WITHIN THIS VALE
YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD
BUT NOT YOUR CHIN
The above set of signs stands at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. The Smithsonian Museum also owns a set.
TREAT HIM RIGHT
BEFORE I TRIED IT
THE MISSES I KISSED
Do you remember the rhymes of the Burma-Shave signs from long ago? I surely do! We would look forward to reading the little rhymes, posted on consecutive posts along America's highways. I know Mom and Dad enjoyed them. One would announce, "I think I see some Burma-Shave signs!" Then for a few moments, a truce in the war of which kid was taking up more than his allotted space on the back seat of the family Plymouth. The signs were addicting; like someone once said, "No one could read just one." We had to read the entire verse, and we knew that the final sign would read, "Burma-Shave".
Nearly everyone who drove on America's highways from the 1930's to the 1960's knows of the signs. Or as one of the poems said,
YOU CAN'T HAVE
DRIVEN VERY FAR
We took the Burma-Shave entertainment for granted. Do you know how the clever signs happened to be placed along the road? Thanks to a book, and a video tape, the story has been told. We'll tell you later how to find both.
A company near bankruptcy
Clinton Odell developed a brushless shaving cream which he called Burma-Shave. At a time when folks were really starting to travel America by automobile, the brushless shave cream eliminated the problem of packing a wet shaving brush and cup. Odell had an excellent product; all he lacked was a marketing plan. What was about to happen, is one of America's most successful advertising plans ever!
Allan Odell, one of three sons, convinced his father to spend $200 for some materials to construct highway signs. In 1926, using recycled lumber, Allan fabricated the first Burma-Shave verses, and erected one set of signs along Route 35, between Albert Lea and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Within weeks, drug stores began running out of Burma-Shave, and ordering more. 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.
Although Allan wrote many of the early jingles himself, what made the sign campaign so successful is that ordinary folks were encouraged to write the jingles, and were awarded cash prizes up to $100. The family rejected any jingles which were even the slightest bit offensive. During WW II, homesick GI's would erect Burma-Shave lookalike signs in Alaska, Germany, and even Antarctica!
Eventually, about 7,000 sets of verses were posted along highways in 45 states. A sign crew with just 8 trucks maintained all the signs. The road men calling themselves "PHD's" (Post-Hole Diggers) changed the verses at least once a year and replaced any broken signs. Most farmers were more than willing to allow the signs to be erected on their land, for little more than a case of the product each year. The little Burma-Shave company grew to $3 million in annual sales.
All good things come to an end. The Odell Family sold their company to Gillette, which in turn became part of American Safety Razor, and Phillip Morris. The huge conglomerate decided the verses were a silly idea, and that other types of advertising, especially television, would sell more product. By 1966, the company removed every one of them from America's highways. A very few ended up in museums. If you see any by the roadside today, they are more than likely replicas, placed there by fans.
Clinton Odell, founder of the company, died in 1958. Allan Odell, who came up with the sign idea, passed away in 1994, and his brother Leonard in 1991.
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Have you been to our nostalgia page? You'll find more of these there.
Order the book: "The Verse By The Side Of The Road", by Frank Rowsome, Jr. First published in 1965, demand continues to be so great it's been re-printed several times. The book tells the whole story, and even lists every one of the 600 roadside rhymes!
VHS or DVD video: "The Signs & Rhymes of Burma Shave"
Generations of Americans grew up reciting the amusing Burma-Shave jingles. They were often the most memorable part of a Sunday drive. More than 120 jingles in this video help fondly recall why this simple roadside advertising idea catapulted a tiny company into the consciousness of the nation. Interviews with the actual family members and employees of the Burma-Shave company help to tell how this small Minnesota company maintained 7,000 sets of jingles in 45 states!
VHS or DVD video, 53 minutes.