Like our signs? Then you'll love the original highway message masters

By David Rookhuyzen / ADOT Communications

Burma-Shave Sign Close LargeFolks tell us all the time that they love our unusual highway signs.

You know the ones we're talking about; the funny little sayings promoting traffic safety by riffing off of pop culture or holidays. People always comment on which is their favorite, offer their own suggestions, and our annual contest receives thousands of entries, so the driving public is getting a kick out of them.

We won't pretend to be the first to put amusing sayings on highway signs or even to be the most clever at it. Mainly because long before a department of transportation tried its hand, someone else was king of the road signs.

We are talking, of course, about Burma-Shave.

Drivers of a certain age will recognize the Burma-Shave sign to the right, which was captured by one of our ADOT photographers on State Route 66 near Seligman recently.

For all the younger folks out there, Burma-Shave was a shaving cream company that got going in 1925, founded by the Odell family out of Minnesota. After a whopping 143 different tries, a chemist working for the family came up with one of the holy grails of men's toiletries at that time – a brushless shaving cream. By the way, we can only give you a thumbnail sketch here, but if you want to read the full, fascinating story of the company, Route Magazine did a fantastic and informative look at them

Burma-Shave Close Up 1As the article pointed out, they had a good product, but it's just shaving cream. There's nothing really special to differentiate it from other brushless shaving creams coming out around the same time from bigger, more established companies such as Gillette or Barbasol. They were little fish in a big pond and the cream wasn't exactly selling well.

That's when Allen Odell, son of the company's founder, approached his father with an off-beat idea. He wanted to take the well-established concept of a product jingle and apply it to the still new concept of road sign advertising. In short, he wanted to make a series of signs meant to be read sequentially, each having one line of the jingle, ending with the company's name. 

His father didn't jump at the idea. After floating it around to friends and family, he was told unanimously that Allen's idea wouldn't work. But his son was persistent and was eventually given $200 to try it out. The first boards went up along two local roads in Minnesota. It wasn't too long after that the older Odell noticed drug stores along those routes were repeatedly purchasing more of the shaving cream. The cheeky advertising schtick seemed to be paying off.

Burma-Shave Close Up 2Soon drivers across America started seeing Allen's jingles pop up along their drive.

The majority covered cute sayings about saving money, getting a superior shave or attracting a significant other. In 1934, drivers would have seen this diddy along the road:

He had the ring

he had the flat

but she felt his chin

and that 

was that 

Burma-Shave

Burma-Shave Close Up 3However, they, much like ourselves, sometimes dove into slightly more serious topics with verses warning against things such as drunk driving. For example, this verse from 1940:

It's best for

one who hits

the bottle

to let another

use the throttle

Burma-Shave

If you are really interested, you can go to Burmashave.org and read every jingle, sorted by year. They range from clever to groan-inducing, but they almost always elicit at least a chuckle. 

Burma-Shave Close Up 4The company continued to grow, and at its peak had 7,000 signs in 45 states. The signs were painted red and white to make them stand out from other advertisements. They were also placed in sets of six, each 100 feet apart so passengers had three seconds to read each one when going at a speed of 35 mph (things went a lot slower back then). Since they evoked such a sense of Americana, Burma-Shave signs were even erected to help ease homesickness for U.S. troops in Korea and even Antartica. 

As these sign jingles grew in popularity, the company had the same idea we did – why not have an annual competition and throw open the doors for anyone to come up with a clever jingle? 

Much like us, the company had standards for what could ultimately go up on their signs. One of the Odell children recalled that he always knew when the sign contest was happening because of the ones that were not so appropriate. His father would get a list of the off-color jokes, bring them home and – after getting safely behind closed doors – would have a good laugh over them with his wife. 

So what happened to this iconic bit of advertising? Well, Burma-Shave was bought by the American Razor Company in 1963 and the signs started to come down after that. Only one complete set of original signs remain, and those are housed in the Smithsonian.

But, you might ask, what about your photos here from State Route 66 near Seligman? Well, it's all a part of the town's carefully crafted aesthetic to recapture the magic of the mother road. Several sets of signs were set up along the highway and permission was even obtained to use some of the original Burma-Shave messages, though they are a five-sign variant instead of the usual six-sign sayings. These signs are also kind of ironic, as Arizona was one of the five states not to have Burma-Shave signs before the company was bought out. 

Burma-Shave motorcycle signThe clever reminder to slow down that's running through this blog is from SR 66 as you are heading westbound from Seligman.

Along that same stretch you'll also find this helpful reminder:

Cattle crossing

means go slow

that old bull 

is some cow's beau

Burma-Shave

If all this sounds like something you want to get a look at yourself, or you just want to capture the motoring spirit of yesterday, then SR 66 is the drive for you.

But please do us one favor. Just like with ours, we ask that you heed the signs.