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A local co./ was going broke/ till clever ads/ demand awoke/ Burma-Shave

In the fall of 1925, a series of six signs advertising Burma-Shave, a new brushless shaving cream, appeared for the first time along highway 65 from Minneapolis to Albert Lea and on highway 61 to Red Wing. The signs began an advertising phenomenon using clever rhyming jingles that lasted into the 1960s, including: “Your shaving brush / has had its day, / so why not / shave the modern way / with Burma-Shave?”

In the early 1900s, Robert Odell, a Minneapolis attorney, was seeking a second source of income. He decided to manufacture an aromatic liniment, which he named Burma-Vita. He chose “Burma,” which was the source of the liniment’s ingredients (cassia, camphor, and cajeput), and vita, which is Latin for life. Odell promoted it as a remedy for aches and pains, burns, wounds and sores, skin irritations and rashes, and other ailments.

In 1925, the Burma-Vita company was in dire financial straits. Robert’s son, Clinton, had the idea to develop a brushless shaving product for men from the liniment. This new product would eliminate the need for a shaving brush, which often became moldy and smelly when stored in a shaving kit. Burma-Shave was born after months of experimentation by Carl Noren, a Minneapolis chemist. In 1926, a newspaper advertisement encouraged enlightened young men to use Burma-Shave to shorten the time they spent on shaving. A half-pound jar cost fifty cents, and a big tube was thirty-five cents.

Sales of the new product were slow until Allan Odell, Clinton’s son, decided to take advantage of the increase in car ownership and travel. He convinced his father to invest 200 dollars to create signs to advertise Burma-Shave along the roadside. One line of a non-rhyming jingle was painted on each of six boards, which were spaced one hundred feet apart on the roadside. By 1927, business increased to $68,000 in one year. By the late 1930s, Burma-Shave became the second-highest-selling brushless shaving cream in the US and was in 17 percent of medicine cabinets.

Soon shorter, rhyming jingles appeared on the signs that motorists could more easily read as they passed by. Many of the jingles were early public service announcements—“Drive / with care. / Be alive / when you/ arrive. / Burma-Shave.” Eventually, the signs were installed in forty-five states, and over 6,000 sets were installed in thirty-three years.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Women working on the assembly line inside the Burma-Vita Company, 2318 Chestnut Avenue West, Minneapolis. Photograph by Norton & Peel, May 9, 1941.

Initially, the Burma-Vita company was located at 2533 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. In 1926, the company leased a building at 2005 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. With 17,000 square feet and four stories, the building accommodated modern machinery used to mix the shaving cream and to fill and label jars and tubes. Projected production was two tons per day. In 1940, the company moved once again to 2318 West Chestnut Avenue in Minneapolis. It never employed more than thirty-five employees, who worked in either sign or shaving-cream production.

In the early years, Allan and Clinton Odell wrote most of the product’s jingles. In 1930, they realized their jingle-writing creativity was limited, so they created a yearly, national jingle-writing contest. In 1951, prizes ranged from two to 100 dollars.

Contest rules required that the jingle words fit on a series of six signs, and the last sign had to read Burma-Shave. Each jingle had to rhyme and fit into one of six categories—Safe Driving; Humor; Brushless; Economy; Tough Beards, Tender Skin; and Avoid Substitutes. The top or bottom flap of a Burma-Shave carton had to be included with the submission. Over 50,000 entries were received in some years. The Odells were careful not to use potentially offensive jingles.

During World War II, gasoline and tire shortages limited sign maintenance, and sales dropped since there were fewer vehicles on roadways. With the beginning of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, the signs lost their advertising effectiveness since they had to be installed farther from roads. At the same time, driving speeds increased, making signs harder to read. New laws regulating highway billboards and changing times led to the eventual demise of the signs, and thus declining sales. In 1963, the Burma-Vita company was sold to Philip Morris, which began removing the signs. In 1966, the manufacturing operations moved to New Jersey and production discontinued soon after.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Josh Hisley on 04/23/2018 - 10:19 am.

    Great Story

    Too bad this Minnesota company went east and, ahem . . . went up in smoke? Hopefully it was a windfall for the Odells.

  2. Submitted by B Carlson on 04/23/2018 - 11:15 am.

    I Remember Those Signs!

    As a kid I recall seeing them just about everywhere on rural US and state highways between most towns. They were easy to spot, red signs with white letters. Whoever saw one first would begin reading them off.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/23/2018 - 11:46 am.

    Loved those signs

    Those signs brightened many a road trip for me as a kid. I miss seeing them.

  4. Submitted by giba Ahlstrand on 04/23/2018 - 12:13 pm.

    Shave/tourism jingle

    Years ago I wrote a jingle for a friend in Kansas based on the Burma model:

    Come to Kansas,
    Terra firma.
    Where real men shave
    with Creme de Burma.

    Burma Shave

    Anyone else want to try your hand at a it? : < )

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/23/2018 - 01:54 pm.

    If you want to see them or read them, here is a link

    http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_844941

    I know you don’t allow links, but then you need to include them in the bodies of your articles!!! Virtually all newspaper and other media source do.

    For images of Burma Shane signs and other adds just google Burma Sign Images.

  6. Submitted by B Carlson on 04/24/2018 - 09:27 am.

    Books

    There are also several books about the signs, with lists of the sayings, and the company history.

    One is “The Verse By The Side Of The Road”, another is “Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times”, there may be others also. Easy to find in libraries or for sale on-line.

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