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by Ron McCoy

In school zones Burma-Shave logo
Take it slow
Let the little
Shavers grow

From the mid 1920's to the 1960's, the landscape along old paved two-lane roads in America was marked with rectangular signs carrying advertising jingles by the Minneapolis-based Burma-Shave Company (Burma-Vita). The catchy and often corny four-part rhymes were painted on a series of five, sometimes six small wooden signs, each placed about 100 feet apart. The last sign always said BURMA-SHAVE, which, in order to create a brand awareness, advertised the company's "new and revolutionary brushless" shaving cream. Burma Shave signs were the precursor to modern billboard signs on America's earliest roads and folks became addicted to reading them. Now, a part of roadside folklore, only the oldest of baby boomers will remember this nostalgic advertising campaign.

The original signs were 10 inches high and 36 inches long and constructed from second-hand boards. They increased slightly in size in later years. Each saying was posted, a phrase at a time, in rhymed couplets, on signs placed in sequence and became the centerpiece of one of the most unique marketing campaigns in history. The first signs were erected in 1925 when the automobile had people beginning to take to the roads of America. They were ingenious and popular because of their often-distinct humor, surprise endings, puns and safety-oriented themes. Burma-Shave introduced the notion of regular nationwide advertising to America in an era when little competing outdoor roadside advertising existed.

Don't stick
Your elbow
Out so far
It might go home
In another car

Is He Lonesome
Or Just Blind
This Guy Who Drives
So Close Behind?

Burma-Shave advertising began in the mid-1920’s along with the rise of the automobile industry. The automobile provided motorists of the time with a sense of freedom to explore and pioneer across their vast country, roaming along the winding state roads. The small white-on-red signs were designed to be read one line at a time as travelers rolled down the highways of America. As a popular diversion to the monotony of the road, the kids in the car would often read the signs outloud and invariably anticipated the next set of signs. The jingles were always positive, fun and helped relieve boredom during long-distance trips (at much slower speeds than today's standard). It is said that they even encouraged and helped kids learn to read.

The sign campaign reached its peak in the early 1950's as an estimated 600 Burma-Shave rhymes appeared in about 7,000 locations in 45 states, truly becoming a part of Americana. During World War II, homesick soldiers even created handmade signs and erected them for fun in Alaska, Germany, and Antarctica.

Dinah wouldn't
Treat him right
But if he'd
Have shaved

Ben met Anna
Made a hit
Ben-Anna split.

Early on, several attempts to market Clinton Odell's brushless shaving cream proved unsuccessful and the company came close to bankruptcy. The shaving cream inventor's son, Allan Odell, pitched the roadside advertising campaign to his father after noticing small highway signs alerting motorists to gas stations and cafes ahead. His father resisted the idea at first but finally agreed and, in 1925, gave Allan a $200 budget for the first set of road signs. Recycled boards were used for the original crude and hand-stenciled signs. Six were erected on a highway outside of Minneapolis and an American tradition was born. By 1926, orders started rolling in and sales increased.

Half a pound
For half
A dollar
Spread on thin
Above the collar

The majority of the verses were written by Odell although he also conducted an annual nationwide contest for jingles, open to both professionals and amateurs, offering $100 prizes for any jingle used. Thousands of people sent in entries each year but usually fewer than 20 were acutally selected. Wanting to maintain a wholesome reputation for the company, they always rejected any jingle that might be offensive to anyone. The messages of the signs covered a number of categories including: public service, traffic safety, witty observations, wisdom, advice for men and hints for women about men. The signs were completely changed once a year.

The chick he wed
Let out a whoop
Felt his chin and
Flew the coop

Farmers often rented their land along the roadsides for the signs, sometimes being paid $25 a year and sometimes with a case of the product in lieu of cash. They even protected the signs from vandalism, farm animals and many repaired broken ones. Burma-Shave, in turn, made them feel a part of the family by sending them a newsletter and, occasionally featuring them by name in some of the jingles.

The beginning of the end to the roadside signs came in 1963. Philip Morris purchased the Burma-Vita Company, maker of Burma-Shave, and American Safety Razor who currently markets limited Burma-Shave products. The conglomerate soon shifted its marketing and advertising resources for Burma-Shave to large billboards, radio, and television. Hence, the classic roadside advertising campaign stopped and last sign was pulled from its stakes three years later. Superhighways, faster cars and the towering billboards had outshouted the little signs. The new billboards were larger, more demonstrative, and offered a different message than the tiny signs of the Burma-Shave genre. However, even today, the timeless verses still evoke fond memories and hold a nostalgic appeal to older consumers.

The Henry Ford Museum has an original set of the signs. One of the last sets of Burma-Shave signs sits in the Smithsonian Museum, befitting such an important part of American culture. The verse reads:

Shaving brushes
You'll soon
On the shelf
In some museum.


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