebrate the rich history of American signage through preservation and education, the museum hosts more than 50,000 visitors each year from around the globe and celebrated its tenth anniversary in its Camp Washington location in June. Founder Tod Swormstedt has been on a mission to tell the stories of signs and the sign industry since the museum’s beginning in 1999.
“We see signs every day, so we may take them for granted,” says Erin Holland, manager of digital communications and engagement at the American Sign Museum. “So much craftsmanship goes into signs. They connect deeply with our culture. It’s something you might not think about as you are driving through downtown, but once they start taking the signs down, you do.”
The path through the exhibits follows a timeline and evolution of signs in America, featuring the obscure to the familiar.
“Our signs come from all across the country,” Erin says. “We’ve got signs from Times Square; Kansas City; Anaheim, California; and Columbus, Ohio. We do our best to have a nationwide representation.”
The museum houses 100 years of wooden, lightbulb, neon and plastic signage from the US. The showrooms highlight the changing technologies that artisan signmakers used to craft the mascots, slogans and logos of businesses.
“Bulbs gave way to neon in the US in the 1930s,” Erin explains. “The cheerful orange neon was popular during the height of the depression. Eventually, businesses wanted something a little faster and cheaper, so plastic took over,” she continues, gesturing to an oversized Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
A historic Frisch’s Big Boy welcomes visitors at one aisle, while Speedy, an early McDonald’s mascot, blinks on another. Nostalgic businesses advertise their wares and services in all shapes, sizes and colors. Many of the signs on exhibit have been carefully restored, but each piece is approached with the goal of preserving its history. Some wooden signs are chipped; one of the signs sports a bullet hole. The signs tell a story and teach lessons about the culture that posted them.
Stroll down a recreated American avenue the museum calls “Main Street,” complete with storefronts of a bygone era. Across from the barber shop and next door to a pizza parlor stands the storefront of an actual Cincinnati business, Rohs Hardware.
“Rohs was a hardware store on Vine Street in OTR,” says Erin. “We were only expecting to get the neon letters, but Tod also acquired the storefront panels and front door. It is our most legitimate storefront.”
A wall of Cincinnati signs pays homage to other local businesses: Hudepohl, General Electric, Suders Art Store and more. The lineup of familiar names faces a rustic barn wall with a Mail Pouch Tobacco ad painted black and gold. The American Sign Museum hosts private parties and gatherings of all sizes between these two contrasting and iconic scenes. They are a vivid backdrop to receptions, live music, classes and corporate meetings.
This is your sign to head to the American Sign Museum for a tour you won’t soon forget.
American Sign Museum
1330 Monmouth Avenue, Cincinnati
Open Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday, 12-4 p.m.
Follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to learn about upcoming events.
Free - Members + Children 12 + Under
$15 - Adults
$10 - Youth/Seniors/Military/First Responders