All Signs Point to Cincinnati

American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. Photo: Michael Milne

CINCINNATI - It's hard to imagine a classic American road trip that doesn't pass through dusty, forgotten towns with vintage neon signs advertising motels and roadside diners, still trying to lure motorists. Many of those signs are disappearing, victims of age, weather, and neglect.

There's a glimmer of hope, though, for their rescue and preservation.

For a guy who has spent his life around signs, Tod Swormstedt sure has a difficult name to fit on one. He's the founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, a celebration of the art of signage, from painted wooden panels to wildly lighted neon extravaganzas.

While working as editor and publisher of the aptly named Signs of the Times trade magazine, founded in 1906 by his great-grandfather, Swormstedt came to the realization that "there wasn't a sign museum anywhere." So, in 1999, he turned his attention from the magazine to the acquisition of signs and, in 2005, opened the museum. By 2012, his trove had grown so large that he moved it into a 40,000-square-foot former parachute factory in the city's Camp Washington section. (Look for the vintage Holiday Inn sign pointing to the museum.)

His 28 years of experience in the industry have helped Swormstedt acquire an impressive stockpile of 4,500 signs and related objets, from photos to tools. In the museum's early years, he traveled extensively seeking vintage pieces. But as word of his mission has spread, sign owners have been seeking him out. Often, they're closing down longtime family businesses and want their legacy preserved for the public, not sold to private collectors. About half the time, he gets the signs for free.

The museum's collection starts in the 1800s with early trade signs depicting, for instance, a wrench or a boot or a hammer, so prospective customers would know what was being sold inside.

A display called the "Art of the Show Card" features lavishly detailed painted signs from movie theaters and concert halls, advertising silver-screen stars including the likes of Jean Harlow and Basil Rathbone.

No sign shrine would be complete without Burma Shave. From the 1920s to the '60s, those sets of typically six placards, placed in sequence by roadsides, dispensed folksy humor while promoting brushless shaving cream. But Swormstedt's particular panels have more history than most, having been found in the house of Clinton Odell, founder of the Burma-Vita Co. They were prototypes that the thrifty owner repurposed in his attic as floorboards, only to be serendipitously discovered years later when a sign painter bought the home.

The museum really shines in its electric-sign collection, which represents the lightbulb era (1900-1920s); neon era (mid-'20s to late '60s); and backlit-plastic era (starting in the late '40s). The signs most popular with visitors are the evocative neons with more than 50 colors of the spectrum. The technology to bend light was brought to the United States in the 1920s when a Los Angeles car dealer bought two signs from French inventor Georges Claude to advertise his Packard dealership. Since then, the country hasn't looked the same.

Neon signage hit its stride in the 1950s as postwar America took to the open road, driven by cheap fuel and a booming economy. Among the beneficiaries of this newfound wanderlust were the makers of signs for the motels and fast-food joints that soon dotted the landscape. Swormstedt has several examples on display, including a circa 1963 porcelain McDonald's Golden Arch from Huntsville, Ala., (when a burger was 15 cents), and a 1950s Howard Johnson's sign from Utica, N.Y., flashing the iconic image of Simple Simon meeting the Pieman.

Not all signage is two-dimensional. Behold the rotating Earl Scheib sign (remember the "I'll paint any car for $89.95" ads?) consisting of the neon outlines of cars spinning around a rotating globe. It was recovered from a building in Los Angeles; a bullet hole bears silent testimony to the perils faced by outdoor signage.

A figure of Frisch's Big Boy in his familiar red-and-white-striped overalls dates from the 1960s. A clue that he's not from a more-recent era is the slingshot in his back pocket, which was deemed to be violent and removed from later models.

While many signs are displayed out of their original context, either suspended from the ceiling or affixed to walls, the beauty of the museum is the re-creation of some of the storefronts and buildings where the signs actually hung. In one instance, Swormstedt reassembled the entire 1940s front of Rohs Hardware, a business that had been a staple of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. When it closed in 2011 to be reborn as a wine bar, the new owners were going to scrap the storefront. Swormstedt decided to rescue it and re-create the store at the museum.

He and his crew documented the building photographically, then framed-out the front and clad it with its original porcelain panels. After restoring the neon on the ROHS sign, they installed the actual front door, with bent handrail and weathered paint.

Not everything lights up at the American Sign Museum. Swormstedt heard about a barn in Lanesville, Ind., that was about to be torn down. It was adorned with a 50-foot-long advertisement for Mail Pouch Tobacco. During the last century, it was hard to drive along country roads in the South or Midwest without passing a barn promoting the chewing tobacco. But this one was the work of noted sign artist Harley E. Warrick.

Swormstedt disassembled the barn and installed the decorated wall at the museum, a rare case of advertising lasting long enough to be considered a historic landmark. While the sign was free, the cost of expertly removing it and transplanting it to its new home ran several thousands of dollars.

Off to one corner of the museum, the last full-time neon shop in town, Neonworks of Cincinnati, still creates modern masterpieces using this century-old invention. There's usually someone on-site crafting another piece of art to decorate a lucky building.

If all this nostalgia has you hankering for some old-fashioned American road-trip food, you're in luck. The Queen City is the birthplace of an iconic regional favorite: Cincinnati chili. It's a Greek take on the popular dish that is, depending on the purveyor, redolent of a spice blend that includes cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, and chocolate. It then is served over spaghetti or hot dogs. Seriously.

The best example is found 24/6 (it's closed Sundays) at Camp Washington Chili - winner of a James Beard Award as an "American Regional Classic" - a half-mile south of the American Sign Museum. And yes, there's even a cool sign perched over the restaurant.