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Burma-Shave: The Verse by the Side of the Road

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In times of continuous change it is difficult to recognize small beginnings. But in the fall of 1925, and again during the following year, one small beginning took place that would later catch the fancy of, and amuse, whole generations of highway-faring Americans.Frank Rowsome, Jr., author, The Verse by the Side of the Road
“In times of continuous change it is difficult to recognize small beginnings. But in the fall of 1925, and again during the following year, one small beginning took place that would later catch the fancy of, and amuse, whole generations of highway-faring Americans.”

I first learned about the famous Burma-Shave advertisements when I was about ten years old. For decades each summer my family rented the same farmhouse on Block Island. It was a rainy summer day in 1980 and I couldn’t go to the beach, ride my bike, fly a kite, or go fishing. Boredom set in and I browsed the bookcase and came across The Verse by the Side of the Road. The musty book had been sitting in the farmhouse bookcase for years. I flipped through its pages and read with interest the six hundred Burma-Shave jingles inside. Even for a young boy some of them were really funny.

Each year when we returned to the house on Block Island I re-read parts of the book. It was an easy rainy day read because the book was basically a short compilation of all the Burma-Shave jingles from 1926 to 1963. Reading this book became a Block Island vacation tradition. In a nostalgic moment I recently picked up a used Amazon copy of the long out-of-print Verse by the Side of the Road. Most young people today have little or no idea about the history (or even existence) of the famous Burma-Shave roadside jingles. The once familiar roadside signs that dotted American highways from coast to coast have been mostly forgotten today.

Burma-Shave was introduced in the early 1920’s by the Burma-Vita company. The company was owned by Clinton Odell and its first shaving product was made of ingredients said to have come “from the Malay Peninsula and Burma.” Initially demand was low and the company tried desperately to increase sales. In the fall of 1925 they were thinking about ways to drive higher sales. Burma-Shave experimented with placing a series of signs alongside highway 65 in Lakeville Minnesota. The early signs were small and had a commercial message with a clever punchline at the end. As the advertising campaign evolved, Burma-Shave signs usually were comprised of five or six consecutive small red and white linked messages that were posted along the side of busy roads and highways. The signs were optimally spaced apart for motorists to read at their leisure as they slowly motored down the road. The last sign was usually the Burma-Shave brand logo itself. As the Burma-Shave ad campaign matured, many of the signs later referenced jingles about driver safety.

The Burma-Shave signs were a wildly successful advertising campaign with humble beginnings. The timing was perfect as their development coincided with a period of increased long distance automobile travel (1925-1950). The creators of the Burma-Shave signs sought the attention of passing motorists who were curious to learn the ingenious and humorous punchline. Over time, automobiles got faster and the American interstate system grew larger. In the late 1950s it became harder to attract a speeding driver’s attention with multiple small road signs. At the same time Burma-Shave’s market share also fell as competition increased and several new players entered the shaving cream market. In 1963 the Burma-Shave company was sold to Philip Morris and eventually the Burma-Shave brand was folded into the American Safety Razor Company. The last Burma-Shave road signs were posted in 1963.

One of my favorite early Burma-Shave jingles:

DOES YOUR HUSBAND
MISBEHAVE
GRUNT AND GRUMBLE
RANT AND RAVE
SHOOT THE BRUTE SOME
BURMA-SHAVE

In the later years the company made jingles focused on safe driving:

HARDLY A DRIVER
IS NOW ALIVE
WHO PASSED
ON HILLS
AT 75

BURMA-SHAVE

A few years ago I had an idea to authentically re-create a series of Burma-Shave signs along the dirt lane that leads to my Turtle Garage. I sent a copy of the Verse by the Side of the Road to my good friend Arthur Einstein. Arthur is an advertising genius who was responsible for many fantastic and successful advertising campaigns. His firm was called LGFE, (Lord, Geller, Federico, Einstein) and it created the ingenious Charlie Chaplin IBM PC ads of the early 1980’s. LGFE also created the famous “Mission Accomplished” Tiffany ads. Arthur is also the author of a great book on the history of Packard advertising called Ask the Man Who Owns One.

LGFE’s highly successful Charlie Chaplin IBM PC advertisements were a real hit in the early 1980’s.

LGFE’s highly successful Charlie Chaplin IBM PC advertisements were a real hit in the early 1980’s.

Another iconic advertisement by LGFE

Another iconic advertisement by LGFE

The cover of Arthur’s book, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

The cover of Arthur’s book, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

I reached out to Arthur and sent him my heavily marked up copy of The Verse by the Side of the Road. My hope was that he could help me select an appropriate Burma-Shave jingle from the hundreds listed in the book. I had found a sign maker who agreed to accurately create a replica of the famous original red and white Burma-Shave signs. All I needed was the right jingle!  Arthur read the book and said there were several good jingles to choose from but that none of them were exactly what he had in mind. In short order (and to my complete surprise) he came up with these two customized Burma-Shave jingles:

IF YOU LOVE CARS
SAID MAC TO MYRTLE
YOU NEED TO VISIT
PHILIP’S TURTLE

BURMA-SHAVE

The second one he came up with was also great:

SLOW YOUR PORSCHE
BRAKE YOUR BENZ
THE TURTLE WELCOMES
PHILIP’S FRIENDS

BURMA-SHAVE

Arthur’s genius somehow captured the cadence of a classic Burma-Shave jingle while customizing the message for the Turtle Garage. I was blown away by his creativity. He really nailed it and choosing the one to use was not easy. I forwarded the jingle to my sign maker and he created a perfect replica of a customized Burma-Shave sign. Here is the finished outcome:

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Here are several examples of Burma-Shave signs from 1925 to 1963:

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2 Responses to Burma-Shave: The Verse by the Side of the Road

  1. arturony October 14, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    One I remember on Rte 7 near Woodworth Ohio
    A Girl Should
    Hold Onto Her Youth
    But Not When
    He’s Driving
    Burma Shave

  2. Conrad Willeman September 21, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    This is one of my favorites from along old U.S. Route 36 between Hiawatha and St. Joe. Alas, even the roadway is no longer there.

    Around the corner
    Lickety split
    It’s a beautiful car…
    Wasn’t it.
    Burma-Shave