Case Studies : American Sign Museum : Cincinnati : December 16, 2012

When we were designing our route for the Decorating the Duck trip we discovered that the American Sign Museum was….sort of on the way…. So we decided rather than flying to the conference in Montreal, we would drive a loop from New York. So we trekked out to Cincinnati where we were taken on a tour by founder, Tod Swormstedt. He jokingly calls it his mid-life crisis project. It’s certainly an extensive mid-life crisis! Tod worked on a trade magazine for the sign industry called Sign of the Times for 28 years. The magazine dates back to 1906 and his grandfather was the editor of the first issue. So signs run in the blood for Tod and his passion and commitment to the preservation and cataloging of these signs is astonishing.


Here is a visual tour of the museum. I have written Tod’s comments on the histories and interesting facts into the captions of the photos and below is a video of some of Tod’s nifty neon in action.


This is how Tod recounts the formation of the museum and a bit of basic sign history :


“In late 1998 I got the idea for a sign museum. There wasn’t really one in the country. There is kind of one in Las Vegas but that is only about Las Vegas Signs. In January 1999 I quit working on the magazine and started collecting signs. All the signs here I have collected since January 1999. We have about 4000 items. We have about 550 signs. You’ll see about 200 today. We have about 800 books and catalogues about signs, about 1200 pictures and also tools, equipment, artwork, sketches, salesmen’s samples.


Our restoration policy is that in in doubt don’t paint it. We don’t like to paint signs. We like to leave them the way they are. It is important for us to know the story behind it.


We collect signs from what we classify as the 4 different periods. The first signs use lightbulbs. Electricity became available in the United States in the late 1890’s. So that period I call the Pre Neon Lightbulb period. That’s about 1900 to the late 1920’s. Neon was introduced in the late 1920’s – so that is the Neon Period. Probably the heyday for me was the late 1920’s to the 1950’s maybe even the early 60’s. The third era I call the Plastic Era. Plastic really came of age after World War 2 – the late 40’s. Plastic was a new modern material and neon became passé. It has a bit of a tacky association with it. Plastic period is the late 40’s to the early 80’s. Finally there is what I call the Modern period, the early 80’s up to the present. A few things happened in the early 80’s: computerisation was introduced, in the fall of 82 a computer was introduced that could cut out vinyl letters. In the late 80’s you started to see inkjet printing on stretched PVC. There was less and less need for sign painting. And most recently the LED technology. We don’t really cover that period we start from the late 60’s and go backwards.


The first neon signs use clear glass only. They glow orange red. The first neon signs were either orange, red or blue. If they were pumped with argon they were blue, if they were pumped with neon they were that orange red colour. Second Phase of neon they introduced coloured glass tubing. They had four colours of glass, two colours of gas to create 8 colours. Third era of neon takes you up to the mid 30’s they started coating the insides of the tubes with phosphor powders. Most signs today are coated. The coloured glasses and the clear glass is always brighter. Neon was passé or tacky. Now it is trendy again. It has come full circle.



Fergi Animation

The 50’s in the US was probably the best decade in the last century in terms of prosperity with the post-war era. It was good times for the US. Signs often reflected the good times – you saw a lot of humour, a lot of cartoonish, playful graphics. Fergi is a good example of animated neon. The way you make animated neon is to do layers. If you look at the wheels you’ll see three neons stacked on top of each other and they are a little offset from each other, like a stack of pancakes on your plate. You’ll see that it lights up in a sequence 1,2,3 1,2,3 and your eye reads it as if the wheels are turning.


Satellite Animation

This is the sputnik sign. From California, built in the early 60’s. It was for a shopping centre built in Anaheim. This sign makes no sense out of context either but if you remember the Russians launched sputnik in 1957. That sparked this whole trend that I call the Jetson’s look. Some people call it the atomic age. It’s all about rocket ships and planets. This guy wanted to give the shopping centre a good name so he named it Satellite Shop Land and he wanted the sign to reinforce that name. So he drew a couple of sketches and gave it to some local sign makers to see what it would cost to build the sign and when they just looked at it and shook their heads. So he went ahead and built the sign himself in his garage with a friend. It’s almost an example of folk art. The spikes and the letters are all sheet metal. The globe is plastic. It was a very famous sign in Anaheim. It came down in 93 because Disney Land wanted to clean up the area so they started tearing down the 50’s motels close to the park and they made them take this sign down. You would think that the Disney people would think this was cool, right? The irony is that they tore down the shopping centre and they renamed it Satellite Centre and the main identity sign for the office part has a picture of this sign next to the words Satellite Centre.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to view the images full size.
American Sign Museum, Cincinnati.
American Sign Museum. Cincinnati.
Dutch Boy Donuts, 1948. They made the ‘O’s like Donuts. Kona Lanes Sign. We call this a tiki alphabet. Tiki style design thing was a consequence of WW2. The guys came back from the war in the pacific. They’d been to clubs over there and they brought the tiki look back to the States. Like most trends it started in California and spread east. It makes no sense to call a Bowling Alley ‘Kona Lanes’ in the context of today unless you know that this was from the Tiki era. You need to understand the signs in the context of the era they were built otherwise they don’t make sense.
Kona Lanes sign.
Dutch Boy Donuts, 1948. They made the ‘O’s like Donuts.
The Pentecostal Church sign is Art Deco from the early to mid 1930’s from Louisiana. The finish on it is really shiny – that is porcelain enamel - the same as your bathtub or stove. It’s basically powdered glass which they call frit – melted and infused in a ceramic kiln onto a metal background. That’s why it maintains its gloss because it is basically glass.
The Holiday Inn sign is what we call a chaser – made from chasing lightbulbs.
The Holiday Inn sign is what we call a chaser – made from chasing lightbulbs.
The Holiday Inn sign is a one of a kind piece. From Nashville, Tennessee. This was made for Holiday Inn to take to trade shows. We’ve had a lot of offers to buy it but we don’t sell signs.
Go Gulf Gas Station, late 1950’s.
Fergi sign from the mid 50’s advertising a carwash in Cincinnati.
The Golfer sign from Rochester, New York. It’s from an amusement park. The sign originally rotated. When we got it the other half of the golf ball was missing so we made it stationary.
Drugs sign from Cleveland Ohio. It’s ‘Modern’ design. Modern design is like Art Deco without the detail. I’d say late 30’s or late 40’s. Many of these signs were made during the war years. Between 1941 and 1945 all the metal went to the war effort. So it’s hard to place these signs because when they went back to work the designs looked much the same – so late 30’s signs look much like late 40’s signs.
Sputnik Sign, early 1960's. Rotating animated sign.
The Habig’s is a local sign is from1948. It was one of those restaurants that your grandparents went to every Sunday. They’d have a Martini or an Old Fashioned. It goes through 14 stages of animation. The glass fills up, spills over and pours out. Then it dissipates and starts over.
Big Boy is a hamburger chain. The Big Boy name is owned by the Elias brothers in Detroit. They sell franchises that have different names but carry the Big Boy logo.  This is an early version of the Big Boy. It has the three dimensional sling shot in the back pocket. Later on they simplified the mould and made the sling shot embossed into his pants. Now he doesn’t have a sling shot at all – it’s politically incorrect.
Big Boy is a hamburger chain. The Big Boy name is owned by the Elias brothers in Detroit. They sell franchises that have different names but carry the Big Boy logo.  This is an early version of the Big Boy. It has the three dimensional sling shot in the back pocket. Later on they simplified the mould and made the sling shot embossed into his pants. Now he doesn’t have a sling shot at all – it’s politically incorrect.
Sign to advertise signs.
Three little sign writers?
1910 modular sign. You buy a C, an A, an F and an E panel and it spells café.
Changeable Neon Sign.
Changeable Neon Sign.
A visual timeline of three dimensional letters. It shows how materials and practises have changed over time.
When most people think of Neon they think of exposed Neon, this is also Neon – this is a salesman’s sample from the 1930’s. They hid the tubes behind a frame and it has a softer look.
This is 50’s – the metal ‘n’ is hollow with neon tubing inside the letter so it has a soft glow behind the letter.
Classic neon letter from argon.
The letter here is from a theatre marquee from Seattle in 1910 in the Lightbulb period. This would have spelled the name of the current movie playing. It had to be changeable. What you can’t see is the cord coming out of the side of the letter – they would hang each letter on the marquee and then plug each individual letter into an outlet in the theatre marquee. This is 40’s from Chicago – it has brackets on the back – so there were 2 rails going across the marquee they would hang the letter on the marquee and plug it in.
When most people think of Neon they think of exposed Neon, this is also Neon – this is a salesman’s sample from the 1930’s. They hid the tubes behind a frame and it has a softer look.
When plastic hit after WW2, it knocked neon out of the box. Most plastic signs were illuminated with fluorescent lamps that were usually designed for a square or rectangle. But what happens when you have an irregular shape like a letter – you can’t go to the store and buy a fluorescent B tube. The biggest use of neon once plastic was introduced was lighting up irregular shapes of plastic letters. The neon was there it was just hidden. Up until the LED technology of about 7 or 8 years ago. Now neon is threatened again.
Hand painted sign.
The ultimate three-dimensional sign is the Trade Sign. These go back to the times when most people couldn’t read – they would do a symbol or an icon to represent the product sold by the business. For example the shoe.
Showcards are temporary cardboard signs. These are pretty fancy ones. Most showcards would say something like “Women’s dresses $3”. These are mostly for nightclub acts at Casinos in Las Vegas. Mostly they are handpainted. Sometimes the pictorial is cut out. Here’s the reason why – this sign was probably only up for 10 days a week before Dolly appeared at the Golden Nugget and then it was thrown away. The sign painter, Bob Harper, didn’t get paid a lot of money for this because it was very temporary so rather than take the time to paint the pictorial he cut it out and glued it on. These 2 are completely hand lettered. These had a longer life as they weren’t promoting a specific event. They had BBQ western style every night. It was probably up a year or 2.
This Blood’s paint sign is from 1936. It’s got the address stencilled on the crate. This is a production sign and was never used.
Hand painted sign.
This is gold leaf on glass. It has connotations of quality and long standing, good reputation. Particularly banks (back when we trusted banks), insurance companies, doctors, attorneys, high end department stores, etc. would use these. These are from a cigar store around 1910. Look at the ‘B’. It has a black shadow – we call that a drop shade. Then there is a shadow of the shadow in a dark shale grey called a split drop shade. It makes it look like those letters are floating on the panel. You see the textured look at the back of the sign, that is called blue chipped glass. It is actually chipped out. The way you blue chip is you put a mask or a contact paper on the back side of the glass, cut out the areas you want to blue chip and peel that away. So you basically create a stencil on the back side. Then you lightly sandblast those exposed areas to rough it up a bit. The trick part is take granules or chips of rabbit hide glue, soak that in water and cook it over the stove. The glue melts and forms this really thick hot glue. You pour that glue on the exposed areas of the glass and let that cool. When it cools it contracts and it is so strong that it pulls the glass with it. It actually breaks the glass out. Then you back it up with gold leaf. Blue chipping is still done today although there is not a lot of call for it because it is way too labour intensive.
On the Candy that looks like the letters are bevelled into the glass. Really it is all just flat, it has burnished gold leaf and matte gold leaf together which creates that effect fooling the eye to make you think it is bevelled glass.
Punch out sign.
Cole Batteries is a punch out sign. They punched tabs in the sign and bent the tab inwards and the light comes through the tabs in the signs. You can’t tell from seeing it back there. You need to be at a distance to read it. Pre neon there was light bulbs and smalt. There are two types of smalt, sand smalt and glass smalt. If you put a spotlight on the Cole Batteries sign you can see it is sparkling. That is glass smalt. It’s like granules of glass. When the paint is still wet they put that on there. Sand smalt doesn’t have the same sparkle. The reason they used smalt mainly for backgrounds is you create a textured background with smooth copy against it and it creates a little bit of contrast. It makes it a little bit more legible. The added advantage  of the glass smalt is that when the sun hit it, it would sparkle and attract your eye.
The Buick Valve and Head is another production sign. The bottom panel was left blank and a local sign painter painted in the Seaker Graves Motor Company and that last sign is the name of a little town in the Hudson Valley Area of New York. I mention it because the sign painter had a weird style –he left a little serif, or tail on the end of the letters. Most times when you see a serif it goes to both sides and it is symmetrical. He did this weird thing where it only went to the left.
This sign painter was a little less accomplished or folksy shall we say.  See how the C gets thin right there – that is bad lettering. Then when he gets down to the little copy he’s not very adept at little copy that is more difficult than big copy. Then he really blew the layout. He had to squeeze in the ‘s’. Then you get down to the specialty – the ‘a’ is falling over this way. Then there are the numbers – he’s really bad at numbers. This guy was not a very good sign painter.
Changeable Neon Sign.
Neon sign advertising Neon Signs.
Neon sign advertising Neon Signs.
They would have had to carve a wooden form mould to make this sign. It has about a 6 inch depth which is quite an accomplishment for vacuum forming in the 1960’s. When signs are up on poles people don’t realise how big they really are. This is a 12ft sign.
Porcelain enamel signs.
White Flash sign.