So neat and trim
Red Riding Hood
Is chasing him
Jan. 21, 2002
-- They started in the late 1920s as a small company's desperate attempt to make a name for its new product, Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving cream. Sets of six wooden signs were erected about 100 feet apart along the nation's two-lane highways.
Allan Odell, whose father's company, the Burma-Vita Corp. of Minneapolis, was on the verge of bankruptcy, came upon the idea when he spotted a set of four signs along the side of a road touting a gas station's oil and restrooms. He wondered whether the concept would work as an advertisement for Burma-Shave, according to historian Bill Vossler, author of Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times
(North Star Press, St. Cloud, Minn.).
So, with $200 worth of scrap lumber, Allan and his younger brother Leonard posted the first Burma-Shave signs along highways in southern Minnesota.
On Morning Edition
, Lars Hoel reports on the Burma-Shave advertising phenomenon as part of NPR's year-long series Present at the Creation
, which examines the origins of American cultural icons.
At first, the phrases on the signs weren't that catchy, witty or clever. They didn't even rhyme. This one's from 1927:
Shave the modern way
Big tube 35 cents drug stores
But over time, the verses got more interesting. Many were submitted by Burma-Shave customers through company contests. Some bordered on the risqu (for the time), but the Odells wanted to make sure that the jingles wouldn't be offensive. This one is from 1952:
Back home by golly
His bristly chin
Soon the signs spread across the country, and the company got the notice it craved. In 1926, sales went from virtually nothing to $68,000. At the height of the Depression, sales topped $3 million.
Chuck Sable, curator at the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design in Milwaukee, says the signs worked because their humor was low-key. And it didn't hurt that the company had a captive audience: automobile travelers.
For obvious reasons, Sable says this is his favorite Burma-Shave jingle:
You'll soon see 'em
On the shelf
Indeed, the Burma-Shave phenomenon faded in 1963, when Phillip Morris bought Burma-Vita from the Odells and the signs began to come down.
But the name lives on, and not just in older drivers' memories. In 1996, the American Safety Razor Co. brought back the Burma-Shave name and logo and put it on a shaving brush and mug set.
Audio portions in this report included quotes from the documentary film
The Signs and Rhymes of Burma-Shave, produced by Delaney Communications for Sentimental Productions, 1991.
Learn about the history of Burma-Shave signs at the Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design.
Browse a collection of Burma-Shave slogans.
Read a Smithsonian Magazine article recalling the Burma-Shave signs.