Illustrations by Michele Tremaine
For many farmers during the dark days of the Great Depression, survival was a close shave indeed. No one will ever know how many farms were saved from foreclosure by Burma-Shave signs.
While crops wilted under the relentless sun and hordes of locusts devoured what was left, the sole income for thousands of farmers snared in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was from those six humorous signs by the side of the road on their property, wooden planks with black or white lettering on orange, blue or red backgrounds, advertising shaving cream: She kissed the hairbrush by mistake; she thought it was her husband Jake. Burma-Shave or If you think she likes your bristles, walk bare-footed through some thistles. Burma-Shave.
But the benefits were at least a two-way street. Not only did the signs save farmers, but farmers also saved Burma-Vita Co. of Minneapolis. And the signs offered the American public much-needed doses of humor during those bleak days: Does your husband misbehave, grunt and grumble, rant and rave? Shoot the brute some Burma-Shave or Substitutes are like a girdle; they find some jobs they just can’t hurdle. Burma-Shave.
But Burma-Shave almost didn’t make it, coming within a whisker of going down the drain. In 1926, Burma-Vita Co. was in a bad way. The company was busted, its product unknown, and its advertising campaign was being ridiculed.
Advertising experts said using six signs by the side of the road to publicize a product simply wouldn’t sell. Sales Management magazine didn’t soft-soap words. It wrote “. . . wouldn’t a legitimate advertising campaign do better?”
Even founder Clinton Odell questioned the wisdom of son Allan’s concept of six signs. But Allan climbed onto his soapbox and convinced his father to give him $200 to try it.
In late 1926, two sets of signs were installed south of Minneapolis with the same ad: Shave the modern way. Fine for the skin. Druggists have it. Burma-Shave.
Despite this barely passable ad, within a year Burma-Vita’s income shot from zero to $68,000. By a hair, Burma-Shave was saved from the trash-heap of history.
But it would never have happened without the farmers, says Grace Odell, Allan’s wife. “Farmers were just absolutely marvelous. They allowed the signs to be erected on their land, they kept the signs spruced up, and they reported any damaged ones.”
Doctors of ‘Diggography’
In 1927, Allan Odell and his brother Leonard loaded a truck adorned with “Burma-Shave” and a smiley face with tools and new signs. They headed into virgin farm territory in the Midwest, searching for long, level straight-aways, barren of other advertising, with good visibility and a right-of-way as much as four feet below the road.
Then they cold-called at the farmer’s house, offering a yearly stipend of $5 to $25 for the right to erect the signs. Workers then dug postholes and tamped in the signs. Clinton B. Odell, Allan’s son, just out of college, thought he was in pretty good shape, “But I had no idea what kind of shape I was in until we went out and dug the holes for those signs. I could dig one or two holes to my partner’s four to five, and at the end of the day I’d be exhausted.”
By 1930, with the first serious stirrings of the Great Depression, more than 2,000 sets of signs had been erected by these PHDs, “post-hole diggers,” or “doctors of diggography.” Farmers soon realized the importance of the small but steady income from Burma-Shave signs. So when rumors about lowered sign rents flew, Burma-Vita Co. was inundated with letters “from different parts of the country,” as the March 1932 Burma-Shavings company newsletter said, and the publication ran a large headline, “No Reduction in Sign Rentals.”
Let us say here and now that at no time have we planned to reduce our rents. Every property owner with whom we have a lease may count on the proceeds of his contract for a fixed, sure income.
In this manner we are striving to do our part in easing the depressed rural condition of the country.
In fact, the company erected more signs, until, near the end of the Depression, more than 7,000 sets of Burma-Shave signs graced highways in all states, except Nevada and New Mexico, and 500,000 users had swelled to more than 6 million. So the backs of both the company and the farmers were scratched in the process.
Many signs were about farmers, reflecting the prevailing agrarian lifestyle: Old Dobbins reads these signs each day. You see, he gets his corn that way. Burma-Shave, and Old McDonald on the farm, shaved so hard he broke his arm. Then he bought Burma-Shave.
Burma-Shave signs were originally 10-by-36-inches on 8-foot steel posts that were seated three feet into the ground, just the right height for horses to scratch their backs, as experience soon proved. To prevent more breakage, signs were raised two feet. As speeds increased, signs became 18 x 40 inches, with letters 31/4 to 4 inches high. Rhymes were changed every two years.
Until 1930, Allan Odell composed all the jingles. His wife Grace says, “Allan would get ideas in the middle of the night, so he would say, ‘Grace, Grace, I’ve got another one!’ and I’d turn on the flashlight and write it down, because if I got up and put the light on, he would forget it by then.” Many were farm-related: Cautious rider to her reckless dear, “Let’s have less bull and lots more steer.” Burma-Shave, or It gave McDonald that needed charm. Hello, Hollywood, goodbye, farm. Burma-Shave.
After friends complained Allan was talking in Burma-Shave rhymes, the company began sponsoring Jingle Contests. Eventually 65,000 entries vied for 20 spots, including the $1,000 first prize, with farm-related rhymes like: Said farmer Brown who’s bald on top, ‘Wish I could rotate the crop.’ Burma-Shave, or Cattle crossing means go slow. That old bull is some cow’s beau. Burma-Shave.
And others like, Before I tried it, the kisses I missed, but afterward – boy! The misses I kissed! Burma-Shave.
Burma-Vita Co. and farmers had basic values of honesty and integrity in common. When Free offer, free offer, rip a fender off your car, mail it in for a half-pound jar, Burma-Shave backfired, and they received hundreds of fenders off toy cars in the mail, they nevertheless cheerfully anted up. After store owner Frenchy French of Appleton, Wisconsin, read Free free! A trip to Mars for 900 empty jars, Burma-Shave, and brought in a Brinks truck with the correct number, Burma-Vita sent him and his wife to Mars – Moers, Germany, that is.
The company also wanted clean rhymes. Leonard Odell says in the video The Signs and Rhymes of Burma-Shave, “Dad would say, ‘No, that jingle might offend somebody.’”
One they discussed at length was Substitutes can let you down quicker than a strapless gown. Burma-Shave.
They finally did use it. Today, of course, it would barely raise an eyebrow, but the discussion showed the company’s commitment to morality.
Burma-Vita was also committed to safety, perhaps the first company in the United States to do public service ads: Past schoolhouses, take it slow. Let the little shavers grow. Burma-Shave, or At school zones heed instructions. Protect our little tax deductions, or Don’t stick your elbow out so far. It might go home in another car. Burma-Shave.
Though Burma-Vita didn’t intentionally push the value of learning to read, the signs did help. Amos D. Ewing, of Medicine Park, Oklahoma, says, “I went to country school where reading material was hard to come by. The teachers copied Burma-Shave signs on flash cards to teach us how to read. And it made learning fun.”
When Buck Buchanan, of Boyd, Texas, was asked on the first day of school how he knew to read so well, he said in Trailer Life magazine that he learned to read using Burma-Shave signs. “There was never any doubt in my mind where I acquired that knowledge. . . . It came from staring through the dust-covered windshield of an old Model T, as Mom and I read those signs together.”
But all good things must come to an end. As the country changed – bigger, faster cars, higher speed limits, more difficulty getting roadside rights, more complicated lives, more people out of touch with their roots, fewer people living on farms – Burma-Shave began to slip. In 1962, the company was sold to Philip Morris Co.
The Burma-Shave-sign era and its most successful advertising campaign in the history of the United States, according to outdoor advertising expert Joe Blackstock, was over. In 1965, the last signs were removed from U.S. rural highways forever, ending a warm partnership between Burma-Vita Co., and the American farmer. “If not for the farmer,” says Grace Odell, “we would never have survived. Burma-Shave would not have survived.”
Veteran writer Bill Vossler writes about collectibles and other diverse subjects for 170 magazines and has written 11 books, including Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times. He lives with his writer wife in Minnesota.
LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT BURMA-SHAVE
- Burma-Shave was originally a pain-relief ointment.
- 300+ varieties of Burma-Shave were tested until Clinton Odell discovered the concoction had to be aged to work well.
- The 18 seconds it took to read the six signs was far more time than other advertisers could hope to get from people.
- During World War II, enterprising soldiers erected Burma-Shave signs all over war theaters – including Burma. The U.S. Navy later put up a set at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.
- A study of average highway speeds conducted by the University of Pennsylvania reported that no phenomenon more reliably slowed down speeders than Burma-Shave signs.