I was a kid who was whisked down Interstate highways at 75 MPH. Billboards had to be huge in order to be noticed.
But my older brothers were able to experience a more relaxed and charming way of travel: Being driven down two-lane motorways that passed through rolling countryside that included one of America’s most beloved forms of advertising: Burma-Shave signs.
Burma-Shave got its start back in 1925. The Burma-Vita company made a smelly liniment designed to aid the sore and sick. It sold modestly well, but the company directors concluded that making a product that you didn’t have to be in a bad fix to use might be a good move, business-wise.
So they released Burma-Shave that year, with the radical concept that you didn’t need a brush to create shaving cream in a cup any more, you could just open a jar of Burma-Shave.
It was a good product, but suffered from ineffective advertising. Allan Odell pitched a unique sales idea to his father, the owner of the company. He had noticed signs along the road while he was out trying to sell his father’s products. So use small, wooden roadside signs to pitch Burma-Shave. Dad wasn’t wild about the idea but eventually gave Allan $200 to give it a try.
Allan picked a couple of busy roads near Minneapolis and put up a dozen sets of signs in series, so that you had to read them all to get the whole message. The format would ensure interest from drivers and their passengers, he hoped.
He was right.
Drug stores in the Minneapolis area began calling in orders for Burma-Shave. The company, which had nearly gone under, was reborn. A sign service was hired in 1926, and Burma-Shave slogans began springing up alongside roads all over the US.
Our parents grew up reading Burma-Shave signs, and so did the elder members of the Boomer generation. They were good stuff. Here are a few examples from Wikipedia:
The monkey took / one look at Jim / and threw the peanuts / back at him / he needed / Burma-Shave
Listen birds / these signs cost money / so roost awhile / but don’t get funny / Burma-Shave
If you don’t know / whose signs these are / You haven’t driven / very far (No final “Burma-Shave” sign)
Round the corner / lickety split / beautiful car / wasn’t it! / Burma Shave
That big blue tube / is like Louise / it gives a thrill / with every squeeze / Burma-Shave
If harmony / is what you crave / get a tuba / Burma-Shave
They once posted a slogan meant to be a gag that implied that if anyone brought or shipped a fender to the Minneapolis headquarters, they would get a free jar. Well, needless to say, they were inundated with fenders from genuine and toy cars. And every person who held up their end of the bargain got a free jar of Burma-Shave.
As Interstate highways began opening up in the late 50’s, the Burma-Shave concept of a series of six small signs stopped being effective. Sales slumped, and the Burma-Shave brand name was sold to the Philip Morris company in 1963. The new owners immediately ordered the removal of any remaining Burma-Shave signs. That’s why I personally don’t remember ever seeing any of the genuine article.
But Burma-Shave was a treasured memory of many of the more senior members of our generation. It was also a symbol of how the old would have to make way for the new as times changed and got faster. For better or worse, that sums up the years we grew up in.