Where are the
Burma Shave Signs?
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people of today’s generation have never even heard of Burma-Shave,
ask anyone who lived from the 1920s to the early 1960s, and you will
mostly likely bring up a few memories and tales from that vintage era.
Burma-Shave was a brand of
brushless shaving cream that was sold from 1925 to 1966. The company
was notable for its innovative advertising campaign, which included
rhymes posted all along the nation’s roadways. Typically, six
signs were erected, with each of the first five containing a line of
verse, and the sixth displaying the brand name.
Burma-Shave was the second brushless shaving cream to be manufactured and the
first one to become a success
The product was sold by
Clinton Odell and his sons Leonard and Allan, who formed the
Burma-Vita Company, named for a liniment that was the company's first
product. The Odells were not making money on Burma-Vita, and wanted to
sell a product that people would use daily. A wholesale drug company in
Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the company was located, told Clinton Odell
about Lloyd's Euxesis, a British product
that was the first brushless shaving cream made, but which was of poor
quality. Clinton Odell hired a chemist named Carl Noren to produce a
quality shaving cream and after 43 attempts, Burma-Shave
YOU CAN'T HAVE
DRIVEN VERY FAR
To market Burma-Shave,
Allan Odell devised the concept of
sequential signboards to sell the product. Allan Odell recalled one time
when he noticed signs saying Gas, Oil, Restrooms, and finally a sign
pointing to a roadside gas station. The signs compelled people to read
each one in the series, and would hold the driver's attention much longer
than a conventional billboard. Though Allan’s father, Clinton, wasn’t
crazy about the idea he eventually gave Allan $200 to give it a try.
In the fall of 1925, the first sets
signs were erected on two highways leading out of Minneapolis. Sales rose
dramatically in the area, and the signs soon appeared nationwide. The
next year, Allan and his brother Leonard set up more signs, spreading
across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, spending $25,000 that year on signs. Orders poured in, and sales for the year hit $68,000.
sign series appeared from 1925 to 1963 in all of the lower 48 states
except for New Mexico, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Four or five
consecutive billboards would line highways, so they could be read
sequentially by motorists driving by.
This use of the billboards was a highly successful
advertising gimmick, drawing attention to passers-by who were curious to
discover the punch line. Within a decade, Burma-Shave
was the second most popular brand of shaving cream in the United States.
first set of slogans were written by the Odells; however, they soon
started an annual contest for people to submit the rhymes. With
winners receiving a $100 prize, some contests received over 50,000
At their height of popularity there were 7,000
signs stretching across America. They became such an icon to these
early day travelers that families eagerly anticipated seeing the rhyming
signs along the roadway, with someone in the car excitedly proclaiming, "I
Burma-Shavesigns!” Breaking up the monotony of long trips, someone once said,
"No one could read just one."
sales rose to about 6 million by 1947, at which time sales stagnated for
the next seven years, and then gradually began to fall. Various reasons
caused sales to fall, the primary one being urban growth. Typically, Burma-Shave
signs were posted on rural highways and higher speed limits caused the
signs to be ignored. Subsequently, the Burma-Vita Company was sold
to Gillette in 1963, which in turn became part of American Safety Razor,
and Phillip Morris. The huge conglomerate decided the verses were a
silly idea and one of America’s vintage icons was lost to progress.
every last sign disappeared from America's highways. A very few ended up in
museums, including a couple of sets that were donated to the Smithsonian
Institution. Here are two of them:
You'll soon see 'em
On a shelf
In some museum
but not your
chin – use
Clinton Odell, founder of
the company, died in 1958. Allan Odell, who came up with the
sign idea, passed away in 1994, and his brother Leonard, in 1991.
Philip Morris sold the Burma-Shave
brand name to American Safety Razor Company
in 1968, but the name remained dormant until 1997, when it was
reintroduced for a line of shaving cream, razors, and accessories.
Although the original Burma-Shave
was a brushless shaving cream, the name currently is used to market a
soap and shaving brush set.
of America, updated July, 2015.
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Signs courtesy The Eisner-American Museum of
Advertising & Design
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