America's road sign legends

Burma-Shave's rhyming ads turned highway billboards into poetry, and changed advertising -- and America

Published May 15, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Imprint.

ImprintIn a simpler time, when automobiles went slower and the pre-Eisenhower highway system in the United States was less developed, there was a popular advertising campaign that ran from 1927 until 1963. It consisted of rhymed messages sequentially staked on the right side of the road, all ending with the advertiser's name, "Burma-Shave."

[caption id="attachment_320381" align="aligncenter" width="511" caption="Examples of vintage Burma-Shave road signs, including a blue South Dakota version. (Ray Crockett photo)"][/caption]

These red ads (one state, South Dakota, insisted that they be dark blue to keep them from conflicting with the red reserved for warning notices) usually consisted of five signs. For example: "DON'T PASS CARS/ON CURVE OR HILL/IF THE COPS DON'T GET YOU/ MORTICIANS WILL/BURMA-SHAVE."

Some slogans touted Burma-Shave as a pre-aerosol "brushless" shaving cream—a cream you could scoop out of a jar and lather onto your face without relying on an old-fashioned brush and moistened soap in a mug.


[caption id="attachment_320121" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="("Thoroly"? I guess if the word doesn't fit the composition, change the spelling. . .)"][/caption]

In 1925, Clinton Odell, a Minneapolis lawyer, took the liniment his father created and transformed it into a brushless shaving cream. He named his company Burma-Vita—Burma, because most of the essential oils in the liniment were from the Burmese portion of the Malay Peninsula, and Vita from the Latin for "life": "Life from Burma."

Some of Burma-Shave's primary "brushless shaving cream" competitors were Barbasol and Noxema.

The company was sold to Philip Morris in 1963, and all the signs were removed soon thereafter. As a testament to the campaign's cultural significance, a set of signs was donated to the Smithsonian, where it still resides. But the brand eventually petered out. After being sold yet again (this time to the American Safety Razor Company) and then reintroduced in 1997, it never regained a hold in the market.

[caption id="attachment_320051" align="aligncenter" width="412" caption="A history of the Burma-Vita Company, written by Frank Rowsome Jr. and illustrated by Carl Rose, was published by the Stephen Greene Press in 1963."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_320101" align="aligncenter" width="553" caption="By the early 1960's, the rising costs of road-sign maintenance (as well as new and more effective ways of advertising) sounded the death knell for the Burma-Shave signs."][/caption]

The following pages from Frank Rowsome Jr.'s book list all the road-sign Burma-Shave phrases produced from 1927 to 1963.

By J.J. Sedelmaier

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