Scenes from the American Sign Museum

Shell
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400
2017

It is comforting to encounter the roadside architecture and signage of my 1970s childhood, even when it’s in a museum. Shell service stations were even more common then than now, it seems. And in the 1970s, they were service stations where a man came out to fill your tank, clean your windshield, and check your oil. Every location I ever saw would also repair your car when it broke down. Their slogan was, “Service Is Our Business.”

About the photograph: I scanned these negatives myself. I’m doing more of that now, as it cuts costs. I haven’t figured out settings in Silverfast yet that do a truly good job of eliminating scratches and dust spots. I do get weary of manually editing them out. I gave up in this shot. But given its hue and softness, the marks seem okay somehow.

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Photography

single frame: Shell

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Scenes from the American Sign Museum

The Emmanuel Baptist Church Drug Company
Pentax ME
50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400

I was trying to shoot just the church sign and didn’t really see the humorous placement of the sign behind it until I got the negatives back from the processor.

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Photography, Road trips

single frame: The Emmanuel Baptist Church Drug Company

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Scenes from the American Sign Museum

HoJo’s
Pentax ME
50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400

Could this have been my favorite sign in the American Sign Museum?

50mm was too confining a focal length in the museum’s tight spaces. I couldn’t back up far enough to get most scenes in. So I had to work within the constraint, using strategic framing and finding dramatic angles.

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Photography, Road trips

single frame: HoJo’s

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Image

Scenes from the American Sign Museum

Neonpallooza
Pentax ME
50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400

The neon was out in force at the American Sign Museum!

Photography, Road trips

single frame: Neonpallooza

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Image

Scenes from the American Sign Museum

Glass-letter signs
Pentax ME
50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400

I took the Pentax ME along on my Cincinnati spring break trip with Garrett. I have always wanted to shoot serious neon on film, and the American Sign Museum surely gave me a great opportunity.

But of course these signs aren’t neon. The letters are all backlit glass. Such signs preceded the neon era.

Photography, Road trips

single frame: Glass-letter signs

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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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