A New Home for the American Sign Museum


Big Boy, Phillips 66
Courtesy of the American Sign Museum


When I was a child, it was a real treat to get a hamburger and a chocolate shake at JB’s Big Boy in Salt Lake City. The burgers were huge, with special sauce dripping from the bun. The chocolate shakes were served in a tall glass, heaped with whipped cream and accompanied by the frosty aluminum mixing cup that contained a second helping. But the best part of the restaurant visit was the huge, plaster Big Boy that stood at the entrance, holding a Big Boy Burger and grinning in his red-and-white striped overalls. Sadly, many great vintage signs disappeared when business owners updated to more modern signage.

Luckily, fans of those historic signs can visit the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is about to re-open in its brand new home. The museum rescues and collects vintage and antique signs from all over the country and features a collection of 3,800 signs and sign-related objects. Last week, founder Tod Swormstedt came down from the ladder where he was feverishly painting the finishing touches on a display to speak to me about the museum’s Sneak Peek event on June 2nd.

The American Sign Museum was founded in 2005, but quickly outgrew its home. Mr. Swormstedt told me, “We moved into the first space in 2005 and within the year we had outgrown it. By the end of 2006, I started looking in earnest for a larger building to buy.” That search resulted in the purchase of a historic, 42,000 sq. ft. building in the Camp Washington area of Cincinnati.


American Sign Museum
Courtesy of the American Sign Museum


But the building needed some serious work. “It needed a complete tear down. There were a lot of structural repairs including a $250,000 roof, a new floor and shored up beams. Almost everything in the building is brand new,” Mr. Swormstedt said. In the beginning the museum didn’t have much money for the project, and the recession slowed fundraising attempts. But with perseverance, a little luck in the form of a $900,000 check from an anonymous donor, and funding from other supporters, the $2.7 million museum was completed and will open to the public in June.

The new museum is housed in 19,300 square feet of the building (leaving plenty of room for future expansion). The 28-foot ceilings allow for some enormous signs to be showcased, including a 25-foot-tall McDonald’s sign featuring “Speedee MacDonald” and a 19-foot-tall genie that graces the entrance. The genie was restored, then moved using some really large equipment. The 19-foot-tall genie traveling down the freeway on a flatbed truck must have been quite the sight for Cincinnati residents! Once he arrived, the genie was placed on two eight-foot poles at the front door of the new museum, where patrons will walk underneath him as they enter. You can watch the genie’s journey here:

Special displays in the museum include a “Main Street Gallery” which houses 28-foot vintage replica storefronts and Tom Wartman’s Neonworks of Cincinnati glass-bending workshop where museum patrons can see the neon tube bending process firsthand.

American Sign Museum
Courtesy of the American Sign Museum

Another unique feature in the American Sign Museum is the “Mail Pouch Barn” sign. Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements were painted on the sides of barns all across the country, beginning in 1890. Farmers were paid a small amount of money to allow the advertising to be painted on their barns. By the 1960s, there were over 20,000 Mail Pouch barns in 22 states. Tod Swormstedt badly wanted one of these iconic bits of American history for the museum. He put the word out and was soon contacted by a barn owner in Indiana. The barn was carefully dismantled with barn restoration experts present and each board was numbered for easier re-installation. Then the pieces were taken to the new museum and carefully installed along one wall. You can see the process here:

The American Sign Museum is hosting a Sneak Peek event on Saturday, June 2nd. Register online to be one of the first to see the museum’s new home. The museum opens to the public on Saturday, June 23rd. In addition, the American Sign Museum annual auction begins June 1st. Many local businesses have contributed goods and services that patrons may bid on online between June 1st and June 30th. You’ll find some great deals and support the museum at the same time! http://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/AuctionHome.action?vhost=americansignmuseum

Nelson James

Nelson James is the chief operating officer of Signs.com and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company. Prior to joining the Signs.com team, Nelson was the president and co-founder of SEO.com. For over 6 years he helped to grow the company from 2 to over 85 employees. Nelson managed many large accounts during his tenure at SEO.com, including Dell.com. In early 2011, Nelson was recruited to Lendio Inc., where he was VP of marketing and was responsible for the creation and management of a marketing team as well as the strategy, tactics and programs to create interest and demand for Lendio’s products and services. Prior to his work experience, Nelson graduated Cum Laude from Brigham Young University in marketing and advertising from the communications department. Nelson lives in Lehi, Utah with his wife and three children. He currently holds leadership positions in scouting and volunteers in his church and community.