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Signs are all around us. They let people know when to stop, they inform us if a shop is opened or closed and they advertise. Yes, signs help humanity out by informing us and pointing us in the right directions, but have you ever taken a moment to ponder who made the signs that you see every day? Or perhaps, what signs looked like a century ago, or how their styles have changed over time? There is a place that has the answers to all of these questions and more: the American Sign Museum. The 20,000 square foot American Sign Museum, located near downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, exhibits eye-catching signs spanning from the late 1800s to the late 1970s. Inside of America's largest public sign museum, guests can learn about the tools used to make signs throughout history, as well as about the technological, commercial, and cultural evolution of America.

  • Courtesy of the American Sign Museum
  • Outside of the American Sign Museum
  • A few of the signs from the American Sign Museum.
Picture from the American Sign Museum Facebook page
     Cincinnati's Signs of the Times magazine is owned by the Swormstedt family, and they have been covering the commercial sign industry since 1906. In 1999, Tod Swormstedt, an editor for his family's magazine, decided that writing about the history of America's signage wasn't enough. Tod wanted to preserve the crafted signs from multi-generational companies so that anyone could come and see the roadside relics for themselves.Tod began purchasing signs from antique dealers and he also accepted donations of different electric, plastic, wooden, and LED signs.
      In late 1999, Tod founded the National Signs of the Times Museum, named after his family's magazine that he had edited  for 26 years. The museum had so much support and new signs pouring into it that soon it outgrew its small building and had to be moved. In 2005, the museum was renamed the American Sign Museum and re-opened in a small artists' co-op near downtown Cincinnati. After several years and even more donations, Tod needed to find an even bigger and permanent home for his growing collection of historic signs.Finally, in the summer of 2012, Tod and many volunteers began moving his vast collection of signs, sign making tools, books, catalogs, and photos into a century-old factory in the historic Camp Washington neighborhood north of downtown Cincinnati. 
     In order to save historic items from becoming landfill, Tod has collected over 300 signs, 800 books and catalogs, and around 1200 photos and slides. Sign maker's tools can also be found in the museum. The signs displayed in the museum span from the late 1800s up to the 1970s, with the neon signs being especially eye-catching. Local artists from the area have painted storefronts along the museum walls so that guests can really experience the signs in their natural settings. Visitors may feel a sense of nostalgia as they walk by the blinking or whirling signs that they may have once passed while on  road trip with the family.
     There are guided walking tours at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M Wednesdays through Saturdays, and tours at 2 on Sundays. Tod frequently leads tours and covers 100 years of sign history, while explaining the stories behind the signs as well as the processes used to make them, all the while answering any questions. Weddings and meetings are frequently held in this museum as it has it's own caterers and photographers, and schools are welcome to plan field trips and will also be treated to special tours for children of any age. Visitors can also catch a neon sign-making demonstration during any weekday in the museum, and as they leave perhaps they can buy a mug or T-shirt from the gift shop. 

  • Marsh, Betsa. "Cincinnati Lights It Up; American Sign Museum Delivers Class-A Kitsch," The Toronto Star, 2012. 
  • Rosen, Steven. "News, Trips & Bargains; All Signs Point To Cincinnati; A Nonprofit Museum Keeps the Illuminated Relics From Fading Away: HOME EDITION," Los Angeles Times, 2005.
  • Cornwell, Lisa. "Cincinnati Museum Showcases Nostalgia, Signs of Times," Sunday Gazette - Mail, 2008.