Quick Trips

Cincinnati museum draws on the nostalgia of signs

“Advertising,” mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.”

Well, then, I’ve been to advertising’s Vatican and worshiped at the altar like a zealot.

The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati traces Yankee commercialism from the country’s first hand-lettered brands and gilt-edged placards through the garish glare of neon-backed Jetsonian plastics.

It’s a 60-year sweep that took Americans from doe-eyed innocents spotting their first trade signs — a giant shoe, a huge hat — to Mad Men sophisticates who knew all about satellites and Saran Wrap.

It took a lot more to catch our eye with each succeeding decade, so the dainty painted signs of a century ago soon crumbled in the onslaught of the light bulb. Then that was not enough, and we ogled the marvel of neon gas.

Finally, in a moment right out of The Graduate — “Plastics!” — we could have it all: glowing, flashing, whirling enticements that filled the horizon to infinity.

The American Sign Museum has been fascinating since collector Tod Swormstedt opened it in 2005 in a scruffy artists’ co-op near downtown Cincinnati. But it always felt claustrophobic, as Swormstedt found more signs. He also picked up the phone every day to hear about a roadside relic that needed a new home — fast. If he didn’t take it, another little bit of Americana would deconstruct into landfill.

This summer, Swormstedt and his volunteers moved into a century-old factory in the working-class Camp Washington neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati, and have nearly four times the space. They’re busy filling the Machine Flats building to its 28-foot rafters with signs, posters, photos, catalogs, salesmen’s samples and signage tools that were previously in storage.

Now the artifacts can breathe within these old brick walls, and visitors can wander along a signage time line from early lettering through a Sputnik satellite inspiration for a California shopping center.

The museum’s centerpiece is blinking, flashing Main Street, whose storefronts were hand-painted by some of the best in the business. Sign artists from the United States and Canada descended upon the old factory this summer to paint rows of American shop fronts, from a 1910s jewelry shop to a ’40s TV and radio store and a Marshall Field, ready for the original 1950s department store signage from State Street, Chicago.

Each storefront was carefully matched to its sign, and in the middle of the commercial district, a giant McDonald’s sign lures the hungry and a tracer-light Holiday Inn sign beckons weary travelers.

For travelers of a certain age, much of the museum feels like a Griswoldesque family road trip. There’s Howard Johnson! Can we get an ice cream cone? There’s Big Boy! Can we get a hamburger? There’s Holiday Inn! Can we get a room and go swimming?

After highway beautification, our roads look less cluttered now, but the American Sign Museum lets us realize how much blinking, whirling, flashing and twirling excitement we’ve lost along the way.

There’s “Dolly Madison Ice Cream” in neon vying with a luminescent Colonel Sanders. Big Boy once tried to out-glow “McDonald’s 15¢.”

“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.