Something for the Old Folks

Posted by on November 12th, 2010 at 4:29 PM

No one younger than about 55 is like to properly appreciate the comedy in this Crankshaft that was released on October 24:

Until 1964, if you traveled anywhere in the United States by car—and most of the population traveled by car until right around then—(anywhere, that is, except Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Massachusetts), you’d eventually come upon a series of red roadside signs with white lettering that presented, in sequence at comfortable reading distances apart, lines of a poem that ended with the words “Burma-Shave.” Hence, the joke in Crankshaft: the southeast Asian country of Burma changed its name to Myanmar a few years ago, a change that would have altered American landscape had not all the Burma-Shave roadside rhymes been eradicated in 1964.

Cartooners Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers have accurately portrayed the Burma-Shave sign phenomenon—the sequencing of signs and lines of verse—and they gambled that enough of us would be old enough to get the joke. Not a bad gamble: the readership of newspapers skews older, the majority of readers being 55 or older.

The first Burma-Shave signs appeared in the fall of 1925, advertising a product that seems superfluous today in the age of the aerosol can—a brushless shaving cream. Until Burma-Shave came along, men “lathered up” for a shave: they used shaving soap, not cream, and the soap came in a bar that fit in the bottom of a mug; lather was created by dipping a soft-bristle brush into water and then stirring it around on the bar of soap in the mug until a small quantity of lather was created. Then, using the brush, men applied the lather to the jowls and then applied the razor.

For a traveling man, this method was a minor order nuisance. If you traveled to a different town every day, you’d have to pack up a wet-bristle brush every morning. Where to pack the brush to prevent mildew and bad smells? Messy. Inconvenient.

By a happy happenstance, the Odell family of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the developers of Burma-Shave, hit upon exactly the right way to advertise their product to the men who would most appreciate it, traveling men, who, doubtless, traveled by car and would enjoy the break in the monotony of the roadside vistas that the rhyming signs could provide. The Odells were right.

Clinton Odell, a lawyer by day, had inherited a moonlighting liniment business from his father, who claimed he’d acquired the formula for the liniment from an ancient seafarer. They called it Burma-Vita: Burma because most of the oils and potions for the liniment came from that country and Vita from the Latin for “life and vigor.”

The problem with the liniment as a source of extra income was that only people who weren’t feeling well would buy it. Odell wanted something that everyone might need. And then he chanced upon the world’s first brushless shave cream, Lloyd’s Euxesis, made in England.

Euxesis wasn’t entirely desirable: it was sticky and gummy, but Odell turned samples over to a chemist friend, who experimented with 142 different adjustments to the formula before hitting on one that worked. Odell christened the product Burma-Shave for no particular reason that survives; probably because he wanted to capitalize upon the good name of his previous product. But who knows? Then he had to sell it.

At first, his sons took jars of the shaving cream around and foisted them off on innocent bystanders, saying: “Try it and if you like it, give me fifty cents when I come back next week.” It was a laborious way to sell something.

Then one of the sons, Allan, traveling through Illinois, came upon a series of small signs that advertised a gas station that was just about to hove into view: Gas, Oil, Restrooms, Water, the signs read. By the time a traveler got to the last sign in the series, he was at the gas station, and the last sign was an arrow pointing to it. Allan thought roadside signs like these could sell Burma-Shave, and he convinced his father to fund an experiment.

He manufactured 10-12 sets of signs. They didn’t rhyme; they just touted the product. “Shave the Modern Way / Fine for the Skin / Druggists Have It / Burma-Shave.”

Allan and his brother Leonard put the signs up along two roads out of Minneapolis late in the fall of 1925, and within a couple months, they were getting repeat orders for their brushless shaving cream. So they ran with the signs.

Over the next 39 years, they manufactured and posted thousands of the signs all around the country. The Odells very quickly began exercising a poetic license, substituting jaunty, light-hearted verses for the flat prose admonitions of their earliest efforts, every perky poem ending with “Burma-Shave” (like the first of our examples here; I’m not repeating the tagline every time—that’s up to you, and it’s essential).

His face was smooth / and cool as ice / and Oh Louise! / He smelled so nice / Burma-Shave

Pity all / the mighty caesars / they pulled / each whisker out / with tweezers /

The bearded lady / tried a jar / she’s now / a famous / movie star

Every shaver / now can snore / six more minutes / than before

Sponsoring verse-writing competitions, the Odells introduced 20-25 new poems every year for almost 40 years. The signs were painted during the winter months, and then in the summer, the sign-makers went on the road, traversing the countryside and digging three-foot-deep holes to install the signs; young men all, they were certified PhDs—Post Hole Diggers.

Preparing the way for the PhDs were scouts, salesmen, who cruised mainline highways picking likely locations for the signs and negotiating with the farmers to establish an annual leasing fee ($5-25, depending upon projected traffic and exposure). Other Burma-Shave minions regularly toured the country, inspecting the signs and recommending repair or replacement as needed.

The beating heart of the operation was Allan Odell’s secretary, a woman whose very name bespoke secretarial loyalty and affection. Fidelia M. Dearlove kept the records—contracts with farmers, route maps showing not only locations but when each set of signs had last been inspected or changed to a new verse. No small task.

“With nearly 7,000 sets amounting to 40,000 individual signs scattered from Maine to Texas and with 20-25 new jingles being installed regularly to replace an equal number already out, Miss Dearlove had a complex, ever-changing situation to keep track of. … It was no wonder that when some question about signs came up, almost everyone in the home office had the instinctive reaction—‘ask Fidelia.’”

The story of the Burma-Shave signs with their chuckling doggerel is told by Frank Rowsome, Jr. in The Verse by the Side of the Road (1965), illustrated by the ubiquitous cartoonist Carl Rose, who seems to have illustrated half the non-fiction books of an era. Here are some of his pictures:

The Burma-Vita Company was bought by Phillip Morris in early 1963, and soon thereafter, the order came to take down all the signs as soon as possible. By then, most of the nation’s automobile traffic had been diverted to interstate highways where roadside billboards and signs were prohibited. And fewer people traveled long distances by car. Besides, the cost of maintaining the signs had been steadily rising, to the point where advertising in other media—television chiefly—was less expensive.

By 1965, all the cheery red signs with their jingling white lettering were gone. Rowsome’s book includes all 600 of the roadside odes, some of them hinting at the romance that using Burma-Shave would inspire, others cautioning drivers to drive carefully. Just to enhance your appreciation of October 24’s Crankshaft, here are a few more of the verses, followed by Carl Rose’s cartoon farewell.

Remember this / if you’d / be spared / trains don’t whistle / because they’re scared

Keep well / to the right / of the oncoming car / get your close shaves / from the half-pound jar

Don’t stick / your elbow / out so far / it might go home / in another car

Drinking drivers / nothing worse / they put the quart / before the hearse

My job is / keeping / faces clean / and nobody knows / de stubble I’ve seen

Within this vale / of toil / and sin / your head grows bald / but not your chin

If you / don’t know / whose signs / these are / you can’t have / driven very far


And here’s Rose one last time. Scroll to the bottom first and read from the bottom up; that’s the way you’d read these signs if you, like the couple in Rose’s car, were driving along the road.

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2 Responses to “Something for the Old Folks”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    A delightfully written and informative article.

    Too bad the “Crankshaft” gag which triggered it all was atrocious. “Myanmar Shave”? Good grief!

    (One wonders; if a sequence of images, juxtaposed in a meaningful order, are “comics”*, aren’t the Burma-Shave signs the prose equivalent? “Prosics”?)

    *At least in the widely, if not universally, accepted McCloudian sense.

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Nice take, Mike. McCloud’s idea of comics rests on his conviction that “sequence” is the secret ingredient. And he’s partly right. But if a sequence of images is what comics is, then the Stations of the Cross is comics. And if “image” is the crucial element in the sequence and if we take a word to be an “image” (of an idea, say), the a sentence is comics. Also, of course, the Burma-Shave signs. But this direction takes us nowhere: if everything is comics, then nothing is comics. The trick is to resort to the classic maneuvers in “definition”–that is, to arrive at a “description” of something that pertains to that thing and excludes other things that are not that thing. McCloud’s “definition” doesn’t exclude enough to be specific, seems to me. (And he and I have argued about it extensively.) My definition, on the other hand, is, of course, perfect: comics are a blend of words and pictures in which neither the words nor the pictures achieve the same meaning alone without the other as they do together. Wonderful, eh?