The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio has changed me. Well, that’s a dumb thing to say about a museum of signs, huh? I mean, these are metal, wooden, neon signs I’m talking about—not signs from a divine power (read that last part with an echo). These merely tell me where to stop for gas or where to get my boots shined, nothing life-altering like what career path to take or which celebrity hairstyle to mimic for fall.
And yet, I am changed. I used to look at quirky, off-beat museums like Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum as nothing but a cheap way to kill time while you wait for the bars to open. You consistently see this sort of thing in vague, mostly worthless articles plainly titled “Things to do in [City]” taking up space where, let’s be real, you’d rather just see some more bars listed. Just because it’s a “thing to do” in that city, doesn’t infer that it’s a worthwhile thing to do. There are lots of “things to do” in my local garbage dump as well, but would I recommend you spend your hard-earned vacation time there? Well, I don’t like to assume since I don’t know you that well, but Imma say NO.
On my recent trip to Cincinnati I decided to take a chance on the American Sign Museum that, yes, I saw on many a “Things to do in Cincinnati” list. (What, I can’t help it! I know they’re pointless and I shouldn’t pay them any attention but they’re unavoidable. I guess I just have hope that one day they’ll tell me something interesting and useful. And I’m not just talking about the Kardashians here.) I thought the visuals of it would make for some interesting photos but, in all honesty, we were just waiting for one of the local breweries to open.
However, this museum for which I had dismally low expectations ended up completely altering my view of the minor league museum scene. What I thought was going to be “quirky” (read: kinda cute, but basically shallow) was actually hella interesting. My friends and I left the place stupefied at how kickass this museum is–like, with visible shock on our faces as we hightailed it to happy hour. Imagine Kim or Khloe saying something constructive about the impact of automation on jobs and the American middle class. Huh? What? Now look in the mirror–your face, that, right there.
The American Sign Museum renewed my faith in the museum system and showed me that even something as everyday as a motel marquee has a history, a social commentary, and a science all of its own. It has me reconsidering all sorts of things I previously thought were shit. If gas station signage and fast food mascots can wow me like this, what else out there is secretly super interesting? Bricks? Coasters? That thing behind the door, on the wall by the floor, that goes “boiboiiioioinngg” when you bump into it? The possibilities for knowledge are endless!
In short, despite all preconceived notions Cincinnati’s American Sign Museum BLEW. OUR. MINDS. In long, well that’s what this post is for.
LOVE THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM FOR: THE HISTORY
I know, signs right? Big whoop. What’s there to know about signs? They have letters that spell words. Some of the time, correctly. Sometimes they point to something. Maybe they blink. There’s probably at least one penis spray-painted on it.
Signs are universal. Everyone uses signs. I have a sign hanging at an entrance to my house that says “No admittance except on party business.” That let’s everyone visiting know that I’m a huge-ass nerd. Otherwise, how would they? (LOL JK, they freaking know.) What I’m saying is, everyone is familiar with signs but do you know the why, how, when, who of signs? What’s there to know about signs, you ask? Turns out, a crapload.
At the American Sign Museum you’ll learn the complete (modern-ish) history of signs:
- How they’ve been used throughout America’s history and their evolving social implications—like how it used to be that only the fancy pants, hoity-toity businesses used the neon lighting that today is more closely associated with strip clubs and tattoo parlors. Damn, neon, where’d you go wrong?
- The evolution of signs—going from wood to metal to plastic to glass to infinity and beyond, and also going from gas lamps to light bulbs to neon tubes
- How signs are, pretty literally, signs of the times. Take the Big Boy, for instance, and how his appearance has changed coinciding with changes in societal norms. He no longer has red hair—no more discriminating against gingers! He no longer carries a slingshot—no more promoting violence! He now lacks the potbelly and pudgy cheeks of days gone by—no more associating fast food with childhood obesity! (But really guys, why even waste your time with that last one? The jig is up!)
At the American Sign Museum you’ll learn everything you didn’t know you needed to know about signs. You’ll learn the ins and outs of signs, both literally and metaphorically, and you’ll realize what a fool you were for thinking there was nothing worth knowing about signs. FOOL!
LOVE THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM FOR: THE TOUR ITSELF
For starters, the museum is set up to look like a Main Street from the good ol’ days. Fire hydrants and lampposts along a brick road, mock storefronts, and the promise of wicked cheap hamburgers will have you yearning for the ‘50s and ‘60s where you can live out all your wildest Mad Men fantasies. Ya know, like the one where you wear fancy, feminine dresses and host fabulous dinner parties for the Madison Avenue elite. What? Did you think I meant the one where you tip that waitress a bunch of money so she let’s you bang her in the alley next to the dumpster? Eww, no, not that one. Nostalgia aside, I don’t think there are enough cigarettes left in the world for another season of Mad Men.
Now that I’ve put dirty ideas in your head, I should mention that the American Sign Museum prioritizes their guided tours over general admission. I was apprehensive about this at first because of my hindered ability to pay attention and my high probability of asking a shitload of questions. Turns out, they made a believer out of me. Because of this MO:
- The museum is quiet—perfect for actually being able to hear what the tour guide is saying instead of the unrestrained wails of a bored toddler who couldn’t give two craps about the use of argon vs. neon.
- The museum isn’t crowded—there aren’t people constantly butting in front of you while you’re trying to read something; and you won’t be pushed or shoved or bumped into while you’re acting out scenes from Mad Men, season one. (The one where Betty shoots all those pigeons… hilarious!)
- You’ll feel like part of the Madison Avenue elite—my tour group was extremely small (me, three friends, and a couple of strangers) so the whole experience had the air of a private, VIP tour, the whole museum our blinking, buzzing oyster. When you realize your life has gone from getting inked under a neon light to touring a museum about them, you know you’ve moved up.
But besides the way the tour makes you feel, you’ll love how it noticeably makes the tour guide feel. The guides at the American Sign Museum obviously love what they do. They clearly have a passion for signs and can tell you (almost)* anything you want to know about them. The museum is organized by time period—ergo, sign type—includes information placards, and, my favorite, old black and white pictures of the signs you’re looking at on the buildings they used to be on.
*I did manage to accidentally stump our tour guide with a light bulb-related question. But, before we left he did some research to find the answer for me. There was no way he was gonna let me leave without knowing how black lights work.
After the guided tour, you’re welcome to roam about the museum independently–like a wildebeest on the African plains or a grown-ass woman in the wine section of Costco. Feel free to check out any signs not covered on the tour, take more pictures, and discuss with your friends how unbelievably awesome the American Sign Museum is while your tour guide runs to Google your previous, unanswered question about black lights.
LOVE THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM FOR: THE SENSORY OVERLOAD
With its overwhelming barrage of blinking bulbs, flashing lights, and bright colors, the American Sign Museum has all the excitement and flair of a casino floor. It’ll take you back to all those exhilarating nights you spent chasing the odds as a high roller in Las Vegas Atlantic City Tunica, Mississippi. That’s right, we’re talking $1-a-hand blackjack people! The only things that could make this memory more real would be a group of Japanese businessmen playing a card game you’ve never heard of and a middle-aged woman in a bustier walking around mumbling, “Cocktails…”
But while a casino is full of screams, ding-ding-dings, and however you’d write the sound the slot machine makes when you pull the arm down, the American Sign Museum is mostly quiet. The only sounds you can hear: the buzzing of the neon and the clicking of the blinking bulbs. To stand in the rooms surrounded by all of this is a truly unique experience. The fact that I found a nickel in the parking lot and walked away 5 cents richer is just a coincidence.
LOVE THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM FOR: THE BEHIND THE SCENES
Remember when you were little and all you wanted was to be an assistant on a live taping of the Mr. Wizard show? No? You mean you actually friends and hobbies and stuff? Ha! Okay… whatever you say. Well, blatant denial aside, I can tell you that your time has finally come.
After your guided tour of the American Sign Museum, they give you the option of sticking around and heading into the workshop for an up-close lesson on how neon signs are made. In a continuing effort to get always get my money’s worth, I opted to check this out. And this two-part demonstration was INCREDIBLE! Like, red sticker on something you actually need at Target, incredible.
The first guy demonstrates (on actual signs being made for actual commissioned projects) how the glass tubes for neon lighting are assembled and shaped. There’s fire and there are tools and neat tricks and there are absolutely no gloves or safety goggles anywhere. To say the potential danger of it all was thrilling would be an understatement. The second half of the demonstration involved the other sign maker showing us how the neon and argon gasses are added to the tubes and, again: warnings all over the place, no shits given. These two demonstrations took about an hour total and it was worth every second.
These behind-the-scenes demonstrations were my favorite part. Being behind the workbenches, shown one-on-one how it all comes together right before our eyes was such a unique experience that you don’t get at any other museum. Imagine if Michelangelo could take you into the backroom of the Sistine Chapel to show you how ceilings are painted. It’s kinda like that. The people at the American Sign Museum really love their craft and their desire to spread this enthusiasm is palpable. They just let you right into their workshop! There are staples and tar and flames everywhere—this isn’t some two-bit demonstration in front of a passing tour group; this is personalized, up-close, and potentially face-melting exposure to trade secrets.
LOVE THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM FOR: WHAT IT’LL DO TO YOU
So I said the American Sign Museum changed me and I meant it. Immediately after leaving the museum my friends and I were non-stop commenting on all the neon signs we came across. I mean, could life be more perfect for a group of friends about to hit up a bunch of bars? After your visit, you’ll do the same. You’ll notice how the signs you see are shaped and lit; you’ll notice how particular logos haven’t changed in 60 years; and you’ll brag about knowing how to form letters from glass tubes. I know something you don’t know! It’ll be like knowing some real American secrets, having knowledge on a subject that no one knows anything about. You’ll walk by the sign at the Shell station and give it a little wink like, “I know where you came from…”
The American Sign Museum has also motivated me to check out countless other lesser-known American museums. Where I once stuck strictly to the Louvres, the Mets, the National Galleries of the world, I’m now more open to giving the little guys a shot.
THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM
⇢ WEBSITE | americansignmuseum.org
⇢ ADDRESS | 1330 Monmouth Avenue, Cincinnati, OH
⇢ MUSEUM HOURS | Wednesdays – Saturdays 10 AM – 4 PM // Sundays 12 PM – 4 PM
⇢ GUIDED TOURS | Wednesdays – Saturdays 11 AM & 2 PM // Sundays 2 PM
⇢ ADMISSION | Regular adult admission: $15 // Seniors (65+), Students, Military: $10
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