If you think about all the technological innovations in the past 150 years, probably one of the most prevalent and generally unnoticed is the sign. Signs are incredible little devices: they have to hit people immediately, grab their attention for less than a second, and leave the person with a feeling that makes them associate with whatever the sign is indicating. Take the simple stop sign as an example: you instantly recognize one on more than a few levels: its shape, its colour, the word itself, and in that recognition, you bring your vehicle to a stop (or, if we’re being honest, a rolling stop) really before you’re conscious that you read the sign. In many ways, the world of sign making is all about being highly visible and almost invisible, and there’s a place in America that you can visit where they explore all that’s great about the wonderful world of signage.
The American Sign Museum first opened its doors in 1999. A self-proclaimed mid-life crisis, the museum was more a display of founder Tod Swormstedt’s collection of signs in a place that wasn’t his house. As a former editor and publisher of Signs of Our Times magazine, he knew a lot about the wide and ever-evolving world of signage, and decided to share it with the world. After about 6 years, the museum relocated, and then in 2012, it moved to its permanent location in the Camp Washington area of Cincinnati. The permanent location boats 19,000 square feet of space with 28 ft. ceilings to house some of the biggest signs in the collection. And with another 20,000 sq. ft. left to develop, The American Sign Museum is only getting bigger and more impressive.
There’s plenty to do at the museum besides just walking around and looking at signs (which, by the way, is fascinating in and of itself). The museum is surprisingly affordable, and every ticket of admission comes with a free guided tour of the facility, letting you and your family wander through the halls with someone who can tell you all about the history, technology, and psychology of sign making. IN a lot of ways, it’s more than just learning about how we use signs, it’s a lot about how America developed as a nation.
And when you’re done the tour, you can poke around and take in whatever you might have missed, but you can also see sign making in action. Not only is the facility a museum, it’s also a fully working neon sign shop, so you can witness first hand how neon signs are made. It’s all quite fascinating, combining an art gallery of sorts with real working artists.
The great thing about The American Sign Museum is not just its impressive collection, but how that collection charts the changes in culture, technology, aesthetics, and more in American culture. From early painted signs to elaborate neon displays (some of which can be made in the museum itself), this museum is not only a walk through an often ignored part of American life, but also a walk through America’s most recent developments as a nation.