Discovering Signs of Our Times at the Sign Museum in Cincinnati
By Barbara Rizza Mellin
Located on the west side of Cincinnati in an old warehouse, you’ll find a treasure trove of nostalgia.
The American Sign Museum is the nation’s 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 you 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 service 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, New York, 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, New York, 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 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, Alabama, dating from 1963 that actually cost $30,000 to remove, transport, restore and install in the museum. It is referred to as 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.
The Sign Museum should definitely be a stop on your next road trip!
Barbara Rizza Mellin is a local artist and writer who says she has a new appreciation for signs! She is thrilled and honored to receive the Arts Council’s ArtPop Award that will features her artwork on a billboard (14′ by 48′) for one year. You can view it on Highway 52 N. between exits 13 and 14.
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