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 .

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.

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 .

Perhaps the all-time classic among boy-girl jingles, however, was a compact and metrically memorable verse from 1934. For reasons beyond easy analysis, it appears to have become engraved on the collective American memory: HE HAD THE RING / HE HAD THE FLAT / BUT SHE FELT HIS CHIN / AND THAT / WAS THAT .

The great years for the Burma-Shave road signs were in the 1930’s and late 1940’s, with almost 7,000 sets of jingles scattered across the United States. The company, grossing more than $3,000,000 a year, included a proud cock-a-doodle-doo among its 1947 sign crop: ALTHO / WE’VE SOLD / SIX MILLION OTHERS / WE STILL CAN’T SELL / THOSE COUGH-DROP BROTHERS .

But by the late 1950’s it had grown evident that the magic was draining from the sprightly little red road signs. Increased car speeds, broad superhighways, and the impossibility of reaching important urban and suburban markets with rural road signs were all factors. The company regretfully began to experiment with TV advertising, and gradually the signs were removed.

But they are not altogether lost to history. Hearing of their discontinuance, the Smithsonian Institution applied to Allan and Leonard Odell (their father had died in 1958) for a set to preserve in its cultural-history section. After some thought the brothers presented the Smithsonian with this set: WITHIN THIS VALE / OF TOIL / AND SIN / YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD / BUT NOT YOUR CHIN / BURMA-SHAVE .