Small town history museums are quintessential United States road trip fodder. We found a great one in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The oddball duo stocks their antique shops with treasures of American history that they find by traveling the country as two guys with a van. Each has their specialty. Mike is into motorcycles while Frank prefers old school toys.
But after watching the show for 20 minutes you’ll find something else is their bread and butter: signs.
I’d love to see their faces if they ever walk into the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Prepare for sensory overload
As you walk around the converted warehouse, the dimly lit rooms pulse with a rainbow array of neon lights that throw you back to the 1950s–or at least what I’d assume the 50s felt like since I’m only 32. These were the days when you could get a hamburger for $0.15.
Established in 1999 and located in an unassuming industrial section of Cincinnati, the American Sign Museum is a well-designed warehouse full of antique signs that have been restored to proper working order.
The museum houses over 500 signs from as far back as the late 1800s and has even created their own town inside the museum called Signville.
It feels like you’re walking around a miniaturized Las Vegas strip.
We highly recommend the guided tour
For $15 you can explore the exhibits at your leisure, but I’d recommend one of their twice-a-day guided tours that give you way more info than any person needs about the history of American sign making.
(Though I feel extremely prepared for my next brew pub trivia night.)
Do you worry it’ll just be your party and the tour guide? Don’t. This museum is quite the happening place.
Our tour had around 40 people and was led by a guide who was quirkier than the museum we explored, but his knowledge was second to none. He told us that signs and sign history are his life’s passion, and it certainly comes across in his enthusiastic descriptions of his favorite pieces, many of which he helped to restore.
The sign above has a fascinating story. It was made in the 1960s at the height of the American and Soviet space race. At that time space-related advertising was everywhere, and the owner of a store named Shopland wanted to capitalize on it.
He asked local manufacturers to build a rotating star-shaped sign for his store, but everyone told him it was too difficult. Undeterred, the shop owner set to work in his own garage and constructed the orb you see in front of you. Now that’s some American determination!
Our guide told us he personally helped restore this sign, which was a pain because there were no easy access points in the solid metal sphere. The team was able to get every bulb working except one–the one on the very top that taunts the museum’s staff to this day.
The tour lasts one hour and runs roughly in chronological order. You’ll learn about the major brands of each decade and how some of those awesome classic signs were made.
An in-your-face display of American sign making history
The sign below is an example of the 1900-1930 pre-Neon Era, also called the Lightbulb Era because the signs were backlit by plain ol’ lightbulbs.
When neon was introduced to American companies in 1923, everything changed.
The American Sign Museum actually has a sign restoration shop inside the museum, and you can watch the artists repair broken signs. Take a look at the neon shoe repair sign in the following photo.
Apparently that sign–just a few feet long– would cost about $500 to repair. Larger signs easily reach into the thousands.
While some companies went with eye-catching lightbulb or neon displays, others preferred the look of porcelain enamel signs, which were popular from 1880-1950.
These signs, like the Goodyear Tires ones shown below, have that signature Americana look that collectors love. However, they faded out of popularity due to how much they cost to make compared to other contemporary methods.
And a special homage to Cincinnati’s local businesses
While the majority of the museum is an homage to sign making across the country, there’s one room that pays special attention to local businesses.
The room is actually quite cavernous and serves as the museum’s event space. Specifically, our guide told us they do 1-2 weddings per month at the museum. What a memorable occasion that would be for the right high-energy group!
Also in the Cincinnati room was this big, beautiful sign, which has a neat story.
As someone who grew up in New England and lived in Hawaii, it’s hard to believe how much farmland there is in the rest of the country. Back in the day, companies used to offer to paint farmers’ barns at no cost to the farmer, but there was a catch–the company got to paint its advertisement on the street-facing side.
The folks at the sign museum purchased the side of a barn shown above when the owner was ready to tear down the structure. It isn’t the biggest barn, but it’s a really cool display piece that takes up one full wall.
Are you near Cincinnati with a couple of hours to kill?
Maybe it’s a long shot but if so, definitely stop at the American Sign Museum.
Address: 1330 Monmouth Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45225
Hours: Open 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Wednesday-Saturday and 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Sunday; closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Admission: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, students, and military
Parking: Free in the adjacent lot
Tours: Guided tours begin at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm; you can join mid-tour if you arrive later