The roadways of America have a magical way of beckoning their travelers to do more than beeline between points A and B. From the blur of the interstates to the meander of the twisty byways, scads of signs announce scores of opportunities to spend money eating, sleeping, and having fun, while every rumbly station wagon is loaded down with weary passengers excited to do anything remotely more appealing than driving.
Since the automobile first parked in the driveways of suburbia, savvy business owners have been posting roadside placards announcing their wares to a captive audience: a clean place to sleep, a drive-through ice cream parlor, gem mining in a cavern, RV pull-through sites with water and electrical hook-ups, and the like. Somewhere in the midst of the capitalistic opportunity, a kitschy nostalgia was born — a call to the road that lures curious travelers onto historic routes to experience the wonder of yesteryear travel in the great US of A.
Consider perhaps the greatest of these, Route 66, the notorious ribbon of asphalt that ambles through forgotten towns from Chicago to Los Angeles. Long after the road was decertified as an official route, travelers with a yen for yesterday still motor down its traversable sections in search of the elusive adventure that can only be found in the middle of American nowhere.
It is impossible to think of the celebrated route without picturing the signage of its hotels, diners, drive-ins, and service stations. Those marvelous, colorful, angular, scripty icons of economic opportunity tell the tale of a way of life that may be gone but will never be forgotten. These signs of the times, as it were, tell the story of the idyllic, simple American life we catch ourselves wishing still existed. They still lure us off the road as we reach for our cameras, and their images are glued to the pages of our vacation scrapbooks.
How thrilled I was to learn that Cincinnati’s Tod Swormstedt has labored to preserve the history of American signage. In his grand warehouse of polished concrete floors, visitors can enjoy his extensive collection, a thoughtful progression of sign specimens from the early woodcarving era, to the lightbulb period, through the neon phase, into the plastic revolution, and onward to the contemporary, technological era.
Swormstedt describes his museum not simply as a history of signage but as the story of America itself, told through the lens of signs. Well said — to meander through the exhibit is to teleport through time, experiencing a taste of commerce and adventure since the industrial revolution . A mere $15 buys one admission, which includes a fascinating guided tour if you are there at the right time. (View museum hours, tour details, and general information here.)
Words are not suitable to describe the astonishing collection. Truth be told, photographs fail as well. There is no substitute for a first-hand experience of what this BlinkPacker deems to be one of the most fascinating museums this country has to offer. So schedule a visit to Cincinnati soon for some five-way chili and a visit to the American Sign Museum. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite with the shots I snapped. Enjoy.