What people did know was that Burma-Vita Co. of Minneapolis was in a lather. The company was busted, its product unknown and its advertising campaign was being ridiculed.
Advertising experts said the concept of using six signs by the side of the road to publicize a product simply wouldn’t sell. Sales Management magazine didn’t soft-soap words: “... wouldn’t a legitimate advertising campaign do better?”
Even Clinton Odell, the founder of Burma-Vita Co. (so named after its camphor, cassia, and cajeput, which came from the Malay Peninsula, plus vita, Latin for life) questioned the wisdom of the six signs. But his son, Allan, who developed the concept, climbed onto his soap box and convinced his father to give him $200 of company money to try it. Just before freeze up in late 1926, two sets of six signs, each set 100 feet apart, were installed alongside two highways south of Minneapolis, saying:
Shave / The Modern Way / Fine / For the skin / Druggists have it / Burma-Shave.
Despite this barely-passable ad, within one year, Burma-Vita’s net income rose from zero to $68,000, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Read more Burma-Shave ad slogans.)
It had been a close shave, but Burma-Shave was saved. It would never have happened without the farmers, says Grace Odell, Allan’s wife. “They were just absolutely marvelous,” she said.
The company developed procedures for locating and erecting the Burma-Shave signs. Allan and his brother, Leonard, loaded a truck with signs and tools and headed into virgin farm territory, searching for perfect sites: Level straight-aways long enough to allow motorists to read the signs, no other advertising, good visibility, and a right-of-way four feet below, to even, with the road.
Typically, the only roads meeting those criteria were farmers’ roads. (Decades later, Burma-Shave tried “bob-tailed,” or shortened signs on roads at the edge of cities – “Shave faster without disaster,” “Covers a multitude of chins” or “Makes misses Mrs.” – but they weren’t successful.)
Allan and Leonard then made a cold call at a farmer’s house, offering free Burma-Shave products (eventually the company made deodorant, razor blades, toothpowder, lotion, even mosquito cream), plus a small yearly stipend (up to $25, which farmers appreciated greatly during the Great Depression years). Once they received permission, they dug in the signs.
Within four years of erecting the first signs, more than 2,000 sets had been installed. Eventually, 7,000 sets of Burma-Shave signs were erected in 46 U.S. states. (New Mexico and Nevada were too sparsely populated; Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states.)
Farmers – or more accurately, farmers’ horses – also affected the height of the signs. Initially, 10- by 36-inch signs were installed on 8-foot steel posts dug 3 feet into the ground. However, horses scratching their backs on the bottoms of the signs broke many of the signs, until the company switched to 10-foot-high signs.
As road speeds increased, the signs were eventually enlarged to 18 by 40 inches, and painted orange, red or blue (the latter was used only in South Dakota, where state law limited use of red for stop signs only), with black or white lettering 3-1/4 to 4 inches high. Red (with white lettering) was the most common color combination.
Many of the jingles were directed at farmers:
After Allan Odell tired of making up jingles (his friends told him, “Allan, you’re starting to talk like Burma-Shave rhymes,”) in 1929, the company began their annual Jingle Contest, and farmers by the bushel entered, trying to win the $1,000 first prize. In its heyday, the contest garnered 65,000 entries, out of which a mere 20 were chosen. Some had nothing to do directly with farmers:
Others continued the rural theme:
Others merely hinted at farm connections:
One way in which the Burma-Shave signs and the farmers scratched each other’s backs, so to speak, was in the rural schools, where the signs were used to teach kids how to read. Amos D. Ewing, Medicine Park, Okla., says, “I went to country school, where reading material was hard to come by. The teachers used to copy the Burma-Shave signs on flash cards to use in class, and teach us how to read. And it made learning fun.”
Buck Buchanan of Boyd, Texas, adds in Trailer Life magazine that he learned to read using Burma-Shave signs. When he was asked, on the first day of school, how he knew to read so well, he said, “There was never any doubt in my mind where I acquired that knowledge. ... It came from staring through the dust-covered wind shield of an old Model T, as Mom and I read those signs together.”
Burma-Vita produced a monthly magazine called Burma-Shavings, which allowed farmers to feel like a member of the Burma-Shave family. One of the most widely read parts of the magazine was the Honor Roll, “a carefully prepared list of our lessors who, since the previous issue, have advised us that, through some specified action,” the magazine wrote, “have helped us maintain our signs. It may have consisted in only trimming down some weeds that partially interfered with the view of the signs, it may have been that one or more boards have been replaced by the property owner; in some cases it may have been complete installation of a whole set. ... We are truly grateful, but would like, if possible, to publicly acknowledge any service, however small.”
But the greatest contribution farmers made to Burma-Shave was their way of life, on which the company and its signs were based. The signs and company reflected that way of life – honesty and integrity.
When the company erected several sets of signs as a jest (“Free offer / Free offer / Rip a fender / Off your car / Mail it in for / A half-pound jar / Burma-Shave.”) some two dozen full-sized fenders, along with many fenders from toy cars, were sent in. The company cheerfully sent out a half-pound jar for each fender, no matter the size.
Later, when a grocery store owner answered one set of signs: “Free-free / A trip / To Mars / for 900 / Empty jars / Burma-Shave,” and brought in 900 empty jars, they sent him to Mars – Moers (pronounced “Mars”), Germany.
Burma Shave spoke also to a slower pace of life. “It was a different, simpler time,” Grace Odell says
The signs sought the moral high ground. In the video The Signs and Rhymes of Burma-Shave, Leonard Odell says the company worked hard not to offend anybody. The Odells discussed the propriety of one jingle in particular for a long while before they decided to use it:
Substitutes / Can let you down / Quicker / Than a / Strapless gown / Burma-Shave.
Most people would not consider that even remotely improper today. But Burma-Vita was a different company, and they tried hard to do the right thing. And they must have, for during the Depression, the company increased its sales by twelve-fold, from 500,000 jars a year, to 6 million.
But all good things must come to an end. As the country changed – bigger, faster cars and higher speed limits, more difficulty getting roadside rights, more complicated lives, more people out of touch with their roots, fewer people living on farms – Burma-Shave began to slip.
By the early 1960s, the Odells could see the handwriting, and it wasn’t on Burma-Shave signs. Upkeep of the signs and advertising ate up half of their revenues. In 1962, the company was sold to Philip Morris Co. Within three years, they too realized that using six signs by the side of the road, the most successful advertising campaign in the history of the United States, was over. In 1965, the last signs were removed from U.S. highways.
Today, original Burma-Shave signs bring $300 to $9,000 a set, depending on the set and the buyer. Original Burma-Shave jars are difficult to find, as are the deodorant, razor blades and other products.
But the memories of Burma-Shave are not nearly so difficult to find, nor the appreciation for the farmers who made the company what it was.
“If not for the farmer,” says Grace Odell, “We would never have survived. Burma-Shave would not have survived.” FCBill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector. For information on the book Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, The Signs, The Times, contact Bill Vossler at 1-800-476-8599.