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Give Us Back/Our Burma Shave
By Lara Moody
Remember the one that went, HENRY THE EIGHTH / SURE HAD / TROUBLE / SHORT TERM WIVES / LONG TERM STUBBLE?
And who could forget this one? CAUTIOUS RIDER / TO HER/RECKLESS DEAR / LET’S HAVE LESS BULL / AND LOST MORE STEER.
If you were born before 1955, you grew up with Burma-Shave signs. Perhaps you never actually shaved with the stuff, but chances are good you cracked a smile as the red-and-white signs whizzed past on your family’s vacation to the mountains or along your route to the nearest town.
In his forward to the 1990 reprint of Frank Rowsome, Jr.’s the verse by the side of the road, a definitive history and collection of original Burma-Shave signs, former U.S. Senator Bob Dole captures a nostalgia for the era and its unforgettable painted pine board advertisements. “Growing up on the high plains of Kansas during the dust bowl years, I still remember the signs. They were as much a part of the scenery as the what fields and the cattle.”
“The big cities may have had outdoor ads the size of a ten-story building, or cigarette billboards that blew smoke rings, but rural America had Burma-Shave. We had the space, the ruler straight roads the staggered signs needed and, judging by the Burma-Shave message, the heaviest beards in America.”
Founded by an enterprising father-son team and later joined by two grandsons, the Burma-Vita Company, through trial and error, perfected first a brushless shaving cream and next an advertising campaign that would charm entire generations of consumers.
Credit for the invention of Burma-Shave cream goes to the father of Clinton Odell, who was a lawyer and tinker of sorts. A product which began as a liniment with an obviously limited market, evolved, with the help of a chemist friend named Carl Noren, into several hundred slightly different batches of experimental slush. When at last, formula One Forty-three was settled on as the finest shaving cream available, Clinton’s sons, Leonard and Allan, went to work with their father to sell their innovative Burma-Shave.
It was Allan Odell who recognized—and then insisted that the fledgling company capitalize upon the most memorable signage technique in American advertising history. While on the road hawking Burma-Shave’s jars on approval, Allan had seen an ingenious sequence of sign announcing the multitude of services available at a filling station ahead.
In discussing his idea for marketing their own product in a similar way, the young Odell had trouble convincing his father. Ad experts in Chicago frowned on the enterprise, advising that the sequenced sign techniques would have a limited appeal.
Finally, Allan prevailed, and Clinton gave him $200 to get started. On Route 65 and the road to red Wing, both leading out of Minneapolis, the Burma-Shave sign was born. Shortly after they were installed, the orders for their product came pouring in.
After a few years of original rhymes and puns, Clinton Odell and his son Allan had exhausted their poetic abilities, and in a move that demonstrated their characteristically good business sense, they called upon the customers themselves to write the ads. An annual contest was held by the Burma-Vita Company, with $100 paid for the winning verses. Public participation greatly expanded the Burma-Shave repertoire; some years the Odells had over 50,000 entries to sort through.
Whiskers, safe driving, and romantic humor continued as the hallmarks of the Burma-Shave ad campaigns, with road safety edging out as a favorite theme by the early 1940’s. PAST / SCHOOLHOUSES / TAKE IT SLOW / LET THE LITTLE SHAVERS GROW / BURMA-SHAVE succinctly managed to deliver a public service message, delight carloads, and advertise simultaneously.
Clinton Odell prided himself on his sizeable collection of commendations from highway administrators and safety councils. One study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania claimed that the Burma-Shave signs were a singularly successful means of slowing speeders. This 1955 series captures the unique ability of the ads to both gently admonish drivers and pitch their product in the final sign: SLOW DOWN, PA / SAKES ALIVE / MA MISSED SIGNS FOUR/ AND FIVE / BURMA SHAVE.
Gradually, as profits grew impressively, the messages grew more self-aware and even poked fun at themselves. In 1953, one verse weakly protested, WE’RE WIDELY READ / AND OFTEN / QUOTED / BUT IT’S SHAVES / NOT SIGNS / FOR WHICH WE’RE NOTED.
Flirtation also had its place along the road. Romantic advice from the shaving cream company was plentiful, as suggested in this series from around 1950: DOESN’T / KISS YOU / LIKE SHE USEDTER? / PERHAPS SHE’S SEEN / A SMOOTHER ROOSTER!!
Two years later came the clever and helpful MISSIN’ / KISSIN’? / PERHAPS YOUR THRUSH / CAN’T GET THRU / THE UNDERBRUSH—TRY / BURMA SHAVE.
Some ads nodded to the courting couples, cautioning them to consider others. WE KNOW / HOW MUCH / YOU LOVE THAT GAL / BUT USE BOTH HANDS / FOR DRIVING, PAL. But that 1947 dandy was as racy as Burma-Shave ever got.
While tame by today’s standards, verses like THE OTHER WOMAN / IN HIS LIFE / SAID “GO BACK HOME / AND SCRATCH YOUR WIFE” was wisely rejected by the senior Odell who liked his sign jingles as clean as his shaves. Clinton knew that he didn’t need to veer into an unseemly lane to be memorable. Success was sweetest with more innocent boy-girl verses like, SAID JULIET / TO ROMEO / IF YOU WON’T SHAVE / GO HOMEO.
Perhaps the most famous of all romantically focused series of signs was the classic from 1934: HE HAD THE RING / HE HAD THE FLAT / BUT SHE FELT HIS CHIN / AND THAT WAS THAT.
A series of red-and-white painted signs bearing those immortal lines punctuated the gravel drive up to the Nicholson farmhouse off State Road 12 between Quincy and Havana, Florida. An original cracker homestead serves as the rustic backdrop for some fine steak and seems a comfortable resting place for a sign series symbolic of America’s past.
In Columbia (MO), the 63 Diner proudly displays a set of reproduction Burma-Shave signs. Truckin’ USA supplied the recreated specialty item. Bruce Evans says, “At the diner we got so much response to those signs when they first went up, it was unbelievable. People who grew up in the 1950’s really love them, That was all they talked about, and we still get quite a few comments.”
Several Internet Web sites are devoted exclusively to the history of Burma-Shave signs. They are very popular Web sites. The Odells must be laughing at the irony of the hand-painted signs that once dotted the back roads of America are now so popular on the so-called “Information Superhighway.”
In 1963, the Burma-Vita Company was sold to Philip Morris, Inc. and became a division of American Safety Razor Products. The Burma-Shave signs were retired under the pressure of large billboards, radio, and TV.
Article after article mourned the passing of the Burma-Shave signs. One masterful tribute was written by William K. Zinsser for The Saturday Evening Post and later reprinted in Reader’s Digest.
The Advertising Club of New York held a formal luncheon to bid farewell to the signs and introduce the new TV campaign.
WITHIN THIS VALE / OF TOIL / AND SIN / YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD / BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE / BURMA SHAVE was placed in the Smithsonian Institute’s popular culture section.
Otherwise, the hand-lettered signs once nailed to farmers’ fences or planted 100 paces apart along the side of the road are gone.
Frank Rowsome, Jr. writes wistfully of the passing of signage history: “…as to whether the Burma-Shave road signs are actually all gone…many people will assure an inquirer that a set was noticed a few weeks ago on the road to Chambersburg, or maybe it was that straight stretch just south of Winthrop…with some thirty-five thousand signs once planted about the nation, it is certainly not impossible for a few to have evaded the dismantling crews; so the chance of a few spectral sets, picked up in the headlights of certain older cars on misty nights, should perhaps not be wholly discounted.”
Nonetheless, for nearly four decades, the series of red-and-white Burma Shave signs along the highways of America promised the nation smooth faces but certainly delivered many grinning smiles.
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