I have fond memories of taking Sunday afternoon drives with my family in our old 1950 solid black Ford coupe. As we “motored” through the upper East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia regions, we often encountered a series of small advertising signs along the roads.
“We're Widely Read – And Often Quoted – But It's – Shaves – Not Signs – For Which We're Noted – Burma-Shave.”
In 1927, the Burma-Shave Company launched one of the most unique and memorable advertising campaigns in history, enduring until 1963. The commercialization of the automobile allowed people to explore America’s cities and countryside, making highways fertile ground for advertisers. For 36 years, these modest signs were posted along roadways, becoming an icon of American life.
“On Curves Ahead – Remember, Sonny – That Rabbit's Foot – Didn't Save – The Bunny – Burma-Shave.”
Six (sometimes five) wooden boards with white lettering on red background were spaced about 100 feet apart along heavier traveled roads. Eventually, there were 7000 sets of signs, spreading into every state except those with terrain concerns – Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Massachusetts.
“Past – Schoolhouses – Take It Slow – Let The Little – Shavers Grow – Burma-Shave.”
Initially, these slogans were total sales pitches, but they soon became a source of entertainment with catchy rhymes, witty safety reminders and time-honored wisdom.
These non-offensive and cheerful adages brought the country through the depression and World War II, when people needed something to make them smile.
“To Steal – A Kiss – He Had The Knack – But Lacked The Cheek – To Get One Back – Burma-Shave.”
Clinton Odell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, concocted Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream, but the public did not readily accept it. The owner’s son, Alan, suggested a series of small roadside ads along major highways. The rest is advertising history.
“Although Insured – Remember, Kiddo – They Don't Pay You – They Pay – Your Widow – Burma-Shave.”
The spacing between signs required people to wait a few seconds before being able to read the next word or phrase, the final one being the name of the product. The company, needing a continuous source of slogans, conducted an annual contest that paid $100 for each verse used. They received over 50,000 entries from would be poets. The little signs were not without their problems. Some were stolen or vandalized; hunters used them as target practice; small animals would chew on them; and horses found them ideal for back scratching.
“Train Approaching – Whistle Squealing – Pause! – Avoid That – Rundown Feeling! – Burma-Shave.”
The Burma Shave phenomenon came to a screeching halt in 1963, caused by escalating costs, declining sales and faster cars traveling on new superhighways. The little colorful signs had simply run out of gas. Most ads were gone by 1966; a few lingered until they were felled by the elements. The Smithsonian Institution wisely salvaged a set to preserve this unique piece of Americana.
Let me conclude by offering my own fabricated tribute to Burma Shave: “Little Road Signs – Long Passed By – You Were As American – As Mom’s – Apple Pie – Burma-Shave.”
Compose your own Burma Shave limerick and send it to me.