I live near Tampa, Florida so when I think of neon signs, I know the strip clubs are near. And just like the Red Light District in Amsterdam, that glowing red speaks of the forbidden and sensual. Do I even need to mention Vegas?
Like a bug to the light or The Uncorked Librarian to breweries, I can never keep my curious eyes away from the windows and street corners. While these almost blinding rainbow lights have grown to represent a different side of history and culture—lets call it adult playtime—those brightly lit tubes own a prominent spot on the American history timeline. In the ultimate visual ode to antiquity, these signs demonstrate a progression of sign making, materials available, innovation, and advertising. PR relations back in the day appear pretty badass to me. Who knew that so much history existed in sign making?
The American Sign Museum
Tod Swormstedt opened the American Sign Museum in downtown Cincinnati with the intention to showcase his expensive yet ridiculously cool hobby. Incredibly fortunate, my husband and I just happened to walk in at the right time for one of two daily tours. Even better? While prodding around backrooms, we bumped into Tod himself. In a rarer role, Tod gave the tour. Man, did we luck out. If you are looking for a 1.5 to 2-hour activity in Cinci, Ohio, the American Sign Museum is the perfect stop. But first, a little more about Cincinnati, Ohio:
Our Journey To Ohio: Cincinnati
I may have walked around on that tour like a zombie. However, I truly believe when one has been up and traveling since 4 am, seek shiny objects and keep a steady buzz. I am not an early morning traveler anymore. Imagine the alarm blaring at 4 AM like a bad dream. If this blasphemy were a fire alarm, I’d surely perish. However, travel motivates, and I had a date with some goats on a pumpkin farm and my best friend in Ohio.
[bctt tweet=”I truly believe when one has been up and traveling since 4 am, seek shiny objects and keep a steady buzz. Be sure to visit the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. #traveltips #ohio #cincinnati” username=”theuncorkedlib”]
Like our usual traveling luck, though, parents’ weekend at the University of Dayton greeted us. With every hotel booked within a 30-mile radius of our Dayton destination—even the dumpy ones—you know that home base has moved across the state. Not a problem when Cincinnati is a neighboring city with availability.
Cincinnati is a lot like my home city of Hartford, Connecticut but slightly livelier. The city is a bit dirty and crime-ridden with pockets of culture, wealth, and BEER. There are signs of gentrification mixed with angst.
Once you begin exploring, colorful murals and refurbished brick buildings filled with ghosts of Christmas past greet the unsuspecting visitor. Not to mention the gazillon Big Boys and Skyline Chili restaurants throughout Ohio. Be sure to check out the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center too. Oh, and signs! Once you learn about signs, you see specialty ones everywhere.
Establishments on the outskirts have parking lots and the city offers metered street parking along with easily accessible parking garages. The American Sign Museum has its own lot. As a Floridian and former Masshole, though, I will say that those city drivers are CRAY CRAY. Although not congested or hard to drive around, lanes seem like suggestions and corners are an opportunity to go faster.
Things To Do In Cincinnati: The American Sign Museum
While waiting to meet up with friends, we had time to explore the city. In a toss up of the National Underground Railroad Center or the American Sign Museum, we decided on shiny lights. I had read that the Underground Railroad Center is a must if you are in the mood for reading placards. With eyes barely awake, this seemed like the wrong time.
Pulling up to the American Sign Museum, we found ourselves on a more industrial street near the downtown area. This area is known as Camp Washington, home to the former century-old Oesterlein Machine Company-Fashion Frocks, Inc. A debatable transaction happened a few roads over, but we instantly knew we arrived upon seeing old-fashioned mural advertisements and giant pig and bowling pin plastic creations. Plus, a giant spread-eagle cowboy enticed us in—you have to walk under his legs. The Holiday Inn sign is pretty iconic as well. Next door is the sign making shop, Neonworks, which you can spy on from inside the museum.
Admission for adults is $15.00 and children under 12 are free, which is reasonably priced if you are walking around and taking a tour. Take a tour, you must! We had 30 minutes to kill before the 2 PM slot, and we walked around snapping pictures and photo bombing IGers’ shots. Evil laugh. There are multiple rooms and signs that range in all sizes, colors, and shapes. However, you don’t quite know what you are looking at without the tour. If history is your jam and you want some entertaining party trivia to share with your friends, the tour will enlighten you. Plus, you can quietly duck in and out as you wish—the staff members are pretty laid back.
A Bit Of The American Sign Museum’s History
With over 100 years of acquired signs, the American Sign Museum carefully restores and curates signs from American history. Representing fine American culture and craftsmanship, the museum opened its doors in 2005. Previously, a smaller version existed dating back to 1999. Tod Swormstedt, the founder, spent 26 years on the staff of Signs of the Times magazine, and he also told us that he went to school near our home in St. Pete, Florida.
The museum is constantly growing and there are hidden rooms and sections yet to open. The building itself cost millions to buy and renovate. Although the museum is technically a non-profit, the facility makes the majority of its income as a venue for weddings and events. Hands down, I’d get married here.
Also note that on weekdays, tours often include a peek inside the NeonWorks sign shop. While we did not take a tour of the shop, we watched one of the sign makers blow glass from the windows. I am pretty sure that if we wanted to duck in, we had an invitation to carefully do so.
Three Iconic and Fun Treasures At The American Sign Museum
1. The Timeline of Signs
The timeline of signs is one of the many reasons you should take the tour. We entered to scattered letters, snapped a picture, and walked right by. We can be oblivious sometimes. The timeline shows late 19th century to around the 1970’s signs. There are 4 defined sections, ranging from neon lights to enamel letters. You can also see the original light bulb signs and my favorite: the traveling letters for businesses to market letter types. Imagine a little suitcase box with a letter and handle. Right above the timeline are the original Burma Shave ads, or so we all hope. Of course, there is a Sunoco and Burger King sign hiding out around the wall. Tod, being a brilliant and passionate sign connoisseur, spent the most time here discussing American history—which I loved.
2. Frisch’s Big Boy
In CT and FL, we do not have Big Boys. Also note that I’m 200% positive that this name can be offensive so don’t shoot me. I didn’t name the chain. Eat too many hamburgers, and I guess…well, you get the point. What is iconic about the American Sign Museum’s Big Boy is that he’s an earlier version still donning a real slingshot, stripped pants, and fiery reddish, orange hair. Unlike the name, the slingshot posed a problem—go figure—and later became a symbol sewed into his now checkered pants. Can we follow this ‘dangerous’ model with our current gun debate? I mean, slingshot vs gun. Hmmmm…
Get ready for my favorite hilarious stereotype too: Big Boys today have brown hair because gingers had a bad rep for mischievous behavior. Honestly, I just think Chucky, but my Ohio bestie has the cutest red haired child alive. He’s a saint.
3. 1963 McDonald’s Sign
Straight out of Huntsville, Alabama, the McDonald’s sign showcases Speedee instead of that creepy ass clown Ronald McDonald that came out in the 1960’s. I’ll take Speedee any day. This sign is massive and part of the reason why the museum needed such a big space with higher ceilings. Talk about the epitome of American culture and fast food history. You couldn’t miss this sign from miles away.
Are You Ready To Visit The American Sign Museum?
We left this tour getting so much more out of the experience than we expected, and you will find a scavenger hunt of signs throughout Cincinnati and Dayton, including classic gold leaf lettering. Whereas I once never paid attention to sign details, I cannot help but look at each one as a part of history. As you know from my last post, I always dreamed of living in the early 1900’s and this museum brought new perspective and insight into that time period.
I highly recommend visiting the museum and taking a tour. If nothing else, you will have fun reading signs that say “The can-can goes cuchi-cuchi” and get some great photo oops.
The American Sign Museum Info:
Always make sure to check their website for changes and complete info here.
Note: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions and experiences are my own, and you may enjoy the museum and Cinci more or less than I did.
Wed – Sat: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Sunday: 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Monday – Tuesday – Closed
Closed Holidays – The Day Before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years Day
$10 Seniors (65+), Students, Military
Three Children 12 and under are Free with each paying Adult
Guided Tour Schedule:
Wednesday – Saturday | 11:00 am and 2:00 pm
Sunday | 2:00 pm
No reservations required.