The Verse By The Side Of The Road

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Curious and wonderful results, unprecedented in the history of advertising, developed from these hidden characteristics of the six-line highway jingle. One was that people soon developed favorites, reading them aloud with even more savor than the first time they were encountered. The entire carload would chant as if a litany: BENEATH THIS STONE / LIES ELMER GUSH / TICKLED TO DEATH / BY HIS / SHAVING BRUSH . With many families the privilege of reading Burma-Shave signs aloud was a rotated honor, leading inevitably to sharp contention (“It is so my turn!”). There was also often someone assigned the duty of peering backward to capture and unscramble the signs that faced in the other direction, a task that required quick wit and a good memory: OF THEM FOR SEED / TO LEAVE ONE HALF / YOU DON’T NEED / WHISKERS / WHEN CUTTING .

Certain themes recurred through all the Burma-Shave jingles, like a motif for a French horn echoing through a symphony. One was the accept-no-substitutes theme. Substitution is an idea that eats corrosively into the mind of advertisers, most particularly those whose products are retailed in groceries and drugstores. The idea is embittering, like a plot from Greek tragedy: one has spent money in building up a demand, and a customer wanders in off the street, maybe not having the name of The Product just right, and then a wretched clerk foists off on him a jar of The Competition, and all that fine money has gone to waste, and, worse, The Competition has rung up a sale, and is even started down the road of earning Product Loyalty for the stuff. It is a nightmare that can make advertisers writhe, and the Odells were no exception. But where conventional, printed-media advertisers would exhort “Accept No Substitutes,” making virtually no effect whatever on the glazed or unseeing eyes of their readers, the Odells contrived even here a note of gaiety: GIVE THE GUY / THE TOE OF YOUR BOOT / WHO TRIES / TO HAND YOU / A SUBSTITUTE .

The selling of a brushless shaving cream required the changing of settled habits. Cramps and Father had both used a badger-hair brush and perhaps a specially marked shaving mug; why should one change a time-honored and, indeed, traditionally masculine rite? Allan Odell approached the problem from a variety of ways: convenience, modernity, speed, improved results, and the elimination of a need, when travelling, to pack a wet brush. Sometimes the competitive arguments were graphic. Noting the growing acceptance of electric shavers, Clinton Odell himself tossed off a humdinger: A SILKY CHEEK / SHAVED SMOOTH / AND CLEAN / IS NOT OBTAINED / WITH A MOWING MACHINE .

Usually the company managed to place the signs most propitiously. The first portent of a Burma-Shave invasion into new territory was the sight of the advance man, assigned to buy locations. He’d cruise along main through highways, watching for spots that met his requirements: a straight and fairly level stretch, at road height, or no more than three or four feet lower, never higher. A place bearing other signs was to be avoided, particularly big billboards that could eclipse part of a series. The site should be visible for a considerable distance, for it had been found that, if the set began just after a curve, some people would miss the first sign or two, an annoyance sufficient, in some cases, to generate testy letters of complaint.

Once a likely spot was identified, the advance man would approach the farmer who owned the land, present him with a jar of the product, show him a sign, and begin negotiations. In general a mutually agreeable deal could be concluded, a year’s lease of rights to install and maintain the signs bringing the farmer from five to twenty-five dollars, depending on the location.

Renewals were handled by mail. Mostly the relationship between farmers and Burma-Shave was an amiable one, with many leases extending for decades. “Oh, occasionally we’d get a man who’d pull down some signs to patch up his barn,” noted John Kammerer, head of the company sign shop, “but it was mainly all the other way. The farmers were kind of proud of those signs. They’d often write us if a sign had become damaged, asking us to ship a replacement that they’d put up themselves. In the years when we brought old signs back here to the plant, when lumber was short, I’d sometimes see where they had repaired or repainted signs on their own hook, often doing a fine job of it, too.”

Once the advance man had signed up the farmer, the two would pace off the location, tying bright strips of red or orange cloth to the fence to signal the spot for the installation crew following along behind. The typical crew, travelling in a 1½-ton truck jauntily painted with such admonitions as “Cheer Up, Face, the War Is Over,” would consist of several husky Minnesota youngsters, appropriately muscled for the assignment of digging thirty-six postholes per day, each one no less than three feet deep.

The signs themselves were at first changed annually, and then every two years. In the beginning the color scheme alternated: one year, red with white lettering, the next, orange with black lettering. It was soon noticed, however, that whenever people spoke of Burma-Shave signs, they invariably described them as red and white. The orange-and-black ones seem to have made no impression whatever on the public’s retina, or at least on its memory. At this the company gave up, going almost exclusively to red and white.