Visual Arts

Signs of old times

CINCINNATI — The outside of an old brick building just north of downtown Cincinnati gives little hint of the treasury of nostalgic icons it holds.

Some unlit motel and restaurant signs line the nearby street, and a 20-foot fiberglass genie that advertised the Aladdin Carpeteria carpet cleaning company in 1960s Los Angeles looms near the door. But that doesn't prepare visitors for the burst of color, motion and memories greeting them inside the American Sign Museum.

A tour of more than 200 signs and other items, including sign-makers' tools, is a journey through decades of America's evolving cultural taste, technology and commercial design — at times evoking fond remembrances of family road trips.

Vivid pinks, greens and other hues light up the foyer that museum founder and president Tod Swormstedt calls his ”Sign Garden“ — the appetizer for a sign smorgasbord from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

The garden contains a spinning Sputnik replica that welcomed customers to the Satellite Shopland shopping center in Anaheim, Calif., in the 1960s. The 6-foot-diameter plastic globe — its metal spikes studded with colored light bulbs — spins near a Dutch Boys Donuts windmill, with rotating blue neon blades, from 1950s Denver.

Nearby is the multicolored 1950s SkyVu Motel sign that stood along state Route 40 just outside Kansas City, Mo., beckoning travelers with chasing light bulbs flashing on and off in sequence as though traveling around the sign. There's a 1930s United Pentecostal Church sign from Shreveport, La., with a streamlined design, and a 1960s Howard Johnson sign from New York's Times Square.

Nostalgia is a key attraction for baby boomers who grew up in the post-World War II years, when Americans began taking to the roads for family vacations.

Neon signs from the 1920s through the 1960s are particularly eye-catching, as are elegant hand-painted gold leaf on glass from the late 1800s and the early 1900s, and the first electric signs of the early 1900s — porcelain-enamel, illuminated with light bulbs. Plastic signs that emerged after World War II, hand-lettered show cards advertising Las Vegas casino entertainment and sign salesmen's samples also are featured.

John Jakle, co-author of several books on American roadside history and a professor emeritus of geography and landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a fan.

”With the quality of the signs and the depth of understanding and knowledge in the interpretation, it really is a national treasure,“ Jakle said. ”Roadside America is very short-lived, and about the only way Americans are going to be able to remember important eras in landscape history is through museums like this one.“

Swormstedt, who spent 26 years working at the Sign of the Times industry trade journal, started his ”midlife crisis project“ in 1999.

He has traveled thousands of miles and spent innumerable hours on the Internet assembling the growing collection, which includes about 300 signs awaiting display, 800 books and catalogs, and more than 1,200 photos and slides.

Signs are donated and purchased. Swormstedt hears about them from sign companies and from people seeing the Web site or reports of his sign rescues. He also attends swap meets for gas station memorabilia collectors and shows featuring antique advertising.

”Most museums start with a collection, but I started without a single sign,“ he said.

About 2,000 people visit annually. The response has been good enough that the museum will open in a new site late this year or in early 2009. The new property will initially more than triple the current space and provide 28-foot-high ceilings to accommodate larger signs.

Swormstedt enthusiastically guides ­visitors on the 1½ - to 2-hour tour past exhibits including a gas station sign and two pumps from the 1930s, and vintage storefronts filled with pre-neon, neon and post-neon signs.