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Burma-Shave Signs Remembering Pre-Interstate Roadsides

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Unless You're
65 Or More
You've Probably
Never Heard of
Burma-Shave
From Days of Yore
Before cell phones, laptops, satellite radio or back-seat video screens, the basic ways to pass the time while traveling by car were talking with your fellow passengers, reading something printed on paper or simply relaxing and enjoying the scenery.

In Texas and most other states, from the mid-1920s to the early 1960s, part of watching the countryside pass by involved reading and laughing at the clever advertising signs placed along highways by Burma-Vita, the Minneapolis company that manufactured a brush-less shaving cream called Burma-Shave. (For those who have forgotten or perhaps never heard of it, shaving is a daily procedure in which a male-born person voluntarily removes his facial hair with a sharp blade after applying some form of lubricant, generally referred to as shaving cream.)

The once ubiquitous brand name, which got off to a slow start until the owners thought of putting up pithy, punny signs to give their product legs, came from the company's claim that their product was made with ingredients from the Malay Peninsula and Burma.

Unlike large billboards or smaller advertising signs, Burma-Shave signs came in a sequential set of six, each spaced far enough apart for motorists to easily digest the witty words line by line. (The sixth board was always just the product name.) The signs, red boards with white letters often simply nailed to fence posts, adhered to one of the fundamental tenets of good advertising: Funny stuff tends to get remembered.

Clearly, Burma-Shave's marketing department understood that truism very well. They even admitted as much with this sign set:

If Our Road Signs
Catch Your Eye
Smile
But Don't Forget
To Buy
Burma-Shave

Burma Shave Signs on Route 66
Burma Shave Signs on Route 66
Wikimedia Commons
Before the company ended its sign campaign in 1963, over the years it had produced some 700 different sets of text. Starting in 1926, each year brought new signs with new verbiage, but older signs tended to stay up. That made for roughly 40,000 signs across the nation, excluding New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, which company officials did not think had enough vehicular traffic to justify signage. (Because of high rental costs and other factors, Massachusetts also did not have the funny signs.) In Texas, however, Burma-Shave signs could be found along all the main pre-Interstate highways, as common as bluebonnets in early spring.

Of course, a good brand name does not afford immunity from the law. A company representative once had his own kind of close shave when he found himself facing two Texas Rangers with guns drawn. Turned out, the traveling salesman-sign hanger had tossed several boxes of defective Burma-Shave product off a bridge. Someone seeing that happen jumped to the sinister conclusion that a body was being disposed of. Once the Burma-Shave rep succeeded in convincing the state lawmen that he was not a killer on the run, they let him go with a warning.

While not always politically correct by today's standards, the roadside signs brought smiles in the day. Not only were most of them funny, in addition to touting their product, they offered safety messages to motorists.

Some of the safety related slogans from the 1960s:

Drowsy?
Just Remember, Pard
That Marble Slab
Is Doggone
Hard

Angels
Who Guard You
When You Drive
Usually
Retire At 65

If Daisies
Are Your
Favorite Flower
Keep Pushin' Up Those
Miles-Per-Hour

A perennial theme was that shaving, especially with Burma-Shave, made a gentleman more attractive to the ladies.

A favorite along Texas highways was:
Ben
Met Anna
Neglected Beard
Ben-Anna Split
Burma-Shave
For those with a passing knowledge of British history, the company offered this sign:

Henry the Eighth
Sure Had
Trouble
Short Term Wives
Long Term Stubble

From the company's final year:

In Cupid's Little
Bag of Trix
Here's the One
That Clix
With Chix

The sign campaign worked. At the company's peak, Burma-Shave ranked second in U.S. shaving cream sales. But the advent of electric razors in the 1950s began to dull Burma-Shave's market edge. In 1963, the company was acquired by Philip Morris. The new owners of the brand apparently did not have much of a sense of humor and the Burma-Shave sign campaign ended. Besides, television ads could reach a lot more people than road signs.

Philip Morris did not send teams across the nation to pull down every old Burma-Shave sign. Souvenir hunters and antique dealers took care of that, though some of the sign sets survived for years after their maker had faded into corporate history.


As early as 1942, the company seems to have understood the impact it had already had on American culture when it distributed this sign set:

If You
Don't Know
Whose Signs
These Are
You Can't Have
Driven Very Far
Burma-Shave

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 13, 2018

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