Sunday, February 2, 2020

Mosaic Monday #65: American Sign Museum

Our daughter has abundant talents, and one of them is her uncanny ability to discover quirky museums.  So it was that we found ourselves at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, during our November visit to Ohio.  Get ready for some eye candy, coupled with sign trivia that you will probably appreciate, and then promptly forget!

Examples of trade signs, such as the
top hat for a men's clothing shop
Signs are the oldest form of advertising, dating back more than 5,000 years.  Throughout most of their history, signs have been symbolic and taken the shape of what is known as a "trade sign".  Trade signs are visual images - painted, but more often three-dimensional - that represent the business, product or service offered.

The use of letters in signage is actually a recent development, gaining acceptance only in the mid to late 19th century.  This era's signs assumed the character of print advertising, which became practical only through increased literacy.  At first, letters were flat-painted onto a background, but the cut-out letter soon followed.
Picture can be enlarged to read about Smalt, a texture applied to the
paint for the background of signs, improving the readability of the words
Smalt came in diverse colors
The first wall of the museum contains a condensed history of dimensional letters, with examples from each of the key eras - hand-carved and gilded letters in the 1890s; first electric signs of the Lightbulb Era circa 1910; backlit, "raised" opal glass letters from the teens; Neon Era in the late 1920s with exposed tubing mounted on raised letters; plastics prevalent in the sign industry after World War II. 
History wall - oldest letters on the right progressing to newest on the left

Plastic letter sample case.  1960s era sample case was given to sign companies by Wagner Zip-Change, Inc., of Melrose Park, IL.  Kit included a number of sample letters and a miniature, backlit reader board for displaying letters.   

Big Boy.  The late 1960s version of this famous icon has the tell-tale three-dimensional slingshot, red hair and striped pants of the early version.  Later versions either had the slingshot embossed to his pants, or more recently, had no slingshot at all, thanks to political correctness.  The modern Big Boy also sports checked pants vs. the early stripes, and brown or black hair rather than the more mischievous red.  Today's Big Boys are also not as well-fed as the original.

Showcards were a staple of commercial signshops up until the advent of digital printing in the 1980s.  They could be as simple as knockout department store "Sale" signs, or as refined as theatre posters of the 1920s-1940s with portrait-like pictorials of starring actors/actresses.  The Showcard artists who created these fine art posters were those who had a little more flair with the brush.  Unfortunately, not many of these treasures survived, for at the time, they were considered "temporary" and were tossed out once the movie had run its course.

If showcards were reserved for painters with the most flair, gold-leaf on glass was seen as the most revered technique among sign painter circles.  Gilding was "high art" and commanded great respect.  Chicago-based Rawson and Evans was known exclusively for its fancy "chipped glass signs", and the company created the large glue-chipped and gilded mahogany-framed glass signs for a cigar store owned by the Breneiser family.  The signs epitomize the height of the fancy glass signs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Lightbulb Era: 1900 - 1925.  Regal Boot.  The circa 1910 cast metal boot was originally located in Brooklyn, NY.  When acquired, the sign had been retrofitted with neon tubing.  The museum left one side with the neon, and restored the other to its original lightbulb illumination.  The flashing border was also restored.
Green and white glass backlit by lightbulbs, within a metal frame
We came all the way to Cincinnati to see a sign from Montana!  In the 1930s, this sign was in downtown Missoula.
The deco design porcelain neon sign features gilded, raised letters, a trademark of the manufacturer,
Artkraft Signs, Lima, OH.
Manufactured by the McSavaney Company of Springfield, OH, this circa 1925 "punch-out" sign is internally illuminated with incandescent lightbulbs.  Louvered "holes" are punched into the sheet metal to allow light to filter through and illuminate the letters and borders.  Background is glass smalts as is typical of McSavaney signs.
Post World War II Neon Era: 1945 - 1960
"Golfer".  An excellent example of a sign bridging the Neon and Plastic Eras by incorporating both types of illumination: backlit plastic and exposed neon.  Sign originally identified a short 9-hole golf course at a former Rochester, NY amusement park.  It originally was mounted on a pole and rotated; unfortunately, the back half of the plastic golf ball was missing when the sign was purchased.

The early 1950's porcelain enamel neon sign below originally identified a Kansas City area motel.  It is a 'transition' sign from the standpoint that it bridges the Plastic and Neon Eras - the plastic sun/moon and cloud formation are internally illuminated with neon.  This sign was donated by Jim Seelen, Shawnee, KS.  Seelen has been photographically documenting vintage neon motel signs for more than 3 decades.  He personally rescued this sign from its original site.
1963 Speedee McDonald's Sign - Huntsville, AL.  The below example of the iconic "Speedee" single-arch sign originally identified one of several franchise stores in Huntsville, AL owned by the Steve Johnson family.  The sign was threatened with destruction when the family planned to expand the store in 2008 and needed to move the sign closer to the road.  The city would not grant a variance to move and re-install the sign.  Various options were explored to keep the sign in its native Huntsville, but ultimately the Johnsons approached the museum about purchasing the sign.  A deal was made and the museum arranged to have the sign taken down - amidst much local fanfare - and transported to Cincinnati.  Total cost for removal, transportation, restoration and installation was approximately $30,000.
When the sign was acquired,  the "15 cents" had been painted over, and the "ONE" had been updated to "99".  In the museum, one side was left in that condition, while the side you are seeing was restored to its original condition.
Left: I love the intricacy of the top of the Howard Johnson's sign
Right: Vic Cassano Pizza King is a restaurant that recalls my childhood in a suburb of Dayton, OH - I don't think
we ever sat in one, but my Dad raved about the entrepreneurship of a local grocer who built a pizza dynasty
So, did you enjoy the tour?  Which sign appealed to you the most?  What childhood memories do you have of roadway signs, business signs or other forms of advertisement?  Maybe tomorrow you will take a closer look at all the signs that populate our world!

Welcome to Mosaic Monday, a weekly meme where we get together to share our photo mosaics and collages.
Please include at least one photo mosaic/collage in your post.
The link will be open from 1 p.m. Sunday until 11 p.m. Monday (U.S. Mountain time).
Remember to add the link to your Mosaic Monday post and not the one to your blog.
Please link back to this post so that your readers will be able to visit and enjoy more wonderful mosaics; taking the MM blog button from my sidebar is an easy way to link back.
As host I will visit every participant and leave a comment so that you know I stopped by.
Please try and visit as many other blogs as you can, especially those that join in later, so that everyone's creativity can be appreciated fully.
Thank you for joining in today and sharing your mosaics with us.

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  1. I love old signs, too. They bring back such memories. Like the Big Boy, and hamburgers after a date at the movies with your best friend! He always had to have two Big Boy burgers and yes, he knew how big they were. Thank you and have a grand week!

  2. Museums are important for our culture. A friend of me collect Music boxes, the Wurlitzers... it's always a pleasure on sunday evening here. Happy MosaicMonday

    Heidrun xxx

  3. ...the ASM is one of the finest museums around, I visited Cincinnati to visit it and Spring Grove cemetery. Two special places.

  4. How very cool! I love quirky! and a museum of signs, I'm in!
    Dawn aka Spatulas On Parade

  5. A really interesting museum . I love the old cigar shop signs. I don't remember many glass or lit signs from my youth, but my Dad hand painted a sign that went in the back window of the bus he drove when taking the local Country Women's Association, it was a canoe, with an Indian chief at the front and the squaws sitting behind. Sadly it disappeared, no idea where it is now.

  6. Signs can be so interesting and clever can't they.
    This looks a great museum to visit, I did enjoy seeing your photographs.

    Hope your weekend has been good, wishing you a great week ahead.

    All the best Jan

  7. Just look at all those amazing signs. The old ones are my favourite. My father was a signwriter and there always seemed to be fascinating signage in progress around our house. Thank you for showcasing fun sign after fun sign.....all are fabulous!

  8. Oh we like that sign museum, there are so many interesting ones that are super cool. The Dad liked the Big Boy, there was one almost like it at Bob's Big Boy not too far from Pittsburgh way back in the Dad.

  9. It’s a bit scary how so many of those “very old” signs remind me of my childhood, scary, but not too surprising! And of course those that do are my favorites. ... I used to kind of collect (by camera) ) ghost signs when we traveled ... the really old kind painted on old but still standing commercial buildings ...those are fun, but rather difficult for a museum to include )).

  10. Now there were a lot of different signs. The history is very interesting also. It sure would be fun to visit that museum.

  11. What a unique idea for a museum. That Regal boot with the lights caught my eye.

  12. Fantastic old signs & a museum filled with treasures! Wishing fine new week Angie.

  13. looks like a fun place to visit! Happy travels and have a great week.

  14. I love old signs and your visit to this museum with your great photos certainly made me enjoy your post twice as much, Angie. I have a similar post from way back when we visited Athens and I took some photos of traditional Greek shop signs:

  15. Hello, the sign museum looks fun. Some of my old favorites are there, Big Boy's and Howard Johnson's. Funny my favorites are both food related memories. I enjoyed the collection of signs and this post. Thanks for hosting. Enjoy your day, wishing you a great new week!

  16. We were recently at the Sign museum and loved it! It's so interesting you can spend a lot of time there... brought back lots of memories of things gone by.

  17. Luv your old signs share. Happy mosaic Monday


  18. That really is a neat place to go! I like the old Sky Vu sign. There are still some old motel signs up here in FL on the backroads. And I always love seeing them on the show, American Pickers. So neat! Happy MM!

  19. Wonderful collection of signs and neat photos ^_^ ~ Fascinating !

    Happy Moments to You,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

  20. What a fun museum. It's always a treat to see some of the oldies but goodies. We went to Bob's Big Boy restaurants several times when they were the thing in Southern California. It's also fun to spot great signs on road trips. Happy Monday and new week to you!

  21. That's a very cool exhibit! The Husband and I could spend hours there and still not see everything. I like the old tin and wooden business signs, simple yet elegant, or is it eloquent. Let's say all three. An aptitude test I took once showed that my scores were high for Sign Maker. There's a what-if for me. :-)

  22. I so enjoyed this tour through old signboards. Big Boy reminded me of Japan’s Peko-chan and Poko-chan. As a little child, I liked eating at Fujiya restaurant and to be welcomed by these big dolls wearing different seasonal clothes each time. Regarding a road traffic sign, a picture sign meaning "beware jumping wild deer into the road" was impressive when I visited Nara Park area for the first time.


  23. Neat. It looks like there's something there for everyone.

  24. What a fun museum. I've always wanted to go to the sign museum/grave yard in Las Vegas. That would be a great photo safari. I saw a lot of humorous signs in Belize warning of weird dangers!

  25. There was anybody would be, I think.

  26. How cool! I love old signs too. I could spend an afternoon in that museum.

  27. What a fun place to visit! I love old signs as well.

  28. I remember those 15 cent McDonalds hamburgers. I had a horse at a stable near my home. There was a woman who kept her horse there and would take the girls out once in a while and buy us all a burger, fry and pop. But I guess in those days 15 cents meant a lot more than it does these days. The museum looks like a lot of fun and memories. - Margy

  29. Oh, my! I would have to stay there for about three days taking photos! These are so cool, whimsical, funny, inventive!!

    Feel free to share at My Corner of the World

  30. I think the pizza king one suits me most.


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