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ARE YOU old enough to remember Burma-Shave signs? I feared as much. However, these sequential roadside messages, typically in verse, tell a lot about advertising during the middle decades of the last century—and a lot about our driving habits back then too.
A proliferation of Model T Fords (60 percent of the new car market in 1921) offered mobility to the masses. With the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925, the states got involved in bringing order to an evolving highway infrastructure. As roads improved, so did cars, with Ford’s 1928 Model A just one example. And “getting there by car” became an American activity.
All this wasn’t lost on Allan Odell, working for his family’s Burma-Vita Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its liniment, with ingredients “from the Malay Peninsula and Burma,” needed some advertising, and Odell—an avid motorist himself—recognized the effectiveness of roadside signage.
The first signs for Burma-Shave brushless shaving cream were cobbled up in 1925 and installed along two roads out of Minneapolis. The earliest ones were just straight pitches, “Shave the modern way/Fine for the skin/Druggists have it/Burma-Shave.”
Sales made a jump.
Early in 1926, the company set up its own sign shop. By 1929, the spiels had evolved into verse: “Every shaver/Now can snore/Six more Minutes/Than before/By using/Burma-Shave.” Block-letter white-on-red (or black-on-orange, soon discontinued), the six-sign sequences blossomed from Minneapolis to the rest of the Midwest, to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, to the South and New England.
Not quite everywhere, however: Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico were deemed too sparse of drivers. Winding roads, roadside foliage and relatively costly land rentals precluded Massachusetts. Also, South Dakota’s restriction of red to its warning signs meant Burma-Shave messages there were a special white-on-blue.
By the mid-1930s, Burma-Shave poets got into public safety messages.
“Altho insured/Remember, Kiddo/They don’t pay you/They pay your widow.” Poetry even got literary; with thanks to Longfellow’s Paul Revere: “Hardly a driver/Is now alive/Who passed/On hills/at 75.”
World War II brought out a jingoistic strain: “Let’s make Hitler/And Hirohito/Look as sick/as Old Benito/Buy Defense Bonds.”
Later, the U.S. Navy commissioned signs as morale boosters for men serving in Operation Deepfreeze in Antarctica. One read, wistfully, “Use our cream/And we betcha/Girls won’t wait/They’ll come/And getcha.”
The signs were celebrated on radio and television. Bob Hope dedicated a 15-minute routine to them in 1941. The Fred Allen Texaco Hour had a skit called “The Murder of the Burma-Shave Poet.” It’s said Burma-Shave got more advertising, and free too, than Texaco that time.
There’s a great—and true—story concerning a satirical jingle: “Free offer! Free offer!/Rip a fender/Off your car/Mail it in for/A half-pound jar.” Enterprising Minnesotans scavenged junkyards and lugged them to Burma-Shave offices. Others sent fenders from toy cars. Each donor was given a thank you note—and a jar of Burma-Shave.
Typically, the six signs were placed 100 paces apart. At 35 mph, it took almost three seconds from sign to sign, 18 seconds of product exposure for the entire set—a lot better than a newspaper or magazine ad received.
Just as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925 encouraged Burma-Shave signs, its counterpart in 1956 setting up Interstates diminished their efficacy. No longer were drivers confined to what we’d now call backroads at 35 mph. By 1963, Burma-Shave was sold to Philip Morris, whose legal department put paid to the idea. The signs were removed.
“Don’t expect/These signs today/Legal eagles/Had their way/Burma-Shave.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013