WITHIN THIS VALE
They were a national addiction from 1926 until 1963. They were America�s first billboards. Each little bit of doggerel was divided into six verses and painted on red signs about three feet wide. They were placed about 100 feet apart by the side of the road, so driving at 35 mph the drama would build as you passed each sign. The punch line was always the same� BURMA SHAVE.
WAS STIFF AND COARSE
AND THAT'S WHAT
CAUSED HIS FIFTH DIVORCE
A light bulb went off in Allan's head. "Why couldn't you sell a product that way?" When he got back to his home in Minneapolis, he told his idea to his father, Clinton, who did not think much of it. Clinton consulted with advertising people in Minneapolis and Chicago.
They told him that the idea would not work, but Clinton decided to give it a try anyway. He gave Allan $200 to make a few signs.
It was September, 1926, when Allan and his brother Leonard bought some used boards and stenciled the first two sets of Burma Shave signs. They hurriedly placed them on two highways leading into their hometown of Minneapolis. They were trying to beat the ground from freezing.
The first signs just had a straight sales pitch without the rhymes, jingles, and puns that the signs would later become famous.
FINE FOR THE SKIN
DRUGGISTS HAVE IT
Sales jumped that year from near zero to $68,000. Druggists placed the first reorders in the history of the company.
The Odell family buoyed by the success needed money to expand. Clinton sold 49 per cent of his stock. He was able to sell it within three weeks even though the company only had one unknown product and an advertising campaign the experts said would not work.
They opened up a sign shop in 1927. Clinton and Allan wrote the messages. Allan negotiated the rights with the landowners for placing the signs, and Leonard installed them.
Landowners were usually paid $25 for the use of their property with leases running for a year. Landowners were sent a newsletter called Burma Shavings that was published to make them feel like they were members of an exclusive club.
The humorous signs that Burma Shave were known for started appearing in 1929.
FROM FIRE ESCAPES
Some sold sex:
A MAIDEN'S PRAYER
IS NOT A CHIN
OF STUBBY HAIR
Some gave safety advice:
DON'T DRIVE 'CAUSE
At their peak in the 1950s, Burma Shave had 7,000 sets of signs spread over 45 states. There were no signs in New Mexico, Arizona or Nevada because of their small populations and lack of traffic.
PhDs, short for Post Hole Diggers would go out and scout locations for the signs. For a spot to be considered, roadways had to be fairly level with good visibility and free of other advertising. They avoided curves. People would complain if they missed a sign in sequence because it was stuck on a curve.
After the PhDs had placed their signs, they would convert into salesmen and call on all of the local druggists.
HER PUCKER PAINT
WHERE TRAFFIC AIN'T
The company started in the early 1900s when Clinton Odell's father, Robert, an Minneapolis attorney, concocted a liniment from a recipe he claimed came from an old sea captain.
Clinton was, also, a successful attorney and insurance salesman. While recovering from a long illness and looking for a less stressful line of work, he took over the marketing of the liniment. He named it Burma-Vita after the essential oils in the product that came from Burma. His sons, Allan and Leonard joined him in the business.
They were able to get Burma-Vita on the shelves of a few stores, but decided that in order to be really successful they needed a product that people used everyday instead of only when they had aches and pains.
A supplier of the ingredients for their liniment suggested they make brushless shaving cream. He gave them a sample of a similar product that was being made by a British company.
Clinton hired a chemist named Carl Noren to devise a formula for the shaving cream. He mixed 300 formulas before discovering by accident that batch number 143 when aged for a couple of months gave them the results they were looking for.
MADE A HIT
The Burma Shave signs were originally calibrated to be read while driving at 35 mph. As roads got wider and cars faster, the sign makers made the signs wider and they were spaced further apart. The colors of the signs were changed yearly until they found that people prefered red and white. Horses liked to use the signs as back scratchers, so they raised their height to ten feet. To stop sign theft, mostly by students putting them in their dorm rooms, they fastened the signs with bolts that required a special wrench.
The Burma-Shave signs soon became ingrained into popular culture. Bob Hope and Fred Allen used Burma Shave as the punchline for routines on their network radio shows.
Sailors passing through the Bering Strait were surprised to find a series of familiar red signs written in Russian and spaced apart. When the came to the last sign, of course it said Burma-Shave. It was a prank pulled by the crew of a reconnaissance helicopter flying ahead of the ship.
Two Burma Shave jingles that generated the most publicity-
RIP A FENDER
OFF YOUR CAR
MAIL IT IN
FOR A HALF-POUND JAR
Soon, fenders began arriving at the Burma Shave offices. Some were bought from junkyards, some came from toy cars, maybe a few came from unsuspecting donors. The winners were rewarded with half-pound jars as promised.
In 1955 this jingle appeared:
FOR 900 EMPTY JARS
No one at the company believed it would be taken seriously. Today, the FTC would probably be jumping down their throats.
Arliss French, an enterprising manager of a Appleton, Wisconsin Red Owl supermarket, advertised in his store and in the newspaper that he would pay 15 cents for each empty jar of Burma Shave. He put a rocket ship on the roof of the store and had little green men standing near it firing toy rocket ships to the kids swarming in the parking lot. Business at the store boomed. He soon had his 900 jars and was ready to take his trip to Mars.
Red Owl offered to split the cost with Burma Shave to send French and his wife to Moers- pronounce Mars, Germany. The Odells agreed.
French showed up at their offices wearing a silver space suit and a bubble on his head. Their was a red owl emblazoned on the chest of the suit.
They were flown to Germany and treated like celebrities as they served as guests of honor at a 3-day festival in Moers.
Burma Shave had a response when electric razors first became popular.
It was not electric razors, but the building of the Interstate Highway System and cars traveling at faster speeds that led to Burma Shave�s decline. Their roadside advertising became less effective and they had to move on to other advertising medium which has never produced the same results.
The Odells sold the company to Philip-Morris in 1963 and gradually sent out crews to take down the signs with the last one coming down the same year.
A cartoon in a 1964 Saturday Evening Post showed wreath laid by the last sign as mourners cry and lay prostrate along the side of the road.
Today, Burma Shave brand is owned by American Safety Razors and is virtually unknown to those too young to remember the signs.
Burma Shave signs now hang in museums and are traded in auctions on eBay.