Historical Albion Michigan
By Frank Passic

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BURMA SHAVE SIGNS PROMOTED TRAFFIC SAFETY

Team 24 News. Detroit Region U.S. Census Bureau.

Volume 9, Issue #2. February-April 2008. pp. 6, 7.

Maintaining traffic safety while driving for the U.S. Census is a major task for any Census Field Representative. We must not only make sure that we are obeying the laws and following Census procedures, but also that we are driving defensively to watch out for what the other driver is doing. During the mid-20th century, drivers across the country were reminded about traffic safety through a unique series of signs that were posted along two-lane roads.

Known as Burma Shave signs, they were first erected along two highways near Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1925 to promote a new brushless shaving cream produced by the Burma-Vita Company. The concept caught on, and signs were subsequently erected along highways across the country as shaving cream sales increased. As time evolved, the messages began to rhyme, and catchy jingles greeted the passing motorists nationwide. Burma Shave signs eventually became a part of nostalgic Americana. There were over 7,000 sets of signs erected in a total of 43 states.

The standard theme of course, was the promotion of shaving cream. People became amused with the rhymes and reason of the jingles they read, which was a novel way of selling the stuff. Some examples: (1940) “SAID JULIET / TO ROMEO / IF YOU / WON’T SHAVE / GO HOMEO / BURMA SHAVE.” Or how about: (1930) “DOES YOUR HUSBAND / MISBEHAVE / GRUNT AND GRUMBLE / RANT AND RAVE / SHOOT THE BRUTE SOME / BURMA SHAVE.”

Burma Shave signs consisted of a series of six separate red signs mounted on posts. The signs were double-sided, with the same message on the “back side.” If you were approaching a set of signs from the “other way,” you would read the jingle this way: (1947) “BURMA SHAVE / THOSE COUGHDROP BROTHERS / WE STILL CAN’T SELL / SIX MILLION OTHERS / WE’VE SOLD / ALTHO.”

As mentioned, a frequent theme on Burma Shave signs was traffic safety. The first such jingle appeared in 1935, and caught on so well that public service safety messages became standard fare after that. No doubt U.S. Census enumerators at the time encountered them in the course of a days’ travels. Through the years drivers were amused with the creative traffic puns that came from both the staff and customers of the Burma-Vita Company.

Along the topic of safety at railroad crossings came jingles such as these: (1949) “HE SAW / THE TRAIN / AND TRIED TO DUCK IT / KICKED FIRST THE GAS / AND THEN THE BUCKET / BURMA SHAVE.” And, (1951) “TRAIN APPROACHING / WHISTLE SQUEALING / PAUSE! / AVOID THAT / RUNDOWN FEELING! / BURMA SHAVE.”

The subject of speeding was frequently expressed on Burma Shave signs: (1954) “AROUND / THE CURVE / LICKETY-SPLIT / IT’S A BEAUTIFUL CAR / WASN’T IT? / BURMA SHAVE.” Or how about: (1945): “YOU CAN BEAT / A MILE A MINUTE / BUT THERE AIN’T / NO FUTURE / IN IT / BURMA SHAVE.” And, (1940) “WHEN YOU DRIVE / IF CAUTION CEASES / YOU ARE APT / TO REST / IN PIECES / BURMA SHAVE.” For the moviegoer of the 1950s, this gem was certainly in vogue: (1950) “HER CHARIOT / RACED AT 80 PER / THEY HAULED AWAY / WHAT HAD / BEN HUR / BURMA SHAVE.” A Michigan customer submitted this jingle which combined the safety message along with the shaving cream ad: (1939) “PAST SCHOOLHOUSES / TAKE IT SLOW / LET THE LITTLE / SHAVERS GROW / BURMA SHAVE.”

The drunken driving theme warmed things up for the Burma-Shave company when they erected this jingle: (1948) “THE MIDNIGHT RIDE / OF PAUL / FOR BEER / LED TO A / WARMER HEMISPHERE / BURMA SHAVE.” For that, the company received a scathing letter from the national association of beer haulers at the time. One classic sign along this theme was: (1959) “DRINKING DRIVERS / NOTHING WORSE / THEY PUT THE QUART / BEFORE THE HEARSE / BURMA SHAVE.” Another: (1947) “CAR IN DITCH / DRIVER IN TREE / MOON WAS FULL / AND SO / WAS HE / BURMA SHAVE” certainly got the message across.

“Sleeping while you drive” is an oxymoron with substantial repercussions as evidenced by these jingles: (1945) “SLEEP IN A CHAIR / NOTHING TO LOSE / BUT A NAP / AT THE WHEEL / IS A PERMANENT SNOOZE / BURMA SHAVE.” And, (1942) “DROVE TO LONG / DRIVER SNOOZING / WHAT HAPPENED NEXT / IS NOT AMUSING / BURMA SHAVE.”

As the 1950s progressed, the national defense highway system was constructed. This became the interstate highway system we know of today. Two-lane U.S. highway roads winding their way through the countryside were replaced with four-lane limited access roads with 70 miles per hour speed limits. People drove faster, and had no time to leisurely take the back roads and read Burma Shave signs. (1955) “SLOW DOWN, PA / SAKES ALIVE / MA MISSED SIGNS / FOUR / AND FIVE / BURMA SHAVE.” Urban sprawl, likewise limited the availability of locations to place the signs.

Furthermore, the colossal success of television was definitely the upcoming advertising medium of the 1950s. By the early 1960s, Burma-Vita Company was spending around $200,000 a year on the signs. It became evident that the signs were becoming outmoded, and the company decided to invest its precious advertising dollars into television instead. On February 7, 1963, the Burma-Vita Company was sold to Philip Morris, Inc. The new owners decided to take down all signs as soon as practicable after the 1963 crop of signs were posted. During 1964 the signs were removed, and writers across the country lamented the farewell of a classic piece of nostalgia that had been present during the leisurely years of driving.

The Burma Shaves signs had definitely become part of Americana and so the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. was presented with this set of signs: (1933) “ WITHIN THIS VAIL / OF TOIL / AND SIN / YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD / BUT NOT YOUR CHIN / BURMA SHAVE.”

In looking through the list of Burma Shave jingles year-by-year, I did not find any Census-related signs. If the signs had still been around today however, perhaps we might be reading: (2008) “HE CAME TO HIS CENSUS / AND FILLED OUT HIS FORM / BUT COUNTED HIS WHISKERS / FOR THE YEAR / HE WAS BORN / BURMA SHAVE.”

If you want to know the complete story of the Burma Shave signs and a year-by-year listing of all the jingles, I suggest reading the book “The Verse by the Side of the Road” by Frank Rowsome, Jr., (1965). It has had numerous printings and can be easily obtained in used bookstores or on the internet. In the meantime, drive safely! (1942) “IF YOU / DON’T KNOW / WHOSE SIGNS / THESE ARE / YOU CAN’T HAVE / DRIVEN VERY FAR / BURMA SHAVE.”


Burma Shave Highway Sign


A can of Burma Shave brushless shaving cream


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