Way back in 1925 young Allan Odell pitched this great sales idea to his father, Clinton. Use small, wooden roadside signs to pitch their product, Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving cream. Dad wasn’t wild about the idea but eventually gave Allan $200 to give it a try.
Didn’t take long for sales to soar. Soon Allan and his brother Leonard were putting up signs all over the dang place. At first the signs were pure sales pitch but as the years passed they found their sense of humor extending to safety tips and pure fun. And some good old-fashioned down home wisdom.
At their height of popularity there were 7,000 Burma-Shave signs stretching across America. The familiar white on red signs, grouped by four, fives and sixes, were as much a part of a family trip as irritating your kid brother in the back seat of the car. You’d read first one, then another, anticpating the punch line on number five and the familiar Burma-Shave on the sixth.
The signs cheered us during the Depression and the dark days of World War II. But things began to change in the late Fifties. Cars got faster and superhighways got built to accommodate them. The fun little signs were being replaced by huge, unsightly billboards.
1963 was the last year for new Burma Shave signs. No more red and white nuggets of roadside wisdom to ease the journey.
A visitor to The Fifties Web contributed this story of a set of signs found in the Oregon wine country as late as 1986. She wrote me that “…two of the five signs were lying on the ground, and one was face down. I hoped the bull guarding them would be friendly as I reached through the fence to turn it over. (He was.)” The signs said, “Farewell O verse, Along the road. How sad to see, You’re out of mode.”
As befits such an important part of American culture, one set is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. It reads:
You’ll soon see ’em
On a shelf
In some museum