Wednesday, April 13, 2011


For a generation or two of us who grew up with Studebakers, DeSotos, Packards and Hudson Hornets, driving across America’s two-lane highways was an adventure made more tolerable, and even interesting by the humor and whimsy of a special breed of sign-painters who seem to have expired with the birth of the Interstate system. There were colorful murals three stories high on roadside barns extolling the virtues of such necessities as “Mailpouch Tobacco” and “Royal Crown Cola”,and Sunday drives in the country were saved from ever becoming boring as passengers kept an eye peeled and necks craned in anticipation of the first sighting of those ubiquitous shaving cream messages which seemed to pop up at every rural turn in the highway. “BENEATH THIS STONE/LIES ELMER GUSH/TICKLED TO DEATH/BY HIS/SHAVING BRUSH/BURMA SHAVE”, or “CATTLE CROSSING/MEANS GO SLOW/THAT OLD BULL/IS SOME COW’S BEAU/BURMA SHAVE”.
What most Americans didn’t know was that these roadside symbols of business entrepreneurship didn’t emanate from some corporate giant with unlimited advertising resources, but a tiny family-owned enterprise in Minneapolis. Clinton Odell’s Burma-Vita Company was about to go broke in 1926, when his son, Allan Odell got the idea of experimenting with roadside advertising. With two hundred dollars worth of recycled lumber and two cans of paint, he kicked off the campaign along a rural stretch of Minnesota highway. No one really expected anything to come of it. American men had grown up using shaving brushes; who could expect them to suddenly change to a “brushless” shaving cream?
But it worked. The little company began to prosper, and the roadside signs spread across the country: “IT’S IN THE BAG/OF EVERY MAN/WHO TRAVELS/LIGHTLY AS HE CAN/BURMA SHAVE”.
The format was always the same: A series of six red-and-white signs topping eight-foot posts sunk just off the highway right-of-way, on ground leased from farmers happy to receive a small rental check. “SALESMEN,TOURISTS/CAMPER OUTERS/ALL YOU OTHER/WHISKER SPROUTERS/
Behind every thoughtfully crafted message was the kind of humor the public identified with:”LISTEN BIRDS/THESE SIGNS COST MONEY/ROOST AWHILE/BUT DON’T GET FUNNY”. No one who drove our nation’s highways could fail to know about the product which soon became the number two selling male toilet commodity; especially with such reminders as “YOU’VE LAUGHED/AT OUR SIGNS/FOR MANY A MILE/BE A SPORT/GIVE US A TRIAL/BURMA SHAVE”.
Appealing to the romantic side of their male audience, the whimsical sign-painters came up with such messages as TRY THIS CREAM/A DAY OR TWO/THEN DON’T/CALL HER/SHE’LL CALL YOU/BURMA SHAVE” or “USE OUR CREAM/AND WE BETCHA/GIRLS WON’T WAIT/THEY’LL COME/AND GETCHA/BURMA SHAVE”. Another guy attention getter said “A CHIN/WHERE BARBED WIRE/BRISTLES STAND/IS BOUND TO BE/A NO-MAMS/LAND. …”
Alert to the need for driver safety, the Odell folks turned some of their byway efforts in that direction with gems like “AROUND THE CURVE/LICKETY SPLIT/BEAUTIFUL CAR/WASN’T IT” and “ALTHO INSURED/REMEMBER KIDDO/THEY DON’T PAY YOU/THEY PAY YOUR WIDOW/BURMA SHAVE”. Drunken driving became another target of the Odell safety campaign with such ingenious messages as “VIOLETS ARE BLUE/ROSES ARE PINK/ON GRAVES OF THOSE/WHO DRIVE AND DRINK”, and “CAR IN DITCH/DRIVER IN TREE/MOON WAS FULL/AND SO WAS HE/BURMA SHAVE”
Sometimes I dare to wonder if all change is good. Sometimes driving across the great uninterrupted stretches of often- featureless U.S. Freeway, I find myself searching the roadside vistas, hoping that up ahead I’ll catch a glimpse of those six familiar red and white signs from out of the motoring past.

Travelers on old highway U.S. 66 would have seen such “signs of the time” as these familiar red and white “Burma Shave” reminders. The novelty of this unique form of advertising helped to make this small Minnesota cosmetic company a household name.

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