Road Trips

A visit to the American Sign Museum

Garrett and I took a spring break trip together last month, a two-day jaunt over to Cincinnati to see the sights and do the doings.

This was the last of our spring break trips. I’ve documented many of them here: Mammoth Cave; Route 66; a cabin in the Tennessee woods; Washington, DC, and the National Road as far as Ohio (where we wrecked our car). It’s been all about building good memories with my sons, the car crash notwithstanding. I’m sad to see this era in our lives end.

This final spring break trip was so short and lightly planned that it felt a little anticlimactic. Garrett had just had his wisdom teeth removed and needed several recovery days before he felt like traveling. And then the weather was bad for a 300-mile radius, limiting our options. So it wasn’t until Tuesday of that week that we decided to just go over to Cincy and see whatever there was to see, preferably indoors.

American Sign Museum entrance

I knew for sure that we’d visit the American Sign Museum. I’ve wanted to go for years. My old-road excursions have put me in contact with lots of Americana, frequently in neglected condition. At the American Sign Museum, everything is restored and fully functioning. And I hoped to connect with some childhood memories.

Holiday Inn

I admit it: I went primarily to see the neon. I’m just old enough to remember neon’s waning days along America’s roadside. As a kid, I loved to drive US 31 through Roseland, a little burg just north of my hometown of South Bend. It’s a strip of motels, mostly, serving the nearby Indiana Toll Road. Many of them boasted neon signs, one of which was an iconic Holiday Inn sign similar to the one above. There was even a Roto-Sphere, a neon-pointed rotating star, on that strip. It’s still there, actually. I have no idea why I didn’t photograph it when I made my trip along Indiana’s US 31 many years ago! But you can see it on this page of Roto-Spheres.

Sky-Vu Motel

The museum didn’t disappoint, serving up neon aplenty (like the Sky-Vu Motel sign that used to be on US 40 in Kansas City, Missouri). But the museum also educates its guests well on the history of American advertising signs, and other icons, like this Big Boy statue. But notice especially the signs behind it, individual letters all lit from behind with light bulbs. Such signs preceded the neon era.

Big Boy

But back to the neon. I’m not quite old enough to remember McDonald’s signs like this one, although I do remember my hometown still having a twin-arch walk-up Mickey D’s not far from my great-grandmother’s house.

McDonald's

I also remember seeing Howard Johnson’s hotels and restaurants by the roadside, but it was well past that chain’s heyday. Mom tells stories of her father, who often traveled on business during her 1950s girlhood, preferring to stay at Howard Johnson’s.

Howard Johnson's

One section of the museum set up a Main Street of sorts, with recreated storefronts lit by neon signs.

Cafe

A whole bunch of signs, all from businesses local to Cincinnati, illuminate an event space in the back of the museum’s large building.

Neon

Backlit plastic signs show up here and there at the museum, as well. As a kid I liked these distinctive Shell signs. They were still pretty common when I was small.

Shell

Our tour of the museum wrapped with a visit to a neon sign shop that operates out of the museum’s building. This shop is independent from the museum, but does all of the museum’s neon restorations. Here, this fellow is joining glass tubes.

Making a neon sign

I also shot a roll of film inside the museum, but as of this writing those photos haven’t come back from the lab yet. If they turn out, I’ll do another post from the museum.

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15 thoughts on “A visit to the American Sign Museum

  1. I love old signs like these, and will have to see this museum some time.

    The old Holiday Inn sign was common when I was young. When I was just beginning to read, I thought the sign said “Holiday Gun”. And one of those old neon McDonald’s signs was still very much in service at the downtown Muncie location when I was in college in the very early 80s. It made the food taste better. :)

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    • Oh how cool that an old neon McD’s sign was still in service in Muncie so late. The closest I’ve seen lately is this old plastic McD’s sign in Richmond:

      Old McDonald's sign

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  2. KM says:

    Nice post, Jim. The Holiday Inn, McDonald’s, and Howard Johnson’s signs brought back memories of travels with my grandparents in the 1960s and early 1970s. And I remember eating at Big Boy restaurants in Tallahassee, among other places. I guess they’re all gone now. Vanished like my childhood.

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    • Thanks! My hometown had Azar’s Big Boy through probably the early 1980s, and then when I moved to Indy some Frisch’s Big Boy locations were still open. Kind of sad the chain has essentially disappeared here.

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  3. Michael says:

    Can’t recall where I saw a McD sign like that. Is the graffiti on the HoJo purposely left or is that some really bizarre reflection?

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  4. I can really see why you wanted to go see those neon signs, Jim. Every one of your snaps is really shouting out that THIS is America!
    The closest we ever came to anything like this over here in the land of mountains would be the old backlit Shell sign. I remember that one quite well.
    Everything else would just be connected to memories from old(ish) american movies.

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  5. Pingback: The American Sign Museum – 13 Fun Facts | Everyday Wanderer by Shutterbug Sage

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