Out West Newspaper
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Books About Burma Shave

Verse By The Side Of The Road
Here's the story of Burma Shave, along with 600 jingles.

Burma Shave

'The verse by the side of the road'

By Chuck Woodbury,
editor, Out West

Once, long ago, cars went slow and "super" highways were two lanes.

One of the joys of driving back in those good 'ol days was reading the Burma-Shave signs by the side of the road. One after another, they told a little upbeat story, all with the punch line "Burma-Shave."

For those too young to remember Burma-Shave, it was a brushless shaving cream. Today, anyone older than 55 fondly remembers the red and white signs that advertised the product along America's rural highways and byways. On a nondescript stretch of road, where the best scenery might be a pasture with cows, the sight of Burma-Shave signs ahead was reason for celebration -- the monotony broken.

Special Seats
Reserved in Hades
For Whiskered Guys
Who Scratch
Their Ladies

The first Burma-Shave signs debuted along the American roadside in 1926 in Minnesota, home of the Burma-Vita factory. They were hardly impressive. "We lettered them rather crudely, and tested them on two highways," said Leonard Odell, the younger brother of Allan Odell, who conceived the signs as a way to advertise the then-little-known shaving cream. "The first batch didn't even rhyme."

Shave The Modern Way
Fine For The Skin
Druggists Have It

These first signs were simply wood planks. Allan Odell had talked his father and company founder Clinton Odell into investing $200 into building them. "But, by golly, it wasn't long until we were getting orders from those signs, so we concluded that their placement had value," Allan Odell recalled years later. "In a few months, we switched to folk humor and verse."

And so began one of the most successful "guerilla" advertising campaigns in history. In 1926, Allan and Leonard set up their first sign shop, painting each sign with a slogan they had composed with their father. Alan hit the road to find locations for the signs, paying farmers $5 to $25 a year to place and maintain them in their fields. Later, the company held contests, offering cash prizes for winning jingles. Entries poured in from across the nation.

Your shaving brush
Has had its day
So why not
Shave the modern way

At first, the signs were purely a sales pitch. But soon they found their sense of humor, sometimes including a safety message. Signs were most often clustered in a set of six, placed 100 feet apart, each offering a single line of a jingle. At 35 miles per hour, it would take a motorist about 18 seconds to read a message from start to finish. At the height of the signs' popularity, about 7,000 stretched across 45 U.S. states. Families who drove past would often read them aloud, soon developing favorites. The signs' upbeat messages cheered travelers during the otherwise bleak Depression years and then again later during World War II.

From New York town
To Pumpkin Holler
It's half a pound
Half a dollar

The signs catapulted the tiny Burma-Vita Corporation into a household word. Little known even today is that the company never had more than 35 employees, yet it was perceived as a corporate giant. Employees either worked in production at the Minneapolis factory or in the field erecting signs. Yet even the road crews, thought to be numerous, never exceeded more than eight vehicles. Crew members were called PhD's, short for "post hole diggers."

If your hubby
Trumps your ace
Here's something
That will
Save his face

But as cars got faster and roads evolved into wide superhighways, Burma-Shave signs lost their effectiveness and ultimately their popularity. In 1963, the Phillip Morris Company bought Burma-Vita. The last sign was pulled from its stakes three years later.

And, as you might expect, as the signs went down so did sales of Burma-Shave. And like the signs, they never went back up.

©2004 by Out West Newspaper



E-mail editor Chuck Woodbury

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