Cincinnati, OH: The American Sign Museum

Doing the Donut Trail ate up a fair chunk of our morning the day after visiting Taft’s House, but we still had time in the afternoon to visit a museum, and though I suppose I should have done something more worthy and intellectual like the Underground Railroad Museum, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House, or the Taft Museum of Art (founded by President Taft’s wealthier half-brother (he married money)), really I just wanted to see the American Sign Museum, so that’s where we headed.

  

The American Sign Museum is, appropriately enough, housed next to an old neon sign manufacturer, in a somewhat industrial looking part of town. It is apparently the “largest public museum dedicated to signs in the United States!” (exclamation point theirs). It is also probably the most expensive, with admission clocking in at a whopping $15, but honestly, from the moment I stepped foot in the parking lot and was greeted by a pig, a genie, an oversized bowling pin with a face, and many other giant vintage signs, I was ready to pay pretty much whatever they asked. (It was actually reminiscent of “Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores” from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VI (one of my favourites, next to the “Shinning” one, and the one where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. Actually every one of the first eight Treehouses of Horror is pure gold, and I’m glad it’s nearly the time of year for me to re-watch them all again!) which was both delightful, and somewhat concerning (though there was fortunately no lightning storm when we visited).)
  
Anyway, we parted with our $15 (each) and in turn received a souvenir button reading I ❤ Old Signs, as well as admission to the museum, of course. Walking into the museum was kind of like walking into a massive kaleidoscope, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting if you’re susceptible to seizures. I loved it though, and had even worn my kitschiest 50’s style “atomic cocktail” print dress so I would fit right in (it makes me happy to theme my outfit with whatever I’m doing, if possible).
  
The museum was divided up into three main areas, plus a workshop where they restore the signs (you could go into the workshop, though no one was actually in the act of restoring whilst we were there). The first area made some effort to trace the history of signs, the second was a vaguely chronological progression of neon signs until the mid-20th century, and the third was kind of just a free-for-all of giant signs lining a street of yesteryear, including ones for McDonald’s (gross, but the sign was cool) and Howard Johnson’s (which I have never had in my life, though I think there are still some around, or at least there were when I was a kid. I feel like it’s more of an East Coast thing).
  
Many of the signs had their own signs (as in object labels) telling you more about them, but it was hard to focus on reading them with all that neon staring you in the face, so I think the best thing to do may just be to stand and soak it all in. This is a popular wedding venue, and I can certainly see why, though I suspect the background of the photographs might detract from the actual couple a little (not gonna lie, I would still totally get married there).
  
One of my particular favourites was the giant rotating Sputnik inspired sign shown above, which reminded me of a retro Christmas tree decoration (hell, I would just have that thing in lieu of a Christmas tree, and stick ornaments on its points), though I also loved all the ice cream and dairy signs, especially this one with a moving cow (and I want a chocolate malted right now, but Britain does not excel in the making of milkshakes (here’s a tip: a milkshake should contain ice cream, and not just be literal shaken milk) so I would just have to make it myself, which isn’t the best idea with shakes, because then you see how much ice cream goes in (a hell of a lot, if you like your shakes as thick as I do)). And the big Popsicle wall ad brought back memories of childhood, even though cherry is obviously the best flavour of twin pop, not orange. (It seriously must be at least twenty years since I’ve had a twin pop, and I don’t really know why, since I love them. Oh wait, maybe it’s because they’re impossible to snap in half cleanly, so more often than not, the whole damn thing ends up falling on the ground.) This definitely seems to be the kind of place where people go to reminisce, and you’d probably get even more out of it if you actually grew up in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s.
  

The theme was even carried through to the bathrooms, which of course had neon signs pointing to them, and the shop had quite a few reproduction signs and American Sign Museum t-shirts (with a retro-look logo) available for purchase, but I just went for one of the glow in the dark enamel pins of an ice cream cone (I have about a million enamel pins, but I keep buying more of the damn things. I also keep buying jackets, so I guess it all balances out). So, was this worth $15? No, absolutely not, but I had a fabulous time in the kitschiest (I know I keep using that word, but it fits better than anything else), most neon environment imaginable, and I am so glad I went. 3.5/5 based sheerly on the amount of joy this museum brought me.

  

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11 comments

    1. That doesn’t really surprise me, since I do picture it being fairly drab based on old movies and stuff, outside of places like Piccadilly Circus (although based on An American Werewolf in London, that was awfully seedy!). Obviously I don’t really know, since I wasn’t alive yet, but neon definitely seems to have been more widespread in America back in the day – I even seem to remember the pizza parlour in my town having a cool neon sign when I was a kid.

  1. This museum looks like so much fun! It makes me wish we had lots of kitsch, neon signage here in the UK so we could have our own version. It’s a pity there was no-one in the workshop when you went, it would have been interesting to watch them restoring the signs.

  2. LOVE this! Must put Cincinnati on my travel list. Also love the Simpson’s Halloween specials. I was so happy the year I taught Victorian poetry/Poe so we could count watching the Simpson’s as school work.

    1. I honestly think I used to be just as excited for the new Treehouse of Horror as I was for Halloween itself. It was far less stressful! I loved trick-or-treating, of course, but I found picking a costume incredibly stressful for some reason, so much so that I would have nightmares where it was Halloween night, and I didn’t have a costume yet.

  3. I can’t read/listen to “The Raven” without hearing Bart’s voice fill in the “nevermore”s. #1 reason to have kids is so you can eat their Halloween candy. Unfortunately, this only works when they are small. Once they reach a certain age, they start hiding the candy so mom doesn’t eat it.

  4. Ho-leee smokes. I’ve heard about the neon museum in Vegas but had no idea this one existed. I am SO glad you chose to visit it. I mean, I’m sure each of the other Cincinnati spots would’ve been great in their own way, but I am in love with everything in these photos. And you got a button!
    I agree – that’s actually a pretty great McDonald’s sign. And I have a pal named Cassano who is going to love the “Vic Cassano – Pizza King” one. (I know that’s supposed to be a crown he’s wearing but I like that it looks like Jughead and his weird hat.) I also love the bowling pin and the sign-painter behind it. Such a neat effect.
    Aw, I haven’t thought of Popsicles in ages. I loved them too – though my favourites were always chocolate or banana. (I know – banana grosses most people out.) And yeah, they always broke in half and landed on the ground. But still, a pretty decent treat.
    Treehouse of Horror! Yes! A marathon will be in order soon.

    1. Oh, I definitely think it was the best choice we could have made. Especially when we drove by the Underground Railroad Museum later and realised they had no parking (I mean, it was in the middle of the city, so I’m sure we could have found some, but this was just easier).
      I do not like banana, but actually my absolute favourite flavour of Popsicle brand popsicles (not available in twin pops) was lime. This was maybe because it was so elusive – it only came in packs with banana and root beer, both of which I hated, so my mother barely ever bought them for me because she knew damn well that I would never eat the other two flavours. I also really loved the Welch’s grape juice popsicles, which they no longer make. I did have a fancypants concord grape popsicle from a stall in a farmers’ market when I was in the US last, and it tasted exactly like them, so I guess I just need to somehow source concord grape juice, which I have never seen in Britain, and make my own.

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