A ton of fun packed into six little lines
Back when life and traffic went by at less than a mile a minute, dad, mom and the kids used to pile into the family sedan and hit the road just for the fun of it.
And part of the pleasure of those leisurely “Sunday drives” often came from watching for and reciting catchy verses they’d spot on little signs by the side of the road.
Then times changed, and the Burma-Shave phenomenon quickly vanished from the American landscape.
But some Minnesotans still remember the roadside rhymes and the enjoyment they generated.
And nearly a half-century after the original Burma-Shave signs disappeared, they’re still being imitated.
“Don’t lose/ Your head/ To gain a minute/ You need your head/ Your brains are in it,” Pete Axford of Kingston laughed as he recited one of the jingles he first encountered nearly 70 years ago while riding in the back seat of his dad’s 1939 Plymouth.
His parents and their five youngsters would look for Burma-Shave signs when they went for a drive near their Iron Range hometown of Taconite not far from Grand Rapids. “It was a big thing,” Axford said. “It was always a lot of fun when we’d be driving along and would spot one.”
Bill Vossler, a freelance writer and author who lives in Rockville near St. Cloud, chronicled the Burma-Shave saga in his 1997 book, Burma-Shave — The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times.
From 1926 to 1963, according to the book, the Burma-Vita Co. of Minneapolis advertised its brushless shaving cream with a series of six wooden signs that were 40 inches wide by 18 inches deep and placed roughly 100 feet apart in farmers’ fields alongside highways across the country.
They praised the virtues of Burma-Shave — and many of them urged people to drive safely — in humorous six-line jingles, one line per sign. The final sign always said Burma-Shave.
The signs, which were the brainchild of Allan Odell, one of owner Clinton M. Odell’s sons, first appeared along two roads out of Minneapolis, near Lakeville on Highway 65 to Albert Lea and on Highway 61 to Red Wing.
At the peak of their fame, 7,000 sets of the red signs with white lettering — 40,000 in all — brought smiles to the faces of drivers and passengers across 45 states. Only low-traffic Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada missed out on the fun.
It stopped making Burma-Shave in the early 1960s and removed the signs, uprooting the last one in 1965.
“Around the curve/ Lickety split/ It’s a beautiful car/ Wasn’t it?” Axford recalled another jingle.
His father was a diesel mechanic in the iron ore mines who liked to go for drives during the late 1940s and early ’50s along U.S. 169 in Itasca and Aitken counties. He’d spot the Burma-Shave signs and read them out loud, then share a laugh with his wife.
“My dad never missed a thing,” Axford said, even though he had to struggle to steer the four-door sedan, which had a limited range because it would shimmy and shake once it passed 45 mph.
The highlight of the short excursions was stopping for a picnic. “My mom would make a great lunch. She made the best potato salad.”
He bought a copy of The Verse by the Side of the Road, Frank Rowsome Jr.’s 1965 book about Burma-Shave signs, for his dad one Father’s Day and they found some familiar rhymes in it.
Burma-Shave never erected any of its thousands of signs outside the U.S., but Marilynn Sterling of Kimball remembered seeing them just across the border from her hometown of Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada.
During the early ’50s, she, her father, mother and brother drove the 120 or so miles to Havre, Mont., four or five times a year “just to have something to do on a Sunday or a Saturday.”
“My dad would say, ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ and we’d end up in Havre for supper.” That’s where they discovered pizza.
“I remember asking, ‘What the heck is Burma-Shave?” she said, recalling their first trip in a 1939 Dodge four-door. “My dad said, ‘Well it must be an American shaving cream.’”
She doesn’t remember any of the jingles, but “we used to laugh at the little sayings … They were fun to read, and of course by the next time we went down we’d forgotten what they said so it was like reading them for the first time again.”
Ken Rudolph of Annandale recalled a couple of Burma-Shave verses that have stuck with him over the years:
“Past/ Schoolhouses/ Take it slow/ Let the little/ Shavers grow/ Burma-Shave.”
And “With glamour girls/ You’ll never click/ Bewhiskered like/ A Bolshevik/ Burma-Shave.”
“We saw them all over years ago,” he said. “I remember seeing them in Montana when my cousin and I drove out to Washington State in the summer of 1940.”
Rudolph had $55 in his pocket when they took off in his first car, a 1934 Chevrolet, and he still had some of it left 5,300 miles later when they got back to Minnesota.
“I was pretty upset that gas was so high out in Washington,” he laughed. Gasoline cost 22 cents a gallon there, he said, a whopping 2 cents more than at home.
Al Ostlund, who lives at Lake Sylvia near South Haven, remembered the one about a protruding limb: “Don’t stick/ Your elbow/ Out so far/ It might go home/ In another car/ Burma-Shave.”
The signs lined many Twin Cities-area highways in the ’40s and ’50s, he said. “You saw them just anyplace,” and that might have included Minnesota Highway 55, which he traveled often from his home in South St. Paul to visit his sweetheart and her family at their cabin on the Wright County lake.
“They were attention-grabbers,” he said. “Somebody would say, ‘There’s a Burma-Shave sign.’ All our attention was drawn to the sign, and then the next sign. It was quite a phenomenon really. It was ingenious because they put their name in front of you like no other in that era.”
But Highways were just two-lane roads in the ’40s, and the speed-limit was only 35 mph, he said. “Today we’re driving faster … we’re driving a lot faster.”
Ostlund recalled one of the cars he drove to the lake was a 1936 Oldsmobile that “took a quart of oil to go 60 miles.” But he eventually got the girl, and he and Barb have been married for 58 years.
John and Marilyn Ringold of Howard Lake also remembered reading Burma-Shave signs as kids in the early ’50s on weekend trips to the lake. Both their families had cabins on Peavy Lake near Pierz, about a two-hour drive up U.S. 169 from their homes in the Twin Cities.
John’s family, including six children, filled a 1951 Oldsmobile 98 four-door. “We (kids) all had to fit in the back seat of that car,” he laughed, “and it seems like it was my duty to tease my sister.”
Marilyn, riding with her parents in a ’53 Olds Holiday coupe, watched for the signs and wasn’t happy when she fell asleep and missed them.
Neither recalled the jingles, but both agreed they were fun. “I remember about six signs and they were spaced enough that you read each one and you looked forward to reading them,” she said. “They all had kind of a fun, whimsical … little story.”
John’s dad used Burma-Shave, he said, along with a Gillette razor and double-edged blades.
Strange as it seems, author Vossler said he never set eyes on a Burma-Shave sign as a boy in Wishek, N.D. Some signs were located in North Dakota, but “not where I was” and “we rarely traveled.”
While he was unaware of them, “many others said they learned to read from Burma-Shave signs.”
The jingles themselves were part of his motivation. “I love words, and here you have these succinct little poems.” And “when you read these signs you’re taken to a different time. (They’re) just little pictures of the past.”
One of Vossler’s favorite verses was a winner in the first jingle contest: “Does your husband/ Misbehave/ Grunt and grumble/ Rant and rave/ Shoot the brute some/ Burma-Shave.”
Another is: “At school zones/ Heed instructions/ Protect/ Our little/ Tax deductions/ Burma-Shave.”
Burma-Shave signs were such a success because among other things they were unusual, and humorous and they rhymed, Vossler said. People have an innate love of rhyming, he explained, sometimes even using it in obituaries.
“Here was just something new and unique, and then to be funny …” On top of that, “it must have been a good product because it sold.”
Vossler said former St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer best described the signs’ impact when he wrote: “Burma Shave became the national philosophy, common sense that rhymed.”
But “modernization” was the undoing of Burma-Shave, he said. There were many reasons why the company went out of business including the development of superhighways, which allowed cars to go faster, too fast to read the signs.
There was more competition from other shaving products like Barbasol. And the rhymes weren’t as fresh or funny anymore. Burma-Shave signs had supplied some of the humor Americans needed to get through the Great Depression and World War II, but TV and other things to laugh at came along in the ’50s.
Vossler also wondered whether the owners, who in the beginning had defied experts’ opinion that little signs along the road wouldn’t work, just didn’t recognize the need to turn to other forms of advertising as times changed.
The American Safety Razor Co. bought the brand name a few years ago and marketed a nostalgic Burma-Shave soap and shaving brush, he said. It even composed new jingles, but they weren’t very good.
Burma-Shave remains one of America’s fondest-remembered products, Vossler said, because “there was always the sense of how much fun those Burma-Shave signs were. It was just the concept of these funny little ditties.”
The verses packed “just a lot of richness in six little lines.” And he pointed out that after the contests began, the poetry of the Burma-Shave jingles “came from all over America,” suggesting the average person had a greater love of words than had been imagined.
Burma-Shave signs have had plenty of imitators in the 49 years since their demise. One of them, Our Iowa magazine, last year completed installing a set of signs featuring the original jingles in each of the state’s 99 counties, according to its website. The last sign in each series, however, says Our Iowa.
Rev. Eric Marx of Lake Union Evangelical Covenant Church near South Haven said he was pastor of a congregation at Lanyon, Iowa, that borrowed the Burma-Shave sign concept for a higher purpose.
One of several series of signs it planted on roads bordering cornfields read: “For the best example/ Of steadfast love/ Tilt your head/ And look above/ Jesus Saves.” Another told drivers: “Coming Sunday/ Stop at church/ Don’t leave the preacher/ In the lurch/ Jesus Saves.”
Closer to home, Zion United Methodist Church erected a set of four Burma-Shave-like signs on its lawn in South Haven a few years ago to try to attract the attention of people driving by on busy Highway 55.
Church treasurer Bob Thompson said he suggested the idea tongue-in-cheek, “and people liked it.” The result: “Like to sleep late/ So do we/ Coffee at 10:30 a.m./ Worship at 11 a.m.”
The signs don’t rhyme, but they’ve been effective, church official Shirley Pramann said.
They’ve brought in a few new members, she said, and they’ve given the church something of a new identity. “We’re the church that is known for its signs now.”