“These signs conjure up good memories, of a time when the world was slower,” Swormstedt says. “There was more appreciation for craft. Businesses lasted longer than they do today, so signs lasted longer, too. This is a micro-history of American history, from electricity to plastics to LEDs.”
Swormstedt often leads tours himself, weaving together tales of design, technology and commerce.
While acknowledging Las Vegas’ Neon Museum and Boneyard, Swormstedt is convinced his is the only “public sign museum that covers the whole history of signs.” He began collecting in 1999, part of a family that was sign-obsessed. In 1906, his great-grandfather was the first editor of Signs of the Times magazine, and Tod and his brother Wade both worked on the publication. Wade is now editor, Tod is now a sign curator.
The museum is Tod’s mission, and he and his devotees raised $3.3 million to transform an old factory that turned out Fashion Frocks in the 1920s and ’30s and parachutes during World War II. Later, it was a tool-and-die company.
Swormstedt has purchased about half the overall collection and received the other half in donations. And while he might like to have a Mobile Oil Pegasus sign gallop onto his wall, he doesn’t have the $10,000 to $12,000 after paying for the major renovation.
Nor does he scavenge lustily around the country for signs to snatch. “I’d rather see the signs stay in their original locations and be maintained. If a sign has to be removed, I’d like it to go to a local museum or local park. They’re icons and should remain part of their city or town. Failing that, they can come here. So I guess we’re third on our own list for old signs.”
Realizing how much of his passion focuses on dying art forms, Swormstedt built a neon shop to specification for local craftsmen. Visitors can watch the artists bend glass tubes when the shop’s busy.
Much of the museum’s appeal is, of course, nostalgia, but Swormstedt senses a shift in the zeitgeist, too. “Kids are collecting vinyl record albums now, which are cool and hip, and neon is cool and hip, too. I think our timing is good.”
Certainly PBS’ Antiques Roadshow thinks so. The most popular show on public television stopped at the museum during its July filming in Cincinnati. Its experts appraised a combination neon-and-plastic motel sign from Kansas City at $5,000 to $7,000. A charming 1910s jewelry ring sign with flashing light bulbs, devised to simulate diamond facets, was valued at $8,000 to $12,000. The show will feature Cincinnati and the museum during its January-April 2013 season.
The values are great to know, but the signs aren’t leaving this nonprofit any time soon. Finally the signs of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have the new life they deserve, glinting and gleaming off the peeling brick of an old parachute factory.