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.
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.
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.