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 carâand most of the population traveled by car until right around thenâ(anywhere, that is, except Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Massachusetts), youâd 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 phenomenonâthe sequencing of signs and lines of verseâand 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 canâa 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, youâd 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 heâd 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 werenât feeling well would buy it. Odell wanted something that everyone might need. And then he chanced upon the worldâs first brushless shave cream, Lloydâs Euxesis, made in England.
Euxesis wasnât 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 didnât 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; Iâm not repeating the tagline every timeâthatâs up to you, and itâs 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 / sheâs 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 diggingÂ three-foot-deep holes to install the signs; young men all, they were certified PhDsâPost 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 Odellâs secretary, a woman whose very name bespoke secretarial loyalty and affection. Fidelia M. Dearlove kept the recordsâcontracts 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 reactionââask Fidelia.â”
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 nationâs 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 mediaâtelevision chieflyâwas less expensive.
By 1965, all the cheery red signs with their jingling white lettering were gone. Rowsomeâs 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 Roseâs cartoon farewell.
Remember this / if youâd / be spared / trains donât whistle / because theyâre scared
Keep well / to the right / of the oncoming car / get your close shaves / from the half-pound jar
Donât 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 Iâve seen
Within this vale / of toil / and sin / your head grows bald / but not your chin
If you / donât know / whose signs / these are / you canât have / driven very far
And hereâs 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 coupleÂ in Rose’s car, were driving along the road.