Monday, November 29, 2010

Big Top Comes to the Museum

After more than three years and at least three dozen phone calls from museum supporters, the iconic Big Top sign is now safe in the hands of the American Sign Museum.
Originally displayed in Mason, OH about a half hour from the museum, the sign has stood unattended after the closing of the restaurant in 2005.
I had tried several times to contact the owner of the property, but to no avail. It wasn't until Karen Duesing, the realtor who had listed the commercial plot, got involved that the owner agreed to donate the sign.
The imminent widening of the adjacent state route must have also been a factor since the sign stood in the way of 'progress'.
Unfortunately, the sign had suffered a great deal of paint damage in the years since it first came to our attention. More recently, the sign suffered a blow to the bottom panel, collapsing the sheetmetal.
The crew of our go-to-guys--United-Maier Signs--took extreme care in removing the sign and hauled it off to their shop to see what could be done to save this original section of the sign. Whether the metal can be saved or not, this sign will most assuredly require re-painting--an exception to our general policy of not re-painting signs.

We're thrilled we could save this Cincinnati icon. It will have a prominent place in our Signs of Cincinnati exhibit when we move to our new, larger site.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Road Trip to New England

It's been a long time, so it was great to be on the road again visiting old friends and making new ones. Oh, and picking up treasures for the American Sign Museum along the way!  Our first stop was Stow, Ohio, and the home of George Bowers. George had emailed me about a 24" by 24" solid bronze Kelly Springfield Tire Company plaque/sign. In 1983 he witnessed a demolition company tearing down the front wall of the Cleveland Ohio Kelly Springfield Tire Company Distribution Center. Not wanting the sign to be lost, George purchased the sign and has kept it safe for the past 27 years. Over the years, collectors have offered him a pretty penny for it, but he wasn't ready to let it go to just anyone. Then he came across the American Sign Museum, and we're glad he did!
According to George, Kelly Springfield Tire is the oldest continuously operating tire company in the US and the first to develop rubber vulcanization (1844) and bonding rubber to carriage wheels. During the Great Depression, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. purchased Kelly Springfield, and Kelly Springfield is currently a wholely owned subsidiary of Goodyear. Thanks to George and his wife for their hospitality and for sharing their treasure with the Sign Museum.

Next, we headed to Buffalo, NY, where we visited Paddy Rowell Sr. and Jr. at their AMAZING Flexlume facility. The Rowells have the makings of their own sign museum, as they have kept signs, equipment, and supplies since Paddy's dad owned White Sign Company way back when.  Flexlume is celebrating their 100 year anniversary this year.  We then went to dinner with Paddy Sr. and his lovely wife.  We learned about 'roast beef on weck' and REAL buffalo wings.

We ended Day 1 in Niagara Falls, enjoying some Perry's Ice Cream at Twist O'The Mist.

The next day, we visited Cooper Sign Company, in business for more than 85 years.  I had met the senior Cooper who told me to visit the shop sometime:  'I'm sure we've got SOMETHING for the museum.'  Well, not only did they have some great pictures and signs to show us, they also donated an 'Ad In Motion' sample of a sign designed for car tops. It's designed to swing in the breeze for added fun.  When we saw a picture of their custom rotating pink elephant, we had to track it down.  A little worse for wear, but still a great landmark for the current business and the town.  Thanks, John and Jennifer, for showing us your shop and contributing to the museum's collection.


From Niagara Falls, we drove to Dover New Hampshire, where a bit of a challenge waited for us.  Thanks to some great sleuthing on the part of roadside afficionado, Debra Jane Setzler, we were able to acquire a Norge ball from Sanford, Maine.  Debra Jane came upon this opportunity and notified us immediately. Good friend and museum supporter, Mike Leary at Sundance Sign and Design in Dover retrieved the ball for us and brought it to his shop for safekeeping.  We spotted it immediately, housed in the crate Mike built for transporting the ball.  After some initial catching up on all things signs with Mike partner-in-crime Jill Butterfield, we got to work on how to get the ball onto my trailer.  Once we raised it up and tilted the trailer, we were able to slide it on without too much trouble.  We got some great looks and comments driving down the road!  My favorite was when I was asked if we were with a carnival.
Go to Debra Jane's website for an incredible pictorial encyclopedia on everything roadside and to her Norge Ball page in particular for details on Norge Balls and a picture of our own Norge Ball while it was still displayed in it's all it's glory. 

After a quick visit with daughter, Abby, in Boston, we headed back with our new treasures and said goodbye to the road for now.  But we're already making plans for the next road trip!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Old friends, new investors?

The Midwest Sign Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  Congratulations!  Here's to the next 50 years! 
The recent International Sign Association / Midwest Sign Association event here in Cincinnati offered a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make some new ones.  Those who came to the reception at the American Sign Museum's future site were treated to a look at our progress to date and our vision for the future... hopefully the near future!! 
We received some very encouraging comments about what we're doing.  I was a little disappointed, however, and a little frustrated when I asked for a show a hands of how many were members of the museum. 
I read an article recently about how we not-for-profits should see people not as 'donors' or 'supporters', but as investors.  This makes a lot of sense. The goal of the American Sign Museum is to not only share with the world the history of the sign industry, but also to help shape our future.  We tell a compelling story of how of signs reflect and influence design, technology, American culture, and -- most importantly -- their unique and vital importance to commerce.  And if that's not enough, they're just plain fun!
Help us tell the world about signs and the role they play in business, community planning, engineering, marketing, communications, and -- yes -- art.  If you are not a member, or have not renewed your membership, please 'sign' up now.  You can do it online on our website.  Or we're happy to accept your check by US Mail!  You can also find other ways to 'Get Involved' on the website.
Now is the time to invest in the American Sign Museum!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

More Respect - Signs ARE Art

Several months ago the Cincinnati Art Museum and ArtWorks approached me about a potential partnership in their summer project called 'The American Road'.  ArtWorks is a Cincinnati organization whose vision is to "be the leader in employing student and emerging artists to create art that enlivens the Greater Cincinnati community." The American Sign Museum has worked with them on other projects. Now they were getting ready to partner with the Cincinnati Art Museum on this American Road project, and wouldn't signs from the American Sign Museum enhance the experience?  In fact they were envisioning some of our larger signs lining the park entrance and winding road leading up to the Art Museum.

Unfortunately, when I explained the time, money, and labor that would be involved in transporting and safely installing the signs - for a temporary exhibit - the idea had to be shelved.  But that didn't mean we couldn't provide some smaller signs for the open area where the students would be working.  According to the ArtWorks website, the plan is to have ArtWorks artists:
creating a painted homage to the American tradition of road trips and traveling West. Working on site at the Cincinnati Art Museum, this team will transform the second floor ambulatory into famed highway Route 66 with a mural of vistas and landscapes of Western America and classic neon signs on loan from the American Sign Museum. Artists will be painting during open museum hours for visitors to observe as part of the Art Museum's See America series. 
Well, the signs are now in place, with their neon lighting up the hallowed halls of this revered institution. 

Soon the students will begin painting their mural. I look forward to watching and maybe even influencing their progress.  If you're in the area, I suggest you drop in and give them some encouragement.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Getting Some Respect

It's been a long time.  Too busy doing things to write about them.  But I'm working on it. For now, let's consider signs getting the respect they deserve.  I'm seeing it more and more. Allow me to share an example:
Recently I had the honor of conducting a workshop and joining in the fun at the centennial celebration of the the Bristol TN/VA slogan sign. It was a very big deal with local and state officials not only attending, but verbalizing their recognition of the value of old signs to a community. Granted, they're thinking in terms of signs that have already made their mark, rather than how this might relate to current sign codes, but it was heartening indeed.  The Bristol Sign Centennial included the mayors of the TN and VA versions of Bristol and state senators too.  It was really great to see them embracing the town's heritage through a great sign.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Signs appeal to deSIGNers...

The museum is many things to many people.  To the design community, it’s an excellent resource for tracing the history of advertising and commercial design. Whether interested in type design or design trends, designers—both professional and student—find the museum of special interest.
Matt Davis, chair of Bowling Green State University’s division of Graphic Design, knows this, so he and colleague Amy Fidler, an instructor in the Graphic Design program, brought 38 junior and senior students with Majors in Graphic Design for a tour in mid-March. One of them forwarded me this group photo with this comment:

'Thanks again for taking me and my fellow peers through your exhibit on Friday. I know I can speak for everyone when I say we all had a blast! Your displays were not only aesthetically pleasing but also full of history and background info... '

The Museum has also been a perennial draw for local academia, including students and professors at the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Art, Architecture and Planning School (DAAP); the Art Academy; Northern Kentucky University and the College of Mt. St. Joseph.

Have YOU been to the museum yet?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Family Business

I was on a road trip in Arizona a couple weeks back.  Driving through Kingman, I was scanning the horizon - as I always do - for signs in general and SIGNS signs in particular. Imagine my delight when I spied just such a sign in the distance.  I, of course, turned around, found a way across the railroad tracks, wandered in, and introduced myself.
I was pleased to discover they knew of the American Sign Museum. But more than that, I had stumbled upon a family who has been in the sign business since World War II. 
Deloris Mack was there behind the counter, with her son, Dave. Her husband, Victor, now runs things from his bed, but he had had the foresight to capture their legacy in more than several scrap books.
Victor was a B-17 pilot in World War II. He began his sign career after the war in Spokane, Washington. When he needed a crane truck, he thought of his military connections and got himself a gun turret, which he retro-engineered into a crane boom and attached to a flatbed truck. He also developed a changeable letter, which he patented and later sold.
Deloris and Victor had 11 kids, 5 of whom are in 'the business' from LA to Memphis, along with some of the grandkids. Their story reflects two common threads that run through the history of signmaking:  family and innovation. I'm talking about these folks because I only just discovered them, at a time when I least expected it.  But there are so many other stories like theirs.  I only hope the American Sign Museum can honor these families and innovators in ways that they deserve.
If you know of a family like the Mack's, or your own story is one of generations of sign makers, please share your stories and/or photos by sending them to Depending on what we receive, hopefully we'll be able to assemble a tribute to the 'family business' for the museum. It's an important part of our legacy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Soapbox Media Comes to the Camp

We get a surprising amount of press, just from word of mouth.  A few days ago a reporter from Soapbox media interviewed me, then sent a photographer to gather some images. The result is the article below.  Pretty straightforward and overall a good summary of what's happening.

American Sign Museum hopes to move into renovated Camp Washington building by 2012

Soapbox, 3/9/2010

Tod Swormstedt has known for some time that he wanted to grow the American Sign Museum beyond its current 4,500 square-foot Walnut Hills location. He also knew that he wanted to grow the museum's scope as well, making it a landmark for those in the sign industry around the country. With the recent purchase of a Camp Washington factory attached to the Middle Earth Developers-built Machine Flats project, its now a reality.

The American Sign Museum will eventually use more than 42,000 square feet of space at the factory, but is initially working on 19,300 square feet of space to get started. In addition to the expanded size, the facility boasts 23-foot high ceilings that are perfect for the museum's needs.

"I looked all over town and especially along McMicken Street near the Brewery District of Over-the-Rhine but I couldn't find what I needed in my price range," said Swormstedt. "I wanted to be in OTR, but the structures there just weren't big enough, then an artist told me about the Camp Washington space and I knew right away that this was it."

The new museum space will dedicate the initial expansion to the history of signs that the Museum is well known for displaying. The additional expansion will be used as a lab area for the development of new technologies and to show off high-tech products in the sign industry. The development of new technologies is something that Swormstedt hopes to get DAAP students involved with especially with the new Terence M. Fruth/Gemini Chair of Signage Design and Community Planning endownment at UC.

"I'm hoping Cincinnati can become a signage research and resource capital," said Swormstedt. "Having the main industry magazine based here, the museum, the University of Cincinnati's College of DAAP, and the sign conference that was held by UC late last year are all helping to accomplish this."

Signs of the Times magazine is the sign industry standard his great grandfather first edited in 1906, and the publication Swormstedt himself has worked on for close to 27 years.

The operations of the American Sign Museum are also handled by Swormstedt with the help of volunteers that are often related to DAAP and College of Business students involved with the signage research endowments at UC. But the work of renovating the Camp Washington space and moving from Walnut Hills is something that will take millions of dollars in addition to the valuable volunteer work on which the museum relies.

"So far we've raised and spent $1.5 million on the former Camp Washington factory, and we need another $900,000 to open up the first 19,300 square feet," said Swormstedt. "Once we get the full amount we need we can probably build out the space in 8 months and would love to be moved by 2012."

The completed project will include the NeonWorks shop where visitors will get to see neon being made, 'Signs of Main Street' which will pay homage to the history of signs, a restoration shop, and a lab area for sign technology innovation.

Those interested in donating the project can do so in a variety of creative ways besides making an outright contribution to the museum's website, contacting Tod Swormstedt at (513) 258-4020 or You can also purchase a brick paver with your name on it, or purchase a panel that you can paint and design that will be mounted on the wall at the museum's front entrance.

Writer: Randy A. Simes

Photography by Tiffany Fisher

Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

American Sign Museum hopes to move into renovated Camp Washington building by 2012

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Genies, Reporters, and Benders, oh my!

We had a perfect storm recently when Genie #2 was lifted up to his rightful place, Fox 19 came to report on it and the new site, and our new tenants, NEONWORKS, settled in and got to work. You can see a piece of it all on Fox 19's video. Can you catch the errors(s) in the report?  For more detail and pix, read on...

First, our new tenants have arrived. Neonworks had already been doing a lot of our restoration work, so it seemed only right to invite them to move into the musuem.  Not only is it a practical move, but great for museum visitors who will be able to watch the guys bend glass. Those big windows in the back look in on the main part of the museum.  As you can imagine, the Fox 19 team took a great interest in watching them work and learning a little something about the art of neon sign making. Unfortunately, they didn't get much coverage on the story that ran.  But hey, every little bit counts, right?
Which brings us to FOX 19. I got a call from one of their reporters soon after a snowfall saying she had been spending a lot of time at the salt dome, and kept seeing our 'Future Home of the American Sign Museum' sign. Could she come see what's happening?  Once it was scheduled, it occurred to us: what a perfect time to install Genie #2. So I called our friends at United-Maier Signs, Inc. to see if they could schedule the install for the same morning. Of course, it was cold and rainy, but troopers that they are, the United-Maier team was there first thing. Watching them prepare for and lift Genie #2 on to the poles in front of the museum entrance was very cool, indeed, and a milestone for those of us close to the new home project.  Video coming soon! In the meantime view a glimpse of it all in Fox 19's video.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who's that genie, and what's he trying to tell us?

Thanks to the great guys at United-Maier Signs, Inc, Genie #2 is now gracing the entrance of the permanent home of the American Sign Museum!  Yaaayyyyy!!! 

Yes, we have a long way to go, but we've really been looking forward to getting Genie #2 in place.  Only....  now we need to decide what message he will be carrying.  And it would be nice if we could come up with a real name for him.

Any suggestions? 

See pics on flickr and be sure to watch the video about what's-his-name being transported to the new site.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Genie #2 comes to our new home!

The generously donated genies, which originally identified two of the Aladdin Carpeterias that once populated Southern California, journeyed 2500 miles to Cincinnati several years ago. They went straight to The Glass Hand in Cleves, Ohio for restoration.
Genie #1 was installed in front of the main entrance to Essex Studios where the museum now resides in April, 2005 -- just in time for the Grand Opening. He is a great landmark and greets every visitor.
Genie #2 remained at the Glass Hand awaiting restoration, and our new home's readiness. Then when the time came, United-Maier Signs, Inc., who has so generously helped us so many times over the years, became swamped with work (that's a good thing, right?).  Wasn't a problem, UNTIL...  I got the call NEW YEAR'S EVE that The Glass Hand was moving over the weekend and the landlord wanted Genie #2 gone with them,or else!  I quickly called Ken Deusing at United-Maier, and he graciously had his crew on site first thing Monday morning. Professionals that they are, Joey Beach, Matt Maier, and Richie Meece (left to right, below) braved frigid temperatures to weld, cut, weld again, lift, load, transport, and gently place Genie #2 in front of the entrance to our new home. He will be installed over the entrance as soon as weather and United-Maier's schedule permits.

Once we move to our new home, we (United Maier, that is) will install Genie #1 on the building in front of us, which faces I-75.  He will again be our beacon, inviting folks to come enjoy the American Sign Museum.

View this great video of getting Genie #2 to the Museum.