Clever signs line memory lane

WAY BACK WHEN

June 17, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

From the 1920s until their demise in 1963, the red and white Burma-Shave signs that lined American roadways and advertised in doggerel a brushless shaving cream were as much a fixture of an automobile trip as backseat combat with siblings.

The product they advertised through such verses as THIS CREAM/ MAKES THE GARDENER'S DAUGHTER/ PLANT HER TU-LIPS/ WHERE SHE OUGHTER/ BURMA-SHAVE was a brushless shaving cream invented by the Odell family in Minneapolis in the early 1920s.

Earlier, at the turn of the century, their grandfather had invented a liniment he named Burma-Vita. He chose the odd name because the imported liniment oils were from the Malay peninsula and Vita because it is the Latin name for life and vigor - the whole name translating into Life from Burma.

The Odells were inspired to perfect their own brushless shaving cream by Lloyd's Euxesis, an English product, and one of the early brushless shaving creams.

After hiring a chemist and experimenting with more than 300 recipes, they settled on Formula 143 and went into business.

"You didn't have to pack that wet brush in your grip where it would mildew and get foul-smelling before you got home," Leonard Odell, who with his brother Allan created the roadside advertising campaign, recalled in an interview several years ago.

In 1926, the two brothers convinced their father to advance them $200, which they used to buy secondhand lumber and paint to create the 36-inch signs, first installed on several highways surrounding Minneapolis. The early signs were stenciled with straightforward messages such as: SHAVE THE MODERN WAY/ FINE FOR THE SKIN/ DRUGGISTS HAVE IT/ BURMA-SHAVE.

The signs were planted by the brothers, who paid landowners for "rental," and were set up every 100 feet or so, allowing passengers in a car traveling at 35 mph to read the message in 18 seconds. The roadside poetry always ended with the words Burma-Shave. The signseventually totaled 7,000 and spanned 45 states by the 1950s.

The ad campaign also came along at a time when the American public, seemingly fixated on hygiene, raced to purchase Listerine to remove bad breath, Lifebuoy soap to eradicate body odor and Feenamint to control irregularity.

Burma-Shave joined right in with the fun: HE PLAYED/ A SAX/ HAD NO B.O./ BUT HIS WHISKERS SCRATCHED/ SO SHE LET HIM GO. Or: HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH/ AND COOL AS ICE/ AND OH LOUISE/ HE SMELLED/ SO NICE. Or: HIS CHEEK/ WAS ROUGH/ HIS CHICK VAMOOSED/ AND NOW SHE WON'T/ COME HOME TO ROOST. "Burma-Shave signs were an enigma to advertising specialists, who later studied and finally pronounced them a stroke of genius, an idea far ahead of its years," reported The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1978.

Alexander Woollcott, author and wit, observed that reading one Burma-Shave sign was as difficult as eating one salted peanut.

Puns, jingles, public service slogans and roadside wisdom kept the nation roaring through the dark days of the Depression and World War II. In fact, the company experienced some of its best sales years during the 1930s.

After the Odell creative well ran dry, the company held annual contests that paid $100 for winning entries that often numbered more than 50,000 submissions.

Promoting highway safety, the signs urged drivers to lay off the gas pedal and to not drink and drive. THE MIDNIGHT RIDE/ OF PAUL/ FOR BEER/ LED TO A/ WARMER HEMISPHERE. Or: PAST/ SCHOOL HOUSES/ TAKE IT SLOW/ LET THE LITTLE/ SHAVERS GROW. Or: ALTHO INSURED/ REMEMBER, KIDDO/ THEY DON'T PAY YOU/ THEY PAY/ YOUR WIDOW.

As highways expanded from dual lanes to Interstates and cars got faster, signs exhorted travelers to: SLOW DOWN, PA/ SAKES ALIVE/ MA MISSED SIGNS/ FOUR/ AND FIVE.

Punsters relished: THE BEARDED LADY TRIED A JAR/ SHE'S NOW/ A FAMOUS/ MOVIE STAR. Or: SAID JULIET/ TO ROMEO/ IF YOU/ WON'T SHAVE/ GO HOMEO.

In 1963, the Burma-Vita Co., manufacturers of Burma-Shave, was sold to Philip Morris' operating subsidiary, American Safety Razor Products. The new owners made a corporate decision to kill the Burma-Shave signs in favor of radio and TV advertising and by 1966, all tracesof the old signs had been uprooted from roadside America.

Several signs ended up in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, whose sign reads: WITHIN THIS VALE/ OF TOIL/ AND SIN/ YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD/ BUT NOT YOUR CHIN.

In 1965, Frank Rowsome Jr. wrote "The Verse By the Side of the Road," which, in addition to a history of the company, reproduces the Burma-Shave jingles, including the final one: OUR FORTUNE/ IS YOUR/ SHAVEN FACE/ IT'S OUR BEST/ ADVERTISING SPACE/ BURMA-SHAVE.

On the passing of Burma-Shave, William K. Zinsser, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, said that Americans lamented "not for something going out of the landscape but for something that is going out of ourselves. We sigh for a time when the road was full of surprises [and] for a time when a young man could capture the nation by painting droll signs on secondhand boards, though all slick advice told him he was crazy."

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