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American Sign Museum Campaigns to “Save Old Signs”

You never know where the next treasure will be found



Tod Swormstedt is the executive director of the American Sign Museum.

Some of the museum’s success — especially with the general public — is interest in vintage signs. Whether its newspaper articles profiling the local sign collector, or the eBay listings for “porcelain neon” and/or “neon clocks” or television shows like American Pickers and Antique Roadshow, or the barrage of questions we receive every day about the value of the old sign they found in Uncle Tom’s bar, the trend is undeniable. No doubt, many of you experience the same phenomena. It’s certainly good news for the museum, and maybe good news for you, if you can have the patience to deal with the inquiries.
But it’s especially beneficial in terms of sign restoration. Many of you have been sought out specifically about restoring a neighborhood icon. Admittedly, this relatively new source of income has its own set of challenges, but it can be a real opportunity.
Consider this: When was the last time the general public rallied around a sign’s installation? But, that’s exactly what happens when a grassroots effort unites to save a neighborhood icon. The public actually beseeches local officials and developers — often sign-industry nemeses — to save an old sign. Don’t such efforts carry a persistent message: the value of the on-premise sign? And now, the public is doing it on our behalf. Never mind the facts about the value of signs; these emotional efforts are the type any pro-sign lobbyist would die for.
I joined ST at the end of the Scrap Old Signs efforts of the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. These SOS programs were the sign industry’s strategy to get back in good favor with the powers-that-be. That same SOS campaign has now become Save Old Signs, and the industry should jump on it.
The museum always knew sign restoration and preservation were noteworthy trends, but now, through Google Alerts, we’ve actually begun documenting what we thought we knew. For the last 12-14 months, we’ve been alerted about newspaper coverage of such projects, and we’ve started cataloging them by number of signs, dollar volume, how they’re funded, and related information, to create a database.
We want the people pushing these projects to become aware of the proliferation of other like projects across the U.S. and Canada. Perhaps it can shorten the learning curve. But maybe that’s not necessary. . .
By tracking all these projects, and getting those involved talking to each other, we could save time and effort, and make such projects more economically feasible. Here’s how the museum is documenting these projects: We first e-mail a survey of basic questions, and then follow up with phone calls to gather additional data. The idea of a conference to address this trend isn’t too far-fetched . . . and we’re just about the perfect organization and venue to host it.
We have asked certain national sign entities to help us gather information and disseminate it, but we were turned down. So we’re taking it on the road and hoping to present at local and regional sign events around the country, and continue to gather information. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from all of you about projects you’ve done or are considering doing related to sign restoration and preservation. Contact Tod Swormstedt at (513) 258-4020 or [email protected]



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