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American Sign Museum opens to public

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Tod Swormstedt found himself in a sign boneyard one too many times.

Swormstedt’s family has owned Signs of the Times, a trade magazine for the sign manufacturing industry since 1911—almost since its inception in 1906. As a result, Swormstedt has been working in and around the industry for more than 25 years. “My great-grandfather edited the first issue [of Sign of the Times],” he explains from his cell phone. “So I spent a lot of time in sign shops. I saw signs being thrown out for lack of space, especially in urban areas where people were cleaning up the environment. Old signs were being thrown away.”

Watching pieces of history being thrown away eventually got to Swormstedt. In 1998, he decided to do something about it. “I came up with the idea for a history of the sign [manufacturing] business,” he laughs. “I guess it was kind of a midlife crisis.”

Swormstedt is about to reap the fruits of his midlife crisis. The American Sign Museum will have its grand opening in April, 2005, but sign afficionados are already knocking on his door.

“It’s so much more than just signs hanging on the wall,” Swormstedt explains. “We’re much more upscale than what people expect [from a sign museum].”

The only one of its kind in the nation, the American Sign Museum boasts three major areas devoted to different aspects of the history of the American sign industry: Signs of Main Street, a timeline history of the industry told through three dimensional letters, and visual microhistory of signs, affectionately termed the “Sign Garden.”

Signs of Main Street is a collection of life-sized storefront replicas–a 1932 gas station, a café from 1910, a 1920s shoe store and of course, a corner drugstore from the late 1930s—all complete with authentic signs from the appropriate era. The storefronts are painted in grayscale to emphasize the colors of the signs; the “windows” of each storefront are actually display cases that house smaller, era-appropriate signs.

“We’ve designed 12 storefronts,” Swormstedt states, “but we only have room for four in our current location.”

Though the history of the lettering used on signs is of great interest to him personally, Swormstedt knows that most folk who visit the museum will probably be more interested in the Signs of Main Street and the Sign Garden.

“The Sign Garden will help to teach people what signs came from which era,” he explains. “It ranges from the Art Nouveau era to the late 1950s.”

Swormstedt believes that the history of the industry is worth learning. “The history of signs, lighting and design—it’s a visual example of the history of America. That’s what we try to get across.”

For sign collectors, the museum will be a mecca of sorts, where they can swap stories and trade tales. Swormstedt said that he had no idea that so many people were interested in sign collection until he started covering that aspect of the business in his writing for Signs of the Times. “I’d written a few articles on people who had collections of old signs,” he explains, “but I wasn’t fully aware of the network of sign collectors and antique dealers—of how many people really collect signs.”

Those who do collect, he says, are the same folk who are fascinated by Americana and the more specific category of “Roadside Americana.” According to Swormstedt, that sub-group can be further divided into people who collect “petroliana”—images and memorabilia to do with gas stations—and those who collect signs and remembrances from old motels and diners.

Certainly, Swormstedt has discovered a niche market. But he is also serving two different communities apart from collectors—small towns who want to know the history of signs in their towns and the film industry. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he sighs. “People think that neon [signs] were around at the turn of the century. There was no neon until the 1920s.” He has become a resource for producers making period films who want to make sure they are historically accurate.

After he was quoted in an AP story about “ghost signs”—signs painted on the side of brick buildings—Swormstedt received calls for months from local papers who picked up the story and wanted information specific to their town.

The calls alone are enough to keep him busy, but Swormstedt stays focused on his dream—acquiring signs for his growing museum. “Sometimes we get [signs] free from sign companies,” he says. “I get a lot of help from sign companies. They’ll hear about a building being torn down and tell me. We also buy signs through a network of dealers.” Technically, the American Sign Museum is a non-profit organization; financially, Swormstedt’s venture is being underwritten in part by ST Media Group International, current publisher of Signs of the Times and four other industry-related magazines.

Although the museum doesn’t necessarily focus on local signs, Swormstedt says that he has acquired a few from Lachner’s, Ohio Displays, Kroger and a “fiberglass Big Boy that was stripped, painted and refinished to look as it did in the 1960s, thanks to Karen Maier [vice president of marketing for Frisch’s].” He also has his eye on a few local signs, including the one for Skyline Chili sitting on the corner of Ludlow Ave. and Clifton Ave.

Drivers who frequent the Clifton area have probably seen a few of Swormstedt’s signs hanging out in the parking lot at the corner of MacMillan and Essex. “They’re too big for the current space,” he says. But they serve as great advertising for museum, which is located at that same intersection. At this point, the American Sign Museum is open by appointment only, but Swormstedt says “if I’m in town, I’m open. Just call me. I live five minutes away.”

Clearly, signs are his passion. And communicating his passion to the rest of the world—through letters, displays, storefronts and neon—is the sign of Swormstedt’s time.

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