Burma Shave

 

Feeling nostalgic? Now you'll rave!
Here's the story of Burma Shave.

   

By Martin Waterman

I CAN REMEMBER TAKING A TRIP AS A CHILD AND SEEING MY FIRST BURMA SHAVE SIGNS. Technically speaking, after 1963 all the 7,000 or so sets of signs were supposed to have been taken down.  Still, my discovery may not have been unusual, since even today sightings abound (though they're not as frequent as Elvis sightings).  It's possible that some of the thousands of signs that dotted the countryside were never taken down, or perhaps (and more likely) they are the work of some nostalgic farmers who recreated them.

Like many great success stories, Burma Shave started by happenstance.  Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream, was concocted by the Odell family. Its predecessor product, a liniment called Burma Vita, was not doing very well in sales, due to competition and to the fact that it could only be sold to people who were ill.  It was suggested that it would be more profitable to market a product that could be used every day, such as Lloyd's Euxesis from England.  This was the original brushless shaving cream that was available world-wide.  A chemist was hired (Burma-Vita was one of grandfather Odell's homemade concoctions) and after about 300 mixtures were tried, Burma Shave was born.

However, inventing the product was only the beginning of a long journey to success, and the product almost died several times because of poor marketing.  One of the marketing schemes was called "Jars on Approval," in which the Odell boys would enter a man's office and give him a jar of Burma Shave on this basis: if he liked the product he would pay them 50¢ the next time they saw him.  If he didn't like Burma Shave they would take back the unused portion and "remain friends."

Then one day, Alan Odell came up with a suggestion. He suggested roadside signs like the ones he had seen on road trips when he was out trying to sell Burma-Shave.  However, his father would not hear of such a crazy idea, and was sure that the boy was just homesick because of all the travelling he was doing.  Alan continued to lobby for his idea and finally his father gave in and gave him $200 to try out his idea.

The year was 1925, and the automobile was becoming more common, and  people begun to take to the roads of America.  Second-hand boards were purchased, cut into 36-inch lengths, and painted. The original signs did not have a rhyme. Typically, consecutive signs would read:

Shave the Modern Way
No Brush
No Lather
No Rub-in
Big Tube 35 cents Drug Stores
BURMA-SHAVE
Good-Bye! Shaving Brush
Half a Pound for
Half a Dollar
Very Fine for the Skin
Druggist Have It
Cheer up Face, the War Is Over
BURMA-SHAVE

The signs were put up in a hurry before the ground froze solid on two roads leading out of Minneapolis.  There were about a dozen sets of signs put up on the two roads.

Not too long after that, the first repeat orders for Burma Shave were received from drugstores because the people who travelled the two roads where the signs had been installed began asking for Burma Shave from area drugstores.  At this time, the business was broke, so the company was incorporated and 49% of the stock was sold to raise capital.  Within three weeks, the shares had been sold, and in early 1926 the first sign shop was set up.

The signs continued to bring success and became more and more humorous. The six consecutive signs, when placed 100 paces apart, created something unique in advertising.  Of course, in later years as the roads got better and cars got faster, the size of the signs and the distance between them had to be increased.

The consecutive signs commanded the attention of those reading them longer than any single sign could ever hope to do.  The entertaining signs helped make long journeys more entertaining, and people became addicted to reading them.

By having the rhymes build suspense until the fifth sign, Burma Shave forced those reading the signs to focus their attention on reading the full series of signs so that the message could be understood and savored like a good joke. For instance:

The Bearded Lady
Tried a Jar
She's Nnow
A Famous
Movie Star
BURMA-SHAVE
Takes the "H" out of Shave
Makes it Save
 Saves Complexion
Saves Time & Money
No Brush No Lather
BURMA-SHAVE

Every Shaver
Now Can Snore
Six more Minutes
Than Before
By Using
BURMA-SHAVE

Your Shaving Brush
Has had its Day
So Why Not
Shave the Modern Way
with
BURMA-SHAVE

The next year, Allan and his brother Leonard set up more signs, spreading across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, spending $25,000 that year on signs. Orders poured in, and sales for the year hit $68,000.

Eventually, the signs spread to every state, with a few exceptions. No "official" signs appeared in Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada because of low traffic density.  Massachusetts received no signs because winding roads and excessive foliage made it hard to find enough locations to justify placing them there.

The slogans were very powerful, and worked so well that that the Burma Shave Company did not even feel the effects of the Depression.  The world's economy may have been depressed, but men still had to shave.

Does your Husband Misbehave
Grunt and Grumble
Rant and Rave
Shoot the Brute Some
BURMA-SHAVE
If Harmony
Is What You Crave
Then Get
A Tuba
BURMA-SHAVE
The 50 cent Jar
So Large by Heck
Even the Scotch
Now Shave the Neck
BURMA-SHAVE
It's a good old Spanish Custom
Take your Mug
And Brush
And Bust ’em
BURMA-SHAVE
’mid Rising Taxes
Soaring Rents
Still Half a Pound
For Fifty Cents
BURMA-SHAVE
You've Laughed at our Signs
For many a Mile
Be a Sport
Give Us a Trial
BURMA-SHAVE
Late Risers!
Shave in Just
2 Minutes Flat
Kiss your Wife
Grab your Hat
BURMA-SHAVE
You'll Love your Wife
You'll Love her Paw
You'll even Love
Your Mother-in-law
If You Use
BURMA-SHAVE

The rhymes aimed at motivating potential purchasers of Burma Shave were not just cute, but were probably some of the best advertising slogans ever written.  Some of them suggested to men that they would do better with the women if they used Burma Shave:
 
She Eyed his Beard
And said No Dice
The Wedding's Off
I'll Cook the Rice
BURMA-SHAVE
A Chin where
Barbed Wire Bristles Stand
Is Bound to be
A No Ma'ams Land
BURMA-SHAVE
Use this Cream
A Day or Two
Then Don't Call Her —
She'll Call You
BURMA-SHAVE
Romances are Wrecked
Before They Begin
By a Hair on the Coat
Or a Lot on the Chin
BURMA-SHAVE
Before I Tried It
The Kisses I Missed
But Afterwards -- Boy!
The Misses I've Kissed
BURMA-SHAVE
If You Want
A Hearty Squeeze
Get our Female
Anti-Freeze
BURMA-SHAVE
Grandpa Knows
It Ain't Too Late
He's Gone to Git
Some Widder Bait
BURMA-SHAVE
He asked his Kitten
To Pet and Purr
She Eyed his Puss
And Screamed "What Fur!"
BURMA-SHAVE

At their height of popularity there were 7,000 Burma-Shave signs stretching across America.  They became such an icon to these early day travelers that families eagerly anticipated seeing the rhyming signs along the roadway, with someone in the car excitedly proclaiming, "I see Burma-Shave signs!”  Breaking up the monotony of long trips, someone once said, "No one could read just one." 


Not overlooking the spending power and influence of women, Burma-Shave put up rhymes to lure them to purchase BURMA-SHAVE for the men in their lives or to demand smoother cheeks:

 
A Christmas Hug
A Birthday Kiss
Awaits the Woman
Who Gives This
BURMA-SHAVE
"At Ease," She Said
"Maneuvers Begin
When You Get those Whiskers
Off Your Chin"
BURMA-SHAVE
6 Million Housewives
Can't Be Wrong
Who Keep Their Husbands
Right along In
BURMA-SHAVE
At Xmas Time
And Birthdays Too
We Solve Your Problems
Right for You – Give
BURMA-SHAVE
Broken Romance
Stated Fully
She Went Wild
When He Went Wooly
BURMA-SHAVE
His Cheek was Rough
His Chick Vamoosed
And Now She Won't
Come Home to Roost

BURMA-SHAVE
His Tenor Voice
She Thought Divine
Till Whiskers Scratched
Sweet Adeline
BURMA-SHAVE
If a Gift
You Must Choose
Give Him One
He'll Like to Use
BURMA-SHAVE


Others slogans suggested that there was no better product or substitute for Burma-Shave:

Substitutes
Are Like a Girdle
They Find Some Jobs
They Just Can't Hurdle
BURMA-SHAVE

 

Another Red Skin
Bit The Dust
When Pa Tried
What These Signs Discussed

BURMA-SHAVE

Avoid the Store
Which Claims You Should
Buy Something Else
That's Just as Good
BURMA-SHAVE

 

Here's the Winning
Shaving Team
The Perfect Blade
The Perfect Cream
BURMA-SHAVE

I'd Heard It Praised
By Drug Store Clerks
I Tried the Stuff
Hot Dog! It Works
BURMA-SHAVE
A Shave That's Real
No Cuts to Heal
A Soothing
Velvet After-Feel
BURMA-SHAVE
Give the Guy
The Toe of Your Boot
Who Tries to Hand You
A Substitute

BURMA-SHAVE
Half A Buck Half A Pound
No Substitute
Is Ever Found
For
BURMA-SHAVE


World War II was not ignored by the Burma-Shave writers—not on its road signs nor in magazines and newspapers.

5-Star Generals
Privates 1st Class
Show Equal Rank
In The Looking-Glass
BURMA-SHAVE
Let's Make Hitler and Hirohito
Look As Sick
As Old Benito
Buy Defense Bonds
BURMA-SHAVE
Shaving Brush In Army Pack
Was Straw That Broke
The Rookie's Back
Use Brushless
BURMA-SHAVE
The Draftee
Tried A Tube And Purred
Well Whaddya Know
I've Been Defurred
BURMA-SHAVE
Soldier, Sailor
And Marine
Now Get A Shave
That's Quick And Clean
Burma- Shave
Maybe You Can't shoulder A Gun
But You Can Shoulder
The Cost Of One
Buy Defense Bonds
BURMA-SHAVE
To Most Brush Shavers
It's Quite Clear
The Yanks Aren't Coming
The Yanks Are Here
Use Brushless BURMA-SHAVE
Buying Defense Bonds
Means Money Lent
So They Don't Cost You
One Red Cent

BURMA-SHAVE
 

 

Top: Alan Odell Shows a map of the U.S.,locating Burma-Shave signs. c. 1945

Right: The Odell Family c.1944  

                                    

One big reason the advertising campaign was so successful is that Burma-Shave would not put up any signs that offended anyone. Some of the signs showed a measure of humility:

Though We've OutSold
Six Million Others
We Still Can't Beat
Those Cough Drop Brothers
BURMA-SHAVE
If Our Road Signs
Catch Your Eye
Smile
But Don't Forget To Buy
BURMA-SHAVE
Listen Birds
These Signs Cost Money
So Roost Awhile
But Don't Get Funny
BURMA-SHAVE
The Millionth Man
Has Joined
Our Ranks of Happy Shavers
Many Thanks!
BURMA-SHAVE

This is Not
A Clever Verse
I Tried And Tried
But It Just Got Worse
BURMA-SHAVE

Our Fortune
Is Your Shaven Face
It's Our Best
Advertising Space

BURMA-SHAVE

Every Day
We Do Our Part
To Make Your Face
A Work of Art

BURMA-SHAVE

He Always Used
A Steaming Towel,
Mug, Brush,
And Language Foul

BURMA-SHAVE


Although the Burma-Shave Company prospered, there were many challenges, too.  Not only was there fierce competition, there was also the need to come up with a continuous supply of superior verses.  The company solved that with an annual contest that paid $100 for each verse used.  There were thousands of entries sent in, resulting in many rhymes of high quality. Judging the entries eventually became difficult because in some years there would be more than 50,000 entries.  This forced Burma-Shave to hire advertising copywriters to help in the selection process.

With the trend toward more automobiles and more roads, the traffic accident rate began to climb.  In response, the company created some slogans stressing traffic safety.  In fact, some of the best Burma-Shave rhymes were written with public service in mind:

When You Drive
If Caution Ceases
You Are Apt
To Rest in Pieces
BURMA-SHAVE
These Three
Prevent Most Accidents
Courtesy, Caution
Common Sense
BURMA-SHAVE
Little Bo-Peep
Has Lost her Jeep
It Struck a Truck
When She Went to Sleep
BURMA-SHAVE
Is He Lonesome
Or Just Blind
This Guy Who Drives
So Close Behind?
BURMA-SHAVE
Schoolhouses
Take It Slow
Let The Little
Shavers Grow
BURMA-SHAVE
If Hugging on Highways
Is your Sport
Trade in your Car
For A Davenport
BURMA-SHAVE

 

Still other good examples include

Many a Forest
Used to Stand
Where A Lighted Match
Got Out of Hand
BURMA-SHAVE

Don't Lose your Head
To Gain a Minute
You Need your Head
Your Brains Are in It
BURMA SHAVE

Train Wrecks Few
Reason Clear
Fireman Never
Hugs Engineer
BURMA-SHAVE
The Safest Rule
No Ifs or Buts
Just Drive
Like Every One Else Is Nuts!
BURMA-SHAVE

The Minutes
Some Folks
Save through Speed
They Never Even Live to Need
BURMA-SHAVE

If You Pass
On the Yellow Line
Hope the Funeral's
Yours Not Mine
BURMA-SHAVE

There are some funny stories in the history of the Burma-Shave Company.  In Los Angeles, free sample jars were handed out to men as they entered a wrestling match.  However, when one of the wrestlers angered the crowd, some of them started to throw their jars into the ring. Fortunately (and probably miraculously) no one was hurt . . . a close shave for the company, so to speak.

A similar occurrence happened at Ebbets Field in New York.  Tubes of Burma-Shave were handed out to fans entering the game, but when the umpire made a call unfavorable to the Dodgers, he was pelted with the tubes.  The game had to be interrupted until the groundskeepers could remove the tubes.

Another problem that arose was that the Burma-Shave signs had a tendency to disappear near college towns.  To remedy this, special bolts were used, so that a special tool was necessary to unbolt the signs, and the posts had crosspieces attached to the bottoms to act as anchors.

Another problem in rural areas was the tendency for hunters to use the signs for target practice.  Some destruction was also caused by small animals that seemed to like to chew on the signs.  However, much more damage was attributed to horses that found them to be an ideal height for back scratching.  A cow or horse would maneuver itself beneath the bottom edge of a sign and then begin to scratch the itch.  This would often result in a broken sign.  The problem was solved when many of the signs were raised  to ten feet high.

Still another problem occurred when the Burma-Shave Company tried to mock the rising trend of coupon advertising with the following rhyme:

Free Offer!   Free Offer!
Rip A Fender Off Your Car
Mail It In
For A Half-Pound Jar
BURMA-SHAVE

Fenders began to arrive in the mail and by express, and local people scavenged the Minnesota junkyards and brought in fenders.  Some fenders from toy cars also came in, and without exception, everyone who brought or sent in a fender received a free half-pound jar of BURMA-SHAVE.  Of course, the publicity from the bumper offer was priceless and further helped to establish the company as part of America's roadside culture.

Perhaps the company went too far with the following rhyme spoofing science fiction and curiosity about outer space:

Free  -  Free
A Trip to Mars
For 900
Empty Jars
BURMA-SHAVE

The manager of a supermarket in Appleton, Wisconsin, took up the challenge and wrote to the company asking where he should send the 900 jars for his free trip.  The company sent back the following reply: "If a trip to Mars you'd earn, remember, friend, there's no return."

In reply, the enterprising supermarket manager accepted.  He turned the project into a fantastic promotion for Burma-Shave that had children and adults swarming the supermarket.  The promotion included no less than a rocket plane on display and little green men on the roof firing toy rocket gliders into the parking lot.

It was decided by the Burma-Shave company to send the manager and his family to Mars.  The real destination was to be Mars, Germany. (Even though it is spelled Moers, it is pronounced Mars.)  Again, the publicity was enormous, especially when the manager showed up wearing a silvery space suit and a bubble on his head.  The company, of course, provided him with extra jars of Burma-Shave so that he could barter with the Martians.

It is said that all good things must come to an end, and this was the case with BURMA-SHAVE.  There were a number of factors that led to the decline of the product.   After World War II, increasing costs and decreasing sales began to be felt by the company.  People were travelling faster on the highways and times were changing.  The signs just weren't working as well anymore, and the company started to advertise more with other media.

The real end to the roadside rhymes came in 1963, when the company was sold to Phillip Morris to become an operating division of American Safety Razor Products.  The decision was made to remove all the signs as soon as possible, especially since any remaining signs would mean that rent money would still be owed to farmers.  The end of the signs was popular fodder for the news media, and many stories were written about the demise of this American institution.  A set of signs was donated to the Smithsonian Institution to preserve this part of Americana. Here are two of them:

Shaving Brushes
You'll Soon See 'Em
On A Shelf
In Some Museum
BURMA-SHAVE

Within This Vale
Of Toil And Sin
Your Head Grows Bald
But Not Your Chin – Use
BURMA-SHAVE

          
BURMA-SHAVE sales rose to about 6 million by 1947, but sales stagnated for the next seven years, and then gradually began to fall.  Various reasons caused sales to fall, the primary one being urban growth.  Typically, BURMA-SHAVE signs were posted on rural highways and higher speed limits caused the signs to be missed or ignored.  Subsequently, the Burma-Vita Company was sold to Gillette in 1963, which in turn became part of American Safety Razor, and Phillip Morris.  The huge conglomerate decided the verses were a silly idea and one of America’s vintage icons was lost to progress.

Most of them may be gone now, but they're not forgotten. 
Here's one more that's just as true today as it was back then.

To see many more of the Burma Shave slogans that were used,
and how they changed over the years, click on the sign below.