It wasn’t until I visited the American Sign Museum that I realized how little attention I actually pay to signs. I was fortunate to travel there with a group of designers, whose artistic eye helped me appreciate the subtleties of the blaring neon signs that rarely seem to catch my eye. How crazy is that?
The museum is a labor-of-love for its founder, Tod Swormstedt, who worked in the sign business for 27 years, first at a trade magazine called Signs of the Times and then Identity. His passion for signs made it fascinating for all of us. He created the musum as a nonprofit, and shared the story behind the huge expense that came in gaining some of the signs ($2,500+). But now that he’s gaining more recognition for preserving a part of American history, people are starting to call him now when they have a sign they want to sell, or they hear of a business going under.
He had big neon signs from Holiday Inn, Dutch Boy Donuts, Fergi Car Wash, Frisch’s, Rexall, McDonald’s, a really neat art deco Pentecostal church sign, and many, many others from all over the country. Swormstedt’s zeal actually forced him to move his museum from its original home in the Avondale section of Cincinnati to a larger 20,000 sq. ft. location in Camp Washington, where he could erect big signs like a 21’ sign of Howard Johnsons, which seemed to base its brand theme on “Simple Simon Met A Pieman, Going To The Fair.” It had a pie man holding a pie, and sign pointing to the fair. I would have never noticed.
Tod’s is the only museum of its kind. The neon signs are spectacular, of course, but the history of signs and all the different materials and styles they were made from is just as intriguing. The museum is set up chronologically, so we could see the different lettering used through the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Also the different techniques. There were wooden letters, then a lightbulb illuminating letters technique. Those were followed by more recent hollowed letters lit with neon, neon letters used as shadowbox, and the exposed neon letters that we’re probably most familiar with.
We got to see how neon tubes are layered to create the effect of movement. One circle lights up and is overlapped by another layer, and then another, almost like a pancake. Each layer lights in succession, creating a sense of movement. Same with the running lights on arrows, such as the Holiday Inn lights.
We also saw porcelain lettering, and mold glass lettering. It seemed insignificant to me until Tod pointed up at the sign above us and we could see that the sign had the places for the letters cut out and then the embossed glass molds were fitted in, to make the letters stand out on the sign. I would have never given it a second glance if he hadn’t explained that.
We saw signs that used glass buttons, or that had little reflectors pushed in that captured the light from the lightbulb behind it. And we saw a huge spherical globe sign with neon cars revolving around it. It came from an auto-painting place in Compton, CA and is the only sign that Tod has really restored and repainted. But he didn’t re-touch everything; he left the bullet hole in it. The bullet went in one side and out the other.
It was hard to come out of the museum and not run to the nearest antique dealer or flea market and find some hidden treasures to bring back to Tod. Barring that, I wanted to wander around old Ohio towns like Coshocton, Troy, or Portsmouth and take a closer look at the signs that mark those beautiful historic buildings. Maybe another day. For now, I’ve started taking notice of signs and have been dismayed to see less and less neon artistry. But I’ll keep looking — for Tod. Surely our paths will cross again. I keep looking for a sign.
What about you? Do you notice the signs around you? Know of any that Tod might like?