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Friday, July 30, 2010


Burma-Shave was an American brand of brushless shaving cream, famous for its advertising gimmick of posting humorous rhyming poems on small, sequential highway billboard signs.

1940s Burma-Shave tube and box


Burma-Shave was introduced in 1925 by the Burma-Vita company, owned by Clinton Odell. The company's original product was a liniment made of ingredients described as coming "from the Malay Peninsula and Burma." Demand was sparse, and the company sought to expand sales by introducing a product with wider appeal.

The result was the famous Burma-Shave advertising sign program, and sales took off. At its peak, Burma-Shave was the second-highest selling brushless shaving cream in the United States. Sales declined in the 1950's, and in 1963 the company was sold to Phillip Morris. The signs were removed at that time. The brand decreased in visibility and eventually became the property of the American Safety Razor Company.

In 1997, the American Safety Razor Company reintroduced the Burma-Shave brand, including a nostalgic shaving soap and brush kit. In fact, the original Burma-Shave was a brushless shaving cream, and Burma-Shave's own roadside signs frequently ridiculed "Grandpa's old-fashioned shaving brush."

Roadside billboards

Set of signs promoting Burma-Shave, on U.S. Route 66.

Burma-Shave sign series appeared from 1925 to 1963 in most of the contiguous United States. The exceptions were New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada (deemed to have insufficient road traffic), and Massachusetts (eliminated due to that state's high land rentals and roadside foliage). Typically, six consecutive small signs would be posted along the edge of highways, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. The last sign was almost always the name of the product. The signs were originally produced in two color combinations: red-and-white and orange-and-black, though the latter was eliminated after a few years. A special white-on-blue set of signs was developed for South Dakota, which restricted the color red on roadside signs to official warning notices.

This use of the billboard was a successful advertising gimmick during the early years of the automobile, drawing attention and passers-by who were curious to discover the punchline. As the Interstate system expanded in the late 1950s and vehicle speeds increased, it became more difficult to attract motorists' attention with small signs. When the company was acquired by Phillip Morris, the signs were discontinued on advice of counsel.

Some of the signs, instead of directly advertising the shaving cream, featured public safety messages (usually about speeding).

Examples of Burma-Shave advertisements are at The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Re-creations of Burma-Shave sign sets also appear on Arizona Highway 66, part of the original U.S. Route 66, between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona (though they weren't installed there by Burma-Shave during its original campaigns) and on Old U.S. Highway 30 near Ogden, Iowa. Another example is shown at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.


The complete list of the 600 or so known sets of signs is listed in Sunday Drives and in the last part of The Verse by the Side of the Road. The content of the earliest signs is lost, but it is believed that the first recorded signs, for 1927 and soon after, are close to the originals. The first ones were prosaic advertisements. Generally the signs were printed with all capital letters. The style shown below is for readability:

Shave the modern way / No brush / No lather / No rub-in / Big tube 35 cents - Drug stores / Burma-Shave

As early as 1928, the writers were displaying a puckish sense of humor:

Takes the "H" out of shave / Makes it save / Saves complexion / Saves time and money / No brush - no lather / Burma-Shave

In 1929, the prosaic ads began to be replaced by actual verses on four signs, with the fifth sign merely a filler for the sixth:

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

Previously there were only two to four sets of signs per year. 1930 saw major growth in the company, and 19 sets of signs were produced. The writers recycled a previous joke. They continued to ridicule the "old" style of shaving. And they began to appeal to the wives as well:

Cheer up face / The war is past / The "H" is out / Of shave / At last / Burma-Shave

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

In 1931, the writers began to reveal a "cringe factor" side to their creativity, which would increase over time:

No matter / How you slice it / It's still your face / Be humane / Use / Burma-Shave
In 1932, the company recognized the popularity of the signs with a self-referencing gimmick

Free / Illustrated / Jingle book / In every / Package / Burma-Shave

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

Along with the usual jokes, a regional contest spawned several signs in 1933, held during football season:

Within this vale / Of toil / And sin / Your head grows bald / But not your chin - use / Burma-Shave

Hit 'em high / Hit 'em low / Follow your team / Over WCCO / And win a prize / Burma-Shave

In 1935, the first known appearance of a road safety message appeared, combined with a punning sales pitch:

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

A punning reference to another well-known drug store product 1936:

Riot at / Drug store / Calling all cars / 100 customers / 99 jars / Burma-Shave

Smith Brothers / Would look immense / If they'd just / Cough up 50 cents / For half pound jar / Burma-Shave

Free! Free! / A trip / To Mars / For 900 / Empty jars / Burma-Shave

Self-referencing signs continued in 1937, along with puns:

You've laughed / At our signs / For many a mile / Be a sport / Give us a trial / Burma-Shave

If harmony / Is what / You crave / Then get / A tuba / Burma-Shave

Another safety message from 1938:

Don't take a curve / at 60 per / we hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave

Safety messages began to increase in 1939, as these examples show. (The first of the three is a parody of Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

Hardly a driver / Is now alive / Who passed / On hills / At 75 / Burma-Shave

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

If you dislike / Big traffic fines / Slow down / Till you / Can read these signs / Burma-Shave

1939 also saw more puns for the product:

A peach / Looks good / With lots of fuzz / But man's no peach / And never wuz / Burma-Shave

I proposed / To Ida / Ida refused / Ida won my Ida / If Ida used / Burma-Shave

In 1939 and subsequent years, demise of the signs was foreshadowed, as busy roadways approaching larger cities featured shortened versions of the slogans on one, two, or three signs — the exact count is not recorded. The puns include a play on the Maxwell House Coffee slogan, standard puns, and yet another reference to the "H" joke:

Good to the last strop

Covers a multitude of chins

Takes the "H" out of shaving

1940 saw an early reference to the idea of a designated driver:

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

More safety slogans in 1941, along with ads:

Don't stick / Your elbow / Out so far / It might go home / In another car / Burma-Shave

At intersections / Look each way / A harp sounds nice / But it's / Hard to play / Burma-Shave

From / Bar / To car / To gates / Ajar / Burma-Shave

Broken romance / Stated fully / She went wild / When he / Went wooly / Burma Shave

Possibly the ultimate in self-referencing signs, leaving out the product name. This one also adorns the cover of the book:

If you / Don't know / Whose signs / These are / You can't have / Driven very far

The war years found the company recycling a lot of their old signs, with new ones mostly focusing on World War II "propaganda":

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


Don't lose / Your head / To gain a minute / You need your head / Your brains are in it / Burma-Shave (repeated in 1963)

Car in ditch / Driver in tree / Moon was full / And so / Was he / Burma-Shave

I use it too / The bald man said / It keeps my face / Just like / My head / Burma-Shave

In Cupid's little / Bag of trix / Here's the one / That clix / With chix / Burma-Shave


He tried / To cross / As fast train neared / Death didn't draft him / He volunteered / Burma-Shave

My job is / Keeping faces clean / And nobody knows / De stubble / I've seen / Burma-Shave

Her chariot / Raced 80 per / They hauled away / What had / Ben Hur / Burma-Shave


Drinking drivers / Don't you know / Great bangs / From little / Binges grow? / Burma-Shave

Proper / Distance / To him was bunk / They pulled him out / Of some guy's trunk / Burma-Shave


Pedro / Walked / Back home, by golly / His bristly chin / Was hot-to-Molly / Burma-Shave (repeated in 1963)

The wolf / Is shaved / So neat and trim / Red Riding Hood / Is chasing him / Burma-Shave

Missin' / Kissin'? / Perhaps your thrush / Can't get thru / The underbrush — try / Burma-Shave

A chin / Where barbed wire / Bristles stand / Is bound to be / A no ma'ams land / Burma-Shave


Around / The curve / Lickety-split / Lovely car / Wasn't it? / Burma Shave


Dinah doesn't / Treat him right / But if he'd / Shave / Dyna-mite! / Burma-Shave

The big blue tube's / Just like Louise / You get / A thrill / From every squeeze / Burma-Shave

To change that / Shaving job / To joy / You gotta use / The real McCoy / Burma-Shave

The monkey took / One look at Jim / And threw the peanuts / Back at him / He needed / Burma-Shave

Slow down, Pa / Sakes alive / Ma missed signs / Four / And five / Burma Shave

1959's ads included perhaps the worst of the "cringe-worthy" safety slogans:

Said Farmer Brown / Who's bald / On top / Wish I could / Rotate the crop / Burma-Shave

This cooling shave / Will never fail / To stamp / Its user / First-class male / Burma-Shave

Don't / Try passing / On a slope / Unless you have / A periscope / Burma-Shave

If daisies / Are your / Favorite flower / Keep pushin' up those / Miles per hour / Burma-Shave

He lit a match / To check gas tank / That's why / They call him / Skinless Frank / Burma Shave

1960 saw the last group of original signs until 1963:

Henry the Eighth / Sure had / Trouble / Short term wives / Long term stubble / Burma-Shave

Ben / Met Anna / Made a hit / Neglected beard / Ben-Anna split / Burma-Shave

Dim your lights / Behind a car / Let folks see / How bright / You are / Burma-Shave

Angels / Who guard you / When you drive / Usually / Retire at 65 / Burma-Shave

1963 was the last year for the signs, most of which were repeats, including the final slogan, which had first appeared in 1953:

Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It's our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave

One sign considered, but never used:

Listen birds / These signs cost / Money / So roost a while / But don't get funny / Burma-Shave

(year unknown) Here lies / Heaven's neophyte / signaled left / then turned right / Burma-Shave

Source: Wikepedia