When Tod Swormstedt sleeps, he sees signs.

When he's awake, same thing. The Cincinnati publishing executive encounters signs, hundreds of 'em: Blinking neon banners, legendary fast-food icons, classic roadside kitsch ...

Perhaps it's to be expected of a man who is championing an American Sign Museum, set to open early this year. The museum will display the businessman's private collection of signs, thousands of 'em: Rare and collectible placards, vintage posters, historically significant banners, roadside Americana, pop art creations and more.

"I have all the classics. The 'Holiday Inn: The World's Innkeeper' sign, for instance, one of the great ones, with the arrow and chasing lights. And one of the early McDonald's signs, featuring a guy they called Speedy."

The enthusiastic Swormstedt is rattling off the favorites in his collection now: "There's the Dog 'n Suds porcelain neon graphic arrow, a full-sized 28-foot Howard Johnson lamplighter neon, a Goodyear opal glass image, a Hamm's Beer animated neon ..."

Swormstedt pauses for breath.

His American Sign Museum will launch in two stages, he continues. He is working on opening a prototype in a 3,400-square-foot "preview space," inside the old Essex warehouse in the city neighborhood of Walnut Hills. The museum's permanent home will eventually relocate to expanded space in Norwood by 2005 (the city has offered to lease a building for $1 a year).

As Swormstedt pitches his ambitious vision, a museum devoted to nothing less than preserving and chronicling "the front line of advertising," you begin to get the religion.

When asked, "Why in Cincinnati?" Swormstedt's rapid-fire response is, "Why not Cincinnati?" The city is home to The Procter & Gamble Co., the largest commercial advertiser in the world. Home to dozens of turn-of-the-century sign makers and pioneers of the craft, billboard artists, poster printing companies and manufacturers of sign-related objects. And, not incidentally, home to Swormstedt's own ST Media Group International, publisher of the nation's largest trade pub devoted to the commercial sign industry, the century-old Signs of the Times magazine.

The tale of how Swormstedt's private collection evolved into a public campaign for a new museum began simply enough: "I was having a midlife crisis," he says of his work at the magazine, where his grandfather and dad worked and where his brother and two cousins are employed. "I'm still on the payroll, but my focus is the museum."

View his collection, which spans from 1880 to the present, and you begin to imagine the possibilities: Pass by a hand-painted tin sign with push-through embossed opal glass text. Check out a Chicago dry cleaner's shop window sign that's a neon clock. Move on to a countertop "shoe repair" sign that's an illuminated plastic panel. And next onto a Pennsylvania "optician and jeweler" advertisement (back when those jobs were one in the same).

The collection began, and prospered, simply as a byproduct of his magazine work. "I was not originally aware of the network of collectors in antique signs," says Swormstedt, who now sits on the board of the national Society for Commercial Archaeology. "It's a big network of collectors and some big money is being spent ... on porcelain, neon and vintage signs.

"Some signs are fetching up to $10,000 each on eBay, which is the good news and the bad news. It means there is definitely an interest. But it's going to be hard for me to get more of this stuff."

More and more, too, he has to be careful of the swindlers: "There's a lot of counterfeit signs. There are all these Burma Shave signs, fakes, sitting around in antique shops. That began about 20 years ago, when those signs really became popular."

Resting for a moment among the crates of packed and unpacked signs, Swormstedt pauses to contemplate his surroundings "” and his passions.

"Clutter. Well, clutter is good."