What is SOS?

It is no secret that there is a renewed interest in saving vintage signs. Although the number of projects across the country involving restoring and preserving signs has been increasing, there is no central place for sharing information. The American Sign Museum is launching SOS – Save Old Signs – with the goal of filling that need by becoming the resource center and serving as the meeting place for the community of sign preservation and restoration enthusiasts.


Why is the American Sign Museum Doing This?

The American Sign Museum’s Mission is “To celebrate the rich history of American signage through preservation and education.” We initially focused on meeting this goal within the walls of the museum, but we have always believed saving signs within the museum should be the last resort. We are now expanding our efforts to support preserving signs in their rightful place: within their own community. It is a work in progress, but we are confident it will bring value to champions of iconic signs across the country by sharing resources that will help them in their efforts.


Why is it called SOS?

SOS was an acronym used in the mid to late-1960s for grassroots campaigns that sprang up across the country to remove neglected and abandoned signs. Local sign companies and/or state sign associations initiated these “Scrap Old Signs’ campaigns as a public service to clean up their local cityscapes. These programs were also partly in response to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 which legislated the off-premise, outdoor advertising industry. The on-premise sign industry wanted to improve its public relations to counter the increasingly hostile anti-sign sentiment that was growing across the country.


These trends of the 1960s-1980s have begun to reverse themselves. Many of the signs that were lost to the scrapyards would be celebrated today. The tide has turned, and SOS no longer signifies Scrap Old Signs, but Save Old Signs!


Why the change in attitude toward old signs?

It varies. Some purists simply love old signs as art and roadside Americana and are gaining their voice. Many are driven by nostalgia for an earlier time, or for the memories of a particular landmark. More and more, however, communities are coming to realize the economic value of preserving iconic signs that can serve as an anchor or destination or identity within a district that can actually bring additional revenue to the area.


I know of a local sign that is endangered. What can I do to save it?

Begin by asking the business owner what the plans are for the sign. If the property owner is keeping the sign—even for now—great. If not, then you need to get busy. If the business is no longer in operation, you may have to go to your local courthouse or other resource to see who the current owner of the property is. Contact your local historic preservation community to determine if the sign is in a historic district and/or if the property itself is deemed historic. Knowing both of these pieces of information will determine what to do next.


Most efforts to save signs are grassroots-based. Create awareness and find others also interested in saving the sign, thereby building a critical mass of support. Reach out to anyone and everyone, because you never know where you’ll find support. Call us here at the American Sign Museum. Ask for Tod Swormstedt or dial direct: (513) 701-2183. Tod is an encyclopedia of sign history and industry contacts across the country. He also has experience working with city planners and town councils.


Contact your local city councilperson or the equivalent with whom you have a rapport or who has an interest in historic preservation. Contact your local historical museum or society. Write an editorial for your local newspaper. Post on the community website or newsletter. Create a sign to put on the building reading, “Help Save this Sign” and include your name and phone number. And of course, spread the word through social media. Leave no stone unturned.


It’s likely to take $$$ to save an endangered sign. Research the possibility of grants, consider crowd sourcing, hold a fundraising event, get creative!


Debra Jane Seltzer—sign super sleuth—has developed a chart for saving signs, citing various scenarios. 


How can I get involved in local sign preservation efforts?

As soon as you begin researching an abandoned sign, you’re involved. Undoubtedly, there are others in your community who also love vintage signs. Seek them out through your local or state preservation or historical societies and museums, nearby sign companies, or other community resources. The internet is your friend in finding like-minded sign enthusiasts. And again, contact Tod here at the museum at (513) 701-2183.


How can I support the museum’s SOS program?

Become a member of the museum to support our efforts. Let us know about sign preservation efforts in your area. Let those in your area who are also interested in sign preservation efforts know about the museum and the SOS program. Sign up for SOS updates, which will bring SOS news, as well as general museum news, to your inbox. Sign up here.