The Verse By The Side Of The Road

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In the mid-twenties a highly successful Minneapolis insurance man named Clinton Odell, ordered by his doctor to find a less arduous pursuit, cast about for something to occupy his energies. In conjunction with a chemist friend he developed a brushless shaving cream that they named “Burma-Shave,” choosing the word “Burma” because that was where several of the ingredients came from. Odell and his sons, trying to sell it from door to door, soon found that this was a “good way to starve to death fast.”

But in 1925 Clinton’s elder son, Allan Odell, convinced his father that groups of small roadside signs, arranged for serial effect, were worth a trial. Racing against the frost that would make signpost digging impossible that fall, Allan and his younger brother Leonard hurriedly installed several sets of homemade signs on two highways leading to Minneapolis. Soon the infant company began receiving the first repeat orders in its history. From then on, for more than three decades, Burma-Shave signs (which soon spread from coast to coast) amused whole generations of Americans, who were taking to the roads in ever-increasing numbers.

The essential spirit of the Burma-Shave signs—what made America first notice and later cherish the jaunty little jingles —was of course their lightheartedness. Humor has always been infrequent in advertising, and in the years of the Depression it was so scarce as to be virtually a trace element. If one examines the newspapers and magazines of the period, the nearest thing to intentional humor one is likely to find is a drawing of a chubby, golden-ringleted female toddler, so busy holding her ice-cream cone above the leaps of a frisky puppy that her defective suspenders threaten to disclose her infant buttocks.

They were days when many advertisers preferred long blocks of copy, composed around the “reason why” principle. In drugstore products in particular, with business poor and competition fierce, many advertisers were aiming single-mindedly for the jugular. Listerine and Lifebuoy were instilling the thought that each citizen was needlessly malodorous, while Absorbine Jr. was suggesting that many apparently beautiful women had cracked and scabby toes.

It was upon this advertising scene—a lapel-grabbing, intensely serious hard sell—that the Odells arrived with their distinctive, often ironic humor: HE PLAYED / A SAX / HAD NO B. O. / BUT HIS WHISKERS SCRATCHED / SO SHE LET HIM GO / BURMA-SHAVE . There was even an occasional note of irreverence toward other advertising: IT’S NOT TOASTED / IT’S NOT DATED / BUT LOOK OUT / IT’S IMITATED . The little signs first startled, then delighted, the highway traveller. Their unwillingness to be portentous, their amiable iconoclasm, pleased people in the same way that Ballyhoo magazine briefly caught the national fancy, or that Mad magazine has recently charmed the young. The signs did not shout or grate on our sensibilities. HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH / AND COOL AS ICE / AND OH LOUISE! / HE SMELLED / SO NICE . There was also an impious absurdity that was captivating, for no advertisers had ever spoken to us this way before: DOES YOUR HUSBAND / MISBEHAVE / GRUNT AND GRUMBLE / RANT AND RAVE? / SHOOT THE BRUTE SOME / BURMA-SHAVE . There as unexpectedness about these flippant new signs; one would cruise a familiar highway and come upon, newly installed, a series such as: THE ANSWER TO / A MAIDEN’S / PRAYER / IS NOT A CHIN / OF STUBBY HAIR .

One aspect of the signs not evident at first was that several special advantages were concealed in an arrangement of six small messages planted fifty paces apart. At thirty-five miles an hour it took about eighteen seconds to roll through the whole series. This was far more time and attention than a newspaper or magazine advertiser could realistically expect to win from casual viewers. Yet Burma-Shave almost automatically exacted this attention from practically every literate passer-by; as Alexander Woollcott once observed, it was as difficult to read just one Burma-Shave sign as it was to eat one salted peanut.

Another 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, as it could on a printed page. Instead the arrangement, like the bouncing ball in a movie group-singing short, concentrated attention on one sign at a time, building effect for the pay-off line, which was usually the fifth (the sixth being, of course, “Burma-Shave”). The result was to deliver the message in much the style of a practiced raconteur who sets the stage for his snapper: PITY ALL / THE MIGHTY CAESARS / THEY PULLED / EACH WHISKER OUT / WITH TWEEZERS .