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Friday, August 01, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 10/26/2002

Bring back those roadside signs

In 1926 Allan Odell spent $200 for scraps of lumber and paint and launched one of the most memorable roadside advertising promotions in American history. I am suggesting that it be revived.

If you remember the Burma-Shave signs along the highways, you probably agree.

A current highway phenomenon provides the perfect location for the signs - smack on the orange barrels that pop up everywhere in almost every town and city.

Granted, new bridges are important and roads must be repaired or widened, but unless you are the person manufacturing and selling the barrels, dodging them gets to be a pain, and weaving in and out of the temporary lane is more confusing than determining the direction of the ropes that are set up to keep us in line at the bank.

The Burma-Shave sign idea came to me while trying to get from Point A to Point B around the barrels in Blissfield after a similar challenge 10 miles earlier.

The barrels are so drab and monotonous; I wish they could toss in a red or green one now and then. Perhaps they will for Christmas season; I feel certain road repair will continue well into the winter months.

Motorists, we definitely need entertainment relief during this stressful driving period, and barrel verses with a lilt and a lesson could be the ticket.

From 1926 to 1963, Burma-Shave signs provided amusement on the highways across America. The signs were credited for quieting family squabbles that can happen on long motor trips. They magically appeared just in time to bring a smile to the children and adults in the car.

When Allan Odell got the idea and the lumber, his father's shaving cream business was just about bankrupt. The family knew the cream was a timely product. The first brushless cream was developed by Clinton Odell just at the time when American families were beginning to travel by automobile. The chance to eliminate a shaving cup and brush in the luggage was a big advancement.

Allan wrote the first jingles and set up the first signs on Route 35 near Minneapolis. The next year signs went up throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Shaving cream sales soared. Seven thousand signs were posted in 45 states, and crews with eight trucks maintained them and replaced them once a year.

Overhead included cases of shaving cream given to farmers who gave permission to place the signs on their land, and cash prizes awarded in jingle-writing contests.

At first the white-on-red signs, usually in groups of six, were pure product advertising, but in time words of wisdom with an emphasis on safe driving and delightful down-home humor were written. Short lines of verse on the first four signs warmed up the reader for the punch line on the fifth, and the last sign was always about Burma-Shave.

Like other slices of Americana, the signs that brought smiles during the Depression and a few laughs in wartime disappeared. The Odells sold the company to Gillette, which became part of Phillip Morris. The little signs got lost in the shuffle of big business that turned to more modern ways to advertise, like television.

Here are some of my favorite Burma-Shave verses. If you want to read more, The Verse By the Side of the Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr., written in 1965, includes all 600.

Shaving brushes/ You'll soon see 'em/ On a shelf/ In some museum

Before I tried it/ The kisses/ I missed/ But afterward-boy!/ The misses I kissed

Past/ Schoolhouses/ Take it slow/ Let the little/ Shavers grow

It's best for/ One who hits/The bottle/ To let another/ Use the throttle

Don't pass cars/ On curve or hill/ If the cops/ Don't get you/ Morticians will



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