Cincinnati museum is a sign of the times

The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Chicago Tribune

About the only thing that isn’t incandescent about Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum is its name – a moniker a little too bland for an experience that has visitors strolling through with wide-eyed wonder.

Located off the beaten path in an industrial park, the eclectic attraction is a paean to American capitalism, featuring commercial signs dating back more than 100 years.

On display are colorful neon signs for iconic brands such as McDonald’s, Howard Johnson and Rexall drugs, as well as classic Americana signage, such as a Mail Pouch Tobacco sign reassembled from a barn – a visual marker on many a childhood road trip.

Owner and founder Tod Swormstedt has signs in his blood. His grandfather was hired in 1907 to be the first editor of the Cincinnati-based “Signs of the Times,” a national signage industry trade magazine that his family later purchased.

The 11-year-old museum has hundreds of signs displayed, with nearly 4,000 items archived and cataloged in the century-old former site of Oesterlein Machine Company.

Visitors might feel nostalgia for signs advertising bowling lanes and extinct companies such as Marshall Field’s. A few might even remember Speedee, the first McDonald’s mascot, who was phased out when Ronald McDonald took over. The pièce de résistance is an American small town square, Main Street USA, featuring storefronts with signs from different eras.

The museum, which also includes a working neon sign shop and books and magazines about American sign making, inspires visitors to see the signs with new eyes.