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Notes and Quotes- April 14, 2019

An Iconic Time for Roadside Education

By Tom Morrow

If the name “Burma Shave” has little or no meaning to you, then read on for a quick “roadside” history lesson in advertising that was popular to motorists of yesteryear. If you know about the signs, you’ll enjoy some pleasant memories. If you don’t remember, then here’s a fun look back at an iconic period of Americana.

A loyal reader reminded me of those days during the twenties through the sixties when U.S. highways across America had educational tinged with entertainment along the way. Drivers and their passengers were cleverly greeted by strings of roadside signs sponsored by Burma Shave, a popular men’s shaving product of that era.

Burma-Shave sign-series first appeared on U.S. Highway 65 near Lakeville, Minnesota, in 1926, and remained a major roadside advertising component until 1963 throughout most of the United States.

In the early days, the southwestern states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada were not included because they were thought to have insufficient road traffic. Many highways in those states weren’t even paved. Massachusetts was eliminated due to that state’s high-cost land rentals and thick roadside foliage. Typically, six consecutive small poetic 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 “Burma Shave.”

This use of a series of small signs, each of which bore part of a commercial message, was a successful approach to highway advertising during the early years of highway travel, drawing the attention of passing motorists who were curious to learn the punchline. As the modern Interstate system expanded in the late 1950s and vehicle speeds increased, it became more difficult to attract motorists’ attention with the small signs. When the company was acquired by Philip Morris, the signs were discontinued on advice of the company’s legal counsel.

Some of the signs featured safety messages about speeding instead of clever advertising sayings.

Today, examples of Burma-Shave signs are at The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Re-creations of Burma-Shave signs also appear on Arizona’s portion of the old U.S. Highway 66, between Ash Fork, and Kingman, as well as along old U.S. Highway 30 near Ogden, Iowa. Other examples are displayed at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a rest area along Interstate 44 in Missouri between Rolla and Springfield, the Forney Transportation Museum in Denver, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.

Here are a few examples of the popular, poetic roadside signs (each line was on a separate sign):


DON’T STICK YOUR ELBOW
OUT SO FAR
IT MAY GO HOME
IN ANOTHER CAR. 
Burma Shave

TRAINS DON’T WANDER
ALL OVER THE MAP
‘CAUSE NOBODY SITS
IN THE ENGINEER’S LAP.
Burma Shave

SHE KISSED THE HAIRBRUSH
BY MISTAKE
SHE THOUGHT IT WAS
HER HUSBAND JAKE.
Burma Shave

DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD
TO GAIN A MINUTE
YOU NEED YOUR HEAD
YOUR BRAINS ARE IN IT.
Burma Shave

DROVE TOO LONG
DRIVER SNOOZING
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
IS NOT AMUSING.
Burma Shave

BROTHER SPEEDER
LET’S REHEARSE
ALL TOGETHER
GOOD MORNING, NURSE.
Burma Shave

CAUTIOUS RIDER
TO HER RECKLESS DEAR
LET’S HAVE LESS BULL
AND A LITTLE MORE STEER.
Burma Shave

SPEED WAS HIGH
WEATHER WAS NOT
TIRES WERE THIN
X MARKS THE SPOT.
Burma Shave

THE MIDNIGHT RIDE
OF PAUL FOR BEER
LED TO A WARMER
HEMISPHERE.
Burma Shave

AROUND THE CURVE
LICKETY-SPLIT
BEAUTIFUL CAR
WASN’T IT?
Burma Shave

NO MATTER THE PRICE
NO MATTER HOW NEW
THE BEST SAFETY DEVICE
IN THE CAR IS YOU.
Burma Shave

A GUY WHO DRIVES
A CAR WIDE OPEN
IS NOT THINKIN’
HE’S JUST HOPING
Burma Shave

AT INTERSECTIONS
LOOK EACH WAY
A HARP SOUNDS NICE
BUT IT’S HARD TO PLAY.
Burma Shave

BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL
EYES ON THE ROAD
THAT’S THE SKILLFUL
DRIVER’S CODE.
Burma Shave

THE ONE WHO DRIVES
WHEN HE’S BEEN DRINKING
DEPENDS ON YOU
TO DO HIS THINKING.
Burma Shave

CAR IN DITCH
DRIVER IN TREE
THE MOON WAS FULL
AND SO WAS HE.
Burma Shave

PASSING SCHOOL ZONE
TAKE IT SLOW
LET OUR LITTLE
SHAVERS GROW.
Burma Shave