Stuart Forster visits the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is positively impressed by the experience of viewing historic signage from the USA.
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The American Sign Museum is in the Camp Washington district of Cincinnati, Ohio. It takes me about 10 minutes to drive there from the Downtown area.
Before entering the museum, I spend a good five minutes photographing the signage displayed in the parking lot. In the lobby, I meet Jesse Sandman, the American Sign Museum’s Guest Services Manager.
American Sign Museum
“We are one of the largest facilities of this kind. Other sign museums are popping up around the country, one of the biggest being out in Vegas. But I think in terms of what we’re doing – which is sort of an overall view of American signage, putting into context where we can educate and tell people about it – we’re unique,” he explains.
“America is a hodgepodge of people that come from all over the world. They bring that cultural influence into their signage. So we think of the heyday of commercial signage in the United States being from around the end of the 1930s to the ‘60s and ‘70s. You’re going to see a wide variety of different styles, typefaces and materials. These signs are meant to appeal or attract a community of people. And so you’ll see specific lettering and styles that is directed to do that as well,” adds Jesse.
The museum opened in 2005. In its early days appealed primarily to people from the sign industry – people developing, producing and selling signs. In recent years the American Sign Museum’s appeal has broadened.
Unique things to do in Cincinnati
“We get a lot of people who are not involved in the sign industry. This is your average Joe, your layperson who comes looking for great Instagram or social media moments to take pictures. People who remember some of the brands or companies that they grew up with or people who just want to bring in their toddlers and infants to look at the lights and colours,” says Jesse, about the American Sign Museum’s current appeal.
“We like that it’s broad. We like that we get to educate and talk to people from all different backgrounds and walks of life,” he adds.
Most of the collection displayed at the American Sign Museum is the result of donations. These can be from sign owners or proprietors of multigenerational businesses who have signs in their attic. Such people might be motivated by having their signage preserved and shared with the public.
“As a not-for-profit organisation we are not always able to compete with private collectors who are paying top dollar for the same signs,” admits Jesse.
Iconic American signs
“So we are very dependent on people being willing to donate. That is why our collection is missing some of the iconic American brands like Harley-Davidson, Campbell’s Soup and Wonder Bread because people inherently understand the value of those signs and they go for top dollar at trade shows,” he adds.
When I ask Jesse which signs he finds most interesting he immediately mentions signage from handmade or hand-painted era. That is the period before 1890, prior to modern commercialisation and electricity.
“A lot of these signs are fabricated by hand: hand-carved wooden signs, painted by hand and touched with a lot of artistry. And I think that that is something that can’t be recreated by computers or modern processes. So a lot of the hand-painted signage that you’re going to see here has a lot of character,” says Jesse, about the works that count among his favourite exhibits.
I learn that young designers and people working in marketing visit the museum to view historic signage and seek inspiration in its artistry.
Plans are afoot to double the size of the American Sign Museum’s 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. A fundraising campaign is ongoing.
The range of exhibits impresses and 90 minutes after entering, I thank Jesse for chatting with me and leave the American Sign Museum.
Map of the American Sign Museum
The Google Map below pinpoints the location of the American Sign Museum:
Travel to Cincinnati
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is approximately 20 miles from Downtown Cincinnati. The drive takes around 20 minutes along the I-75.
British Airways operates direct flights between London Heathrow and Cincinnati.
Hotels in Cincinnati
Find and book accommodation in Cincinnati via Booking.com:
Books about Cincinnati
Keen to know more about Cincinnati, Ohio? Find further information in the following books, which you can purchase from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Cincinnati Food: A History of Queen City Cuisine by Polly Campbell:
Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway: The Complete History by Jacob R Mecklenborg:
Hidden History of Cincinnati by Jeff Suess:
The American Sign Museum (tel. +1-513-541-6366) is at 1330 Monmouth Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio. See the museum’s website for up-to-date information regarding opening times and entry prices.
How long does it take to visit the American Sign Museum? Allow between an hour and 90 minutes to view the signs and take in related information. Download the museum’s audio tour for insights into the signs that are displayed.
The photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
Thanks for reading this post about the the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Appreciate American history? You may enjoy my post about visiting Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
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