Allan Odell, the Burma Shave poet

January 23, 1994|By Richard D. Lyons | Richard D. Lyons,New York Times News Service

Allan G. Odell, who developed the roadside advertising campaign of rhyming jingles for Burma Shave that became a fixture of rural America for almost 40 years, died Monday at his home in Edina, Minn. He was 90.

The cause was "just old age" said his son George.

Fresh out of college in 1925, Mr. Odell joined a patent medicine company, Burma Vita Inc., which was operated by his father, Clinton.

The elder Odell had just come up with a formula for a brushless shave cream, and Allan won his father's approval to spend $200 on an innovative advertising campaign.

He came up with a series of small wooden signs spaced 100 feet apart, each carrying one line of a rhyme.

The rhymes were genial, flippant, cynical or absurd and loaded with puns. Each rhyme pointed toward a snappy payoff line that ended with the name of the product.

The first signs were erected in Minnesota along U.S. 61 near Red Wing and U.S. 65 near Albert Lea.

Mr. Odell's widow, Grace, recalled that "within a year, repeat orders were coming in for Burma Shave from druggists serving people who traveled those roads."

Drivers tooling along at 35 mph on the narrow blacktop roads of the 1930s and 1940s were delighted with the Burma Shave signs, and the advertising campaign quickly became a commercial success.

At the peak of the campaign, in the early 1950s, some 7,000 sets of signs had been placed in 45 states.

Allan Odell and his father wrote all the signs for the first three years, but when their muse began to falter they sponsored a nationwide contest, paying a $100 prize for each of the 25 best jingles and promptly giving the rhymes a place in the sun.

In nearly annual contests that the company subsequently held, it received an average of 50,000 nationwide entries.

Among the jingles popular with the public were these:

Bristles Scratched

His Cookie's Map

That's What Made

Poor Ginger Snap

Burma Shave

Beneath This Stone

Lies Elmer Gush

Tickled to Death

By His Shaving Brush

Burma Shave

Henry the Eighth

Sure Had Trouble

Short-Term Wives

Long-Term Stubble

Burma Shave

Mr. Odell became president of Burma Vita in 1948, but his signs gradually disappeared, a victim of high-speed travel and billboard prohibitions on interstate highways. He retired when the company was sold to Phillip Morris Co. in 1963. The signs were discontinued the next year.

Besides his wife and son George of Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Odell is survived by two other sons, Clinton of Edina and Allan, of Redding, Calif.


This Burma Shave sign was author Allan G. Odell's favorite jingle, his wife recalls:

Within This Vale

Of Toil and Sin

Your Head Grows Bald

But Not Your Chin

Burma Shave

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