Lonely Planet Writer

Cincinnati's American Sign Museum plans major expansion next year

The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio plans to double in size by next year. The new space, dedicated to cutting-edge digital and LED technology, won’t double the museum’s electric bill which, thanks to all the glowing neon signs, runs close to $4000 a month.

McDonald's sign
McDonald’s sign.  Image by American Sign Museum

The signs on display run the gamut from late 1800s pre-electric to iconic American corporate symbols like the McDonald’s arches. It feels like the back lot of a movie studio or the gaudiest main street in the USA. Literal signs from one’s childhood, like the rotating Bob’s Big Boy statue, evoke nostalgia and longing for a burger.

In popular culture, neon signs are usually associated with gaudy Vegas casinos, cheesy Doo-Wop style hotels on the Jersey Shore or more sophisticated Art Deco ones in Miami or billboard-sized flashing ads in Times Square. But Neon, in which gas is electrified in coloured tubes, was a French invention, first demonstrated by Nicola Tesla at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The first in the US, according to museum guide Kevin Wallace, was for a mundane Packard car dealership in LA. Wallace explains that neon, barring damage from bad weather or a wayward rock, can essentially last forever. “When a cafe in LA was being renovated, they knocked down a wall and discovered a lamp from the 1930s was still on.”

Neon signs at the American Sign Museum.
Neon signs at the American Sign Museum.

Wallace explains that the only other sign museum in the US is an ‘outdoor neon boneyard’ in Vegas. “But we see ourselves very much as a history museum of a ubiquitous, but little-discussed piece of Americana.” He points to one of his favourites, the Satellite Shopland sign, a spiky orb that once topped a sign in Anaheim, California. “Only in the ’50s, with Sputnik and the space race and futurist-oriented Disneyland nearby, would someone have thought to design this for a shopping center parking lot.”