by David High
Burma Shave road signs are long gone, but there are still quite a few of us who remember the unique advertisements seen along many of the highways and byways in the 1930s through the early 1960s.
The signs were the signature ad campaign for the then small company called Burma-vita, later to become Burma Shave. The idea was to have four to six small signs – each bearing a few words of a catchy jingle – spaced 100 paces apart to advertise a new product: a shaving gel called Burma Shave.
In the beginning the signs were rhymes describing how easy and quick the product was to use.
Humor in advertising back in the 30s and 40s was a rarity but, as time went on, most of these clever phrases turned out to be humorous in nature, which only added to their uniqueness.
One big advantage lay hidden in the spaced-out signs: They established a controlled reading pace and even added an element of suspense. The eye could not race ahead and anticipate or spoil the effect. With many families the privilege of reading the signs aloud was a rotated honor, or everyone would read them in unison, lending a light-hearted note to an otherwise grueling trip.
The jingles became so popular that Burma Shave even sponsored a contest that gave $100 to anyone who sent in a rhyme that was used in the ad campaign. The contests drew more than 50,000 entries. The punch line was always on the next to last sign, and the name “Burma Shave” was on the last.
An example of an early verse:
THE BEARDED LADY
TRIED A JAR
THE OTHER WOMEN
IN HIS LIFE
SAID “GO BACK HOME”
AND SCRATCH YOUR WIFE BURMA SHAVE
TO GET AWAY
FROM HAIRY APES
LADIES JUMP FROM FIRE ESCAPES
HE HAD A RING
HE HAD A FLAT
BUT SHE FELT HIS CHIN
AND THAT WAS THAT
The signs were changed on a regular basis as new entries came in, and they went on from year to year, one generation to the next. Some even took on a public service theme, such as:
IF YOU’D BE SPARED
TRAINS DON’T WHISTLE
CAUSE THEY’RE SCARED
AT 60 PER
WE HATE TO LOSE
Corny yes, but still fairly clever. I used to love these little jingles as diversions from fighting with my brothers on long family road trips.
For a short time when I was called on to recite something in school, my sentences would have noticeable pauses after every few words. I think my teachers thought I had some sort of speech impediment. Maybe that’s why I almost got held back a grade when I first started school.
Since school is in full swing, the young ones will be tramping off to learn to read let me leave you with this thought:
TAKE IT SLOW
LET THE LITTLE