Located on the the west side of
Cincinnati in an old warehouse, you'll find a treasure trove of nostalgia. The
American Sign Museum is the nations’ largest collection of advertising signs,
encompassing 50 years of sign, design and American history. The AFAR Travel
site places the museum as number six on its list of 18 most unusual museums of
the world! A giant figure holding a Welcome
sign greets as you enter.
These signs not only
take us through the history of commerce and advertising, but also reveal
examples of changing graphic design styles and advances in technology. Some the
earliest examples of hand-carved wooden and gilded letters appeared in the 1890s.
There are also examples of slump-molded
opal glass letters
used on movie marquees.
Trade signs are three
dimensional visual images of the product or services and often hung by shop
doorways to identify what was within. Between 1910 and 1929 lightbulbs added illumination
and apparent motion. A large three-dimensional cast metal boot, originally
located in Brooklyn, NY, is a perfect example, with a row of flashing lightbulbs
outlining its perimeter. The lights are sequenced, so that they appear to
travel along the border.
By the 1930s, neon
was in full swing. Glass tubes filled with neon gas could be shaped into
letters or figures with colorful illumination and motion as the light seems to
move from one glass tube to another. The Pure Gasoline sign, manufactured in
Buffalo, NY captures the Art Deco aesthetic of the era. A late 1940’s porcelain
enamel sign for Crosley featured a crackle tube that simulated lightening, the
company’s logo. Broken glass was placed in the tubes to interrupt the
electrical current. From the late 1940s to the mid 1950s “changeable neon” was
used. Brass caps on the end of each tube made the electrical connection to
illuminate the individual letters.
By the mid 50s, and
for several decades later, plastic was the main material as shapes were molded
and lit from behind. The Shell sign on exhibit is one of the first vacuum-formed
plastic signs and is illuminated from behind with incandescent bulbs.
This museum is set up
to showcase the signs as if they were on a main street or in a store window
giving them some context. Yet taken together they are a carnival of lights, sights,
colors, shapes and motion. There's a huge Big Boy carrying his hamburger, a classic
Route 66 sign, a Holiday Inn with what appears to be a moving arrow, and the
Pie Man and Simple Simon on a vintage Howard Johnson’s sign. There’s a giant,
single arch McDonald's sign from Huntsville, AL, dating from 1963, that actually
cost $30,000 to remove, transport, restore and install in the museum. It is
referred to a the “Speedee” sign, coining the idea of “fast food” long before
that term took hold. Other fun signs include a revolving “sputnik-type”
satellite, cars rotating around Saturn’s ring, a huge barn side advertising
Mail Pouch tobacco, a series of Burma Shave signs (hung from the ceiling), and
mural sign of a sign painter.