How Burma-Shave Saved the Family Farm

An ailing company and failing farms found success in mutual aid – and created an American icon.

| July/August 2007

  • Burma7
    Clinton B. Odell, left, and Burdette Lewis worked in the sign-making shop, circa 1950.
    Photograph courtesy Clinton B. Odell
  • Burma12

    photograph by Bill Vossler
  • Lead-burmashave2
    Travelers never forgot the fun of reading the Burma-Shave signs.
    Illustration by Michele Tremaine
  • Floater-Burmashave2

    illustration by Michele Tremaine
  • PenguinsBurma
    Burma-Shave signs were even erected on Antarctica, where the penguins pondered Use our cream and we betcha girls won't wait, they'll come and getcha. Burma-Shave.
    Photograph courtesy Clinton B. Odell

  • Burma7
  • Burma12
  • Lead-burmashave2
  • Floater-Burmashave2
  • PenguinsBurma
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.

Good Luck

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.



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