The Verse By The Side Of The Road


In the first decades the strangest natural enemies of Burma-Shave signs (besides college-boy collectors) were horses. Signs in fields where horses were pastured would be found broken off forcibly at the attachment point. Throughout the country, it turned out, enterprising horses had discovered that, by sidling under an overhanging sign and humping slightly, a richly sensuous scratching could be achieved. A partial remedy, quickly instituted, was to use ten-foot posts in place of the standard nine-footers.

With the most careful planning, however, the road-sign operation brought unexpected problems. Once a crew working in New England had just completed the laborious installation of OLD MC DONALD / ON THE FARM / SHAVED SO HARD / HE BROKE HIS ARM / THEN HE BOUGHT / BURMA-SHAVE . The foreman was driving slowly past the signs to check them when he noticed from the mailbox, and verified from his route list, that the farmer’s name was in fact McDonald. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said later. “I figured that we probably ought to take down the whole set, even though it was getting on toward dark. Finally we nervously hunted him up. He was a big man, kind of solemn. When I explained, he just looked at me for a long moment. Then he burst out laughing. Turned out that he got a big kick out of it, and of course the whole neighborhood did too.”

Procuring an adequate supply of jingles threatened for a time to be a serious problem. Allan and Clinton composed all copy for the first few years. They gave birth to a few classics, notably, EVERY SHAVER / NOW CAN SNORE / SIX MORE MINUTES / THAN BEFORE , and another of the early great ones: HALF A POUND / FOR / HALF A DOLLAR / SPREAD ON THIN / ABOVE THE COLLAR . Yet by the end of the twenties it was painfully evident that their muse was growing haggard and scrawny. After a brief and unpromising dalliance with staff “jingle artists,” Allan turned to the idea of an annual contest, with $100 paid for each verse accepted. When entries poured in by the thousands, it became excitingly clear that, thanks to industrious versifiers all over the country, the Burma-Shave muse was not only rejuvenated but, indeed, more fetching than ever.

Leonard Odell explained the contest mechanisms this way: “We were out for the best jingles we could get. Each year we advertised the contest over the radio, in magazines and newspapers, and in syndicated Sunday comic sections. We also made sure that people who had previously submitted winners were reminded of the new contest. At the beginning Dad was the principal screener. He’d go up to our summer camp with thousands of entries—we’d send more up to him each day—and for three or four weeks he’d scratch out the ones that had no possibilities, or that might have offended people. Then all of us would whittle away at his preliminary selection.

“After a while it got to be too much for Dad; some of the contests drew more than fifty thousand entries. We hired a couple of experts, women who worked as ad-agency copywriters, to come in for a few weeks and filter out the best ones. They were darned good at it, too, once they got the hang of it. Not all of the entries were clean; it was hard to believe that people would sit down and write the things they did. Anyhow, after they’d picked the top thousand, we’d make copies of them for the company officers and the board of directors. Each of us would pick the twenty or twenty-five best, and we’d meet and find out that we’d picked different ones, and then the arguments began. We had a whale of a lot of fun—much more than in most directors’ meetings. But we also took them very seriously, because jingles were our bread and butter. We’d just keep thinning them down, going back for more readings, trading favorites with each other, and meeting again. Sometimes it took us several weeks to agree on the next crop.”

Quite naturally the disagreements often turned on matters Of taste. THE OTHER WOMAN / IN HIS LIFE / SAID “GO BACK HOME / AND SCRATCH YOUR WIFE ” was regretfully vetoed for highway use, as was another on a reciprocal theme: MY MAN / WON’T SHAVE / SEZ HAZEL HUZ / BUT I SHOULD WORRY / DORA’S DOES . As senior officer, Clinton Odell served as a kind of Horatius at the bridge, vigilantly defending the American highway against anything off-color or scatological. LISTEN, BIRDS / THESE SIGNS COST / MONEY / SO ROOST A WHILE / BUT DON’T GET FUNNY had strong advocacy in committee, although it was never used. Another near miss: THE WIFE OF BRISTLY / BRUSHMUG ZAYMER / BOUGHT TWIN BEDS / WHO CAN BLAME HER?

Possibly one reason why these disputations arose was an awareness in the boardroom that the certified-clean, boy-girl jingles were near the core of the most memorable Burma-Shave verse: SAID JULIET / TO ROMEO / IF YOU WON’T SHAVE / GO HOMEO . Often it was amiably suggested that Burma-Shave could facilitate courtship: WITH / A SLEEK CHEEK / PRESSED TO HERS / JEEPERS! CREEPERS! / HOW SHE PURRS . The same remedy was also prescribed for luckless males who didn’t know any girls: HIS FACE / WAS LOVED / BY JUST HIS MOTHER / HE BURMA-SHAVED / AND NOW— / OH, BROTHER! A record of persistent failure with females might be accounted for this way: TO GET / AWAY FROM / HAIRY APES / LADIES JUMP / FROM FIRE ESCAPES .