Sunday, November 26, 2017

The inside story of all those roadside Burma-Shave signs

A short and enjoyable book I finished recently is The Verse by the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles, written by Frank Rowsome Jr.

It was first published in 1965 and has gone through many printings and editions over the years, including a 25th anniversary edition in 1990, so used copies are plentiful and available for just a couple bucks, in most cases.

It is, as the title explains, the history of Burma-Shave's rhyming roadside advertising signs, which could be found all across the United States in the middle of the 20th century and still have a firm place in our popular culture and collective memory.1 A typical set would feature six signs, spaced apart for reading by passing drivers, with messages such as:

THE WOLF
IS SHAVED
SO NEAT AND TRIM
RED RIDING HOOD
IS CHASING HIM
BURMA-SHAVE

As I said, it's a short book at only 121 pages. But nearly half of that is an appendix featuring the text of every Burma-Shave sign ever produced. So the actual text, in my edition, is only 68 pages. Short enough to read during the first half of a Sunday NFL game.

Here are a few of my favorite anecdotes:

  • Some of the Burma-Shave signs were public-safety and road-safety messages, rather than explicit advertisements for shaving cream. One of my favorites, combining my love of black humor and puns, is:

    HER CHARIOT
    RACED AT 80 PER
    THEY HAULED AWAY
    WHAT HAD
    BEN HUR
  • "In the first decade the strangest natural enemies of Burma-Shave signs were horses. Signs in field where horses were pastured would be found broken off forcibly at the attachment point. ... [Study] revealed that the signs were being installed at a perfect height to serve as horse back-scratchers. Throughout the country, enterprising horses were discovering that, by sidling under an overhanging sign and humping slightly, a richly sensuous scratching could be achieved; and often, in some transport of equine ecstasy, the sign would snap."
  • At one point, the U.S. Navy asked if Burma-Shave would contribute some signs to boost the morale of the men who were stationed in Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze. Three sets of signs were selected and delivered to the Navy. The book goes on to state: "Photographs of the last series — erected in a howling wilderness with a snow tractor in the background and five politely interested penguins gracing the foreground — were picked up by United Press International and distributed to scores of U.S. newspapers. Even after allowing for the fact that Burma-Shave had become a sort of national institution, it was evident that ... [it] had a knack for unpaid publicity that Barnum would have envied."

    I found what I believe to be the aforementioned photograph posted on a member gallery at Shorpy. The caption states: "Some of the locals in Antarctica photographed in 1963 by my father-in-law, the late [U.S. Navy Senior Chief] Joe Edge."


If you don't want to pick up the book but would like to spend some time browsing nostalgically through all of the Burma-Shave jingles and reading them aloud to your friends and family, here is the perfect website for you.

Footnote
1. Here is Dad's response to the general topic of Burma-Shave memories:

If you don't know
Whose signs these are
You haven't traveled
Very far
Burma-Shave

No comments:

Post a Comment