Anoka County History: Humor of old Burma-Shave signs

Only those of us who were already able to read in the 1950s can remember the warm humor of the Burma-Shave signs.

In the fall of 1925, the very first set of signs was installed along Highway 65 and on Highway 61 coming out of Minneapolis.

They were the idea of young Clinton Odell, who owned the Burma-Vita Company in Minneapolis.
Initially, the signs were straightforward advertising, extolling the virtues of Burma -Shave over the old mug and brush.

But Odell was clever – an artist really – and the signs were his canvas.

Odell broke his message into parts, placing only a few words on each sign and spacing the signs along the roadside so that they could be read by passing motorists.

The final sign always said “Burma Shave” in the iconic red on white capital letters.
Shave the modern way / No brush / No lather / No rub-in / Big tube 35 cents – Drug stores / Burma-Shave.

By 1928 Odell had developed the use of two line rhymes.

These attracted the attention of passengers who anticipated the final rhyme.

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave
Your shaving brush / Has had its day / So why not / Shave the modern way / With / Burma-Shave
By 1930 the humor was more blatant and the popularity of the signs,and the product soared.

There were only two to four new sets of signs per year until 1930 when nearly twenty new rhymes were installed along the roadways all across the country.

Shaving brushes / You’ll soon see ‘em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave
Does your husband / Misbehave / Grunt and grumble / Rant and rave / Shoot the brute some / Burma-Shave.

A shave / That’s real / No cuts to heal / A soothing / Velvet after-feel / Burma-Shave.

The signs were so captivating that they sometimes became a traffic hazard as drivers veered for a better look, or slowed down enough to annoy the drivers behind them.

Perhaps that was the motivation for the series of safety messages that emerged about 1940.

Train approaching / Whistle squealing / Stop / Avoid that run-down feeling / Burma-Shave
Keep well / To the right / Of the oncoming car / Get your close shaves / From the half pound jar / Burma-Shave.

Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave.

Don’t take / a curve / at 60 per. / We hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave
With the advent of World War II, the signs became less self -promoting, but no less funny, and no less popular.

They reflect the propaganda that was common in popular culture.

Let’s make Hitler / And Hirohito / Feel as bad / as Old Benito / Buy War Bonds / Burma-Shave
Slap / The Jap / With / Iron / Scrap / Burma-Shave.

In 1963, the signs were “discontinued on the advice of counsel.”

One can only guess what brought that on!

The preceding was taken from Wikipedia, where a great many additional examples can be found.

Editor’s note: Maria King volunteers for the Anoka County Historical Society.

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