Maybe it's time for more Burma-Shave signs

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 21, 2004

"Hey, Warren! I didn't know you were old enough to remember Burma-Shave signs!"

I looked up from my first-of-the-morning coffee at Cochrane's A&W, and there, beaming at me from way across the restaurant, was Windy Erhardt. He was holding up last week's edition of the Cochrane Eagle with my column that made reference to the legendary American advertising phenomenon.

Windy isn't the only one around town with fond memories of Burma-Shave slogans, it turns out. Anyone who traveled much along American highways from the 1920s to the 1960s couldn't help but comment on those sage, often humorous sayings that appeared along roadsides.

Yet, I also discovered that the youngest two generations of folks around town didn't have a clue what I was referring to.

So, on behalf of all us older folks of Burma-Shave times, I thought I'd better fill the less-than-middle-agers in on one of our secrets for enjoying the passing scenery on those long trips.

What started out as a gimmick for promoting a brushless shaving cream back in 1925 soon became the prelude to modern billboard advertising.

As you drove down the road, every so often you'd encounter the familiar series of five or six small white-on-red wooden signs. The first sign would grab your attention with a short phrase to do with shaving or life in general, then a few paces further there'd be another phrase, and you were hooked – you had to see how the rest of the series of signs would read. The last sign always featured "Burma-Shave":

Old McDonald
On the farm
Shaved so hard
He broke his arm
Then he bought

Often, the slogans were aimed directly at road-weary drivers:

Drove too long
Driver snoozing
What happened next
Is not amusing

Or this one:

At intersections
Look each way
A harp sounds nice
But it's hard to play

Drinking and driving didn't escape notice, either:

The one who drives
When he's been drinking
Depends on you
To do his thinking

Or this one:

Car in ditch
Driver in tree
The moon was full
And so was he

Romance was a major theme:

The wolf
Is shaved
So neat and trim
Red Riding Hood
Is chasing him

Or this one:

His tomato
Was the mushy type
Until his beard
Grew over-ripe

Obviously, the point of these signs was to sell a product. It's not surprising, then, that so many of the best slogans had whiskers in mind:

Dinah doesn't
Treat him right
But if he'd

Or this one, which hits awfully close to home:

May do
For lads with fuzz
But sir, you ain't
The kid you wuz

The company was quite aware of its successful strategy:

If you don't know
Whose signs
These are
You can't have driven
Very far

At the height of their popularity, over 7,000 sets of signs dotted the American landscape. But with the rise of high-speed divided highways and electric razors, they faded into history. One slogan actually wound up in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.:

Shaving brushes
You'll soon see 'em
On the shelf
In some museum

Well, Burma-Shave signs are no more along the highways and byways. But if they were, I wonder what they would say in 2004? Any ideas?

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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