was an American
brand of brushless shaving cream
, famous for its advertising gimmick of posting humorous rhyming poems on small, consecutive highway billboard signs.
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 for the liniment, and the company sought to expand the product's sales by introducing a product with wider appeal.
Burma-Shave was a pungent, soapy-smelling concoction that the company found difficult to sell at first. To increase sales, the owners developed 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. However, sales declined in the 1950s, 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. Ironically, the original Burma-Shave was a brushless shaving cream, and Burma-Shave's own roadside signs frequently ridiculed "Grandpa's old-fashioned shaving brush."
Burma-Shave sign series appeared from 1925 to 1963 in most of the contiguous United States
. The exceptions were New Mexico
, 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 billboards would be posted along the edge of highways, spaced so they could be read consecutively by motorists driving by. The last sign was almost always the name of the product. The signs themselves were originally produced in two color combinations: red-and-white and orange-and-black, though the latter combination was dropped after only 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 highly successful advertising gimmick during the early years of the automobile, drawing attention and passers-by who were curious to discover the punchline. However, as the Interstate system expanded in the late 1950s and average vehicle speeds increased, it became increasingly difficult to attract motorists' attention with relatively small signs, especially near major cities with their burgeoning arterial interchanges.
Some of the signs, instead of directly advertising what the shaving cream could do, would feature public safety messages (usually about speeding).
Examples of Burma-Shave advertisements can be seen at The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Re-creations of the famous 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 had never been installed there by Burma-Shave itself during its original sign campaigns).
The complete list of the 600 or so known sets of signs is listed 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 self-referencing 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
Another self-referential sign set appeared in 1936, as did a punning reference to another well-known drug store product:
- 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 combination safety and self-reference 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, with no shortage of puns and other references, such as the set parodying The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and another self-reference:
- 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
- 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 / Look as sick as / Old Benito / Buy defense 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 / Race 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 / A beautiful 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
Special promotional messages
- Free offer! Free offer! / Rip a fender off your car / mail it in / for a half-pound jar / Burma-Shave
- A large number of fenders were received by the company, which made good on its promise.
- Free — free / a trip to Mars / for 900 / empty jars / Burma-Shave
- One respondent, Arlyss French, who was the owner of a Red Owl grocery store, did submit 900 empty jars; the company replied: "If a trip to Mars you earn, remember, friend, there's no return." After he collected 900 more jars for the return trip, the company, on the recommendation of Red Owl's publicity team, sent him on vacation to the town of Moers (often pronounced "Mars" by foreigners) near Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
In Nova Scotia
, Progressive Conservative premier John Buchanan
would stand at the end of a long line of party signs and wave to morning traffic. This took on the name Burma-Shaving and continues to this day by candidates of all parties and political causes.
Movies and television shows set in the 1950s (either "period pieces" or time-travel plots) have used the Burma-Shave roadside billboards to help set the scene. Examples are Bonnie and Clyde
, The World's Fastest Indian
, Stand By Me
, and the pilot episode ("Genesis") of Quantum Leap
. In this episode the couplet used was Why Is It / When You Try To Pass / The Guy In Front / Goes Twice As Fast / Burma-Shave.
The award-winning novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman contains many references to "legendary" aspects of America, including the Burma-Shave slogans.
The long-running Hee Haw borrowed the style for program bumpers, transitioning from one show segment to the next or to commercials.
In another hillbilly tie in, the popular alternate history Ring of Fire series lines the roads leading to with Burma-Shave slogans, as the time-displaced Americans redevelop the safety razor in the short story .
A Burma-Shave billboard sign appears on the last panel of Swamp Thing #26 (July 1984) by Alan Moore and Steve Bissette. The panel captions leading up to this are intended to mimic the format of the advertising boards: The night can make a man more brave... / But not more sober. / Burma Shave.
Burma-Shave signs feature in a chapter of Lake Wobegon Days by humorist Garrison Keillor, in which a character's aunt repeatedly reads billboards aloud during a road trip to St. Cloud. The sign sequence reads "Don't drive so fast / Among the pines / Aunt Mary likes / To read our signs / Burma-Shave."
Tom Waits' song "Burma-Shave" (from his 1977 Foreign Affairs album) uses the signs as an allegory for an unknown destination:
- I guess I'm headed that-a-way,
- Just as long as it's paved,
- I guess you'd say
- I'm on my way
- to Burma-Shave
Ironically (given the propensity of Burma Shave signs to dispense road-safety messages) both of the song's protagonists die in a car crash.
The billboard rhymes were an occasional talk topic among the characters of M*A*S*H, particularly Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt. In "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" (the show's final episode) there is a scene where Hawkeye returns to the camp, greeted by a series of road signs:
- Hawk was gone,
- Now he's here,
- Dance 'til Dawn,
- Give a Cheer.
In a Ren & Stimpy comic (Issue #3, Espresso Yourself), there is a scene where they approach a tourist park featuring a giant hairball, and the following signs appear:
- If the hairball's,
- What you seek,
- Exit here,
- Not for the meek.
In The Flintstones
- Feelin' warm and queasy
- while floatin' on the wave?
- just wave your arms, shout hello
- and shout Burma-Shave!
Burma-Shave is also referenced in several DOS-styled computer games such as Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, Exile III: Ruined World, and Enchanter.
Near the end of the computer game Avernum 3, along a road to Footracer Province (a province destroyed by extremely dangerous, magically augmented canine creatures called alien beasts), a sequence of Burma-Shave signs can be found: Before they take us / to our graves / alien beasts use / Burma-Shave.
Free Software advocate and developer Richard Stallman once proposed that the text-editor Emacs show this Burma-Shave-like message at its start:
- Emacs is GNU
- Emacs is free
- For more information
- Type C-h C-p
Red Skelton once said that the rooms in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida were so big that on the way to the bathrooms they put up Burma-Shave signs. A kind of counterpoint is this dialog from B.C.
- "Our town was so small."
- "How small was it?"
- "The Burma-Shave signs were stacked."
In the movie "The Worlds Fastest Indian" about a Indian Motorbike breaking the land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats which is based on a true story. The main character Burt Munro drives past a few sets of signs on his way to Bonnaville Salt Flats
The American Mensa Bulletin (August 2008) concerning advertising features the following:
- With the right ad,
- Even snake oil sells...
- It's iron-clad...
- To cure your ills...