Long ago - in another time - when you drove, there were lots of signsIt turns out the first Burma Shave signs were strung along the highways of southern Minnesota just about 70 years ago — a little more than 70 years ago.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Ha, ha, ha!
We were first!
I never knew this. My word, in 70 years I never knew this. It tickles me to learn it all began with us.
I don’t know what I thought, before I really thought, but I think I thought all things begin with New York City. Maybe New York City and Hollywood. Cars came from Detroit.
Given this, it would have been my guess that Burma Shave signs first were seen along some narrow highway leading to Brooklyn. It turns out the first Burma Shave signs were strung along the highways of southern Minnesota just about 70 years ago — a little more than 70 years ago. They were erected by the Burma-Vita Corp. of Minneapolis, Allan Odell president. This is the information I came on only lately.
Before this writing unfolds, we have to explain Burma Shave signs. There is a world of shavers, little and big, who never heard of Burma Shave. Burma Shave (at drug stores everywhere) was a brushless shaving wonder, the successor to brushes, shaving mugs and soap.
Beginning in southern Minnesota, the Burma Shave company began erecting six signs in a row, at regular intervals, along the two-lane, winding highways which were America’s interstates of that age. The signs were white, with black lettering. If I remember correctly, the first signs in our area were along Highway 16 between Magnolia and Luverne:
“Trains don’t travel/all over the map/ because no one sits/on the/engineer’s lap. Burma Shave.”
Some people still collect Burma Shave’s roadside tickles. Some jokes remembered well are:
“A peach/looks good/with lots of fuzz/but man’s no peach/and never wuz. Burma Shave.
“If you dislike/big traffic fines/slow down/til you/can read these signs. Burma Shave.”
“If harmony/is what/you crave/then get/a tuba. Burma Shave.”
“Romances are wrecked/before they begin/by a hair/on a coat or a lot/on the chin. Burma Shave.”
“Say, big boy/to go/thru life/how’d you like/a whiskered wife? Burma Shave.”
Burma Shave signs became so popular and so well-known that when the company put signs along Highway 59 between Worthington and Fulda they said only:
“If you don’t know/whose signs/these are/you haven’t traveled/very far. NO Burma Shave.”
Allen Odell, Burma Shave’s founder/inventor, was sensitive to anything which might be coarse or risqué (unlike television hype in our time). One rhyme Odell rejected because it could seem offensive was:
“Listen birds/these signs/cost money/don’t you try/something funny. Burma Shave.”
There was another series in our area — maybe near St. James:
“He saw/the train/and tried to duck it/kicked first the gas/and then the bucket. Burma Shave.”
It is surprising, given the popularity of the Burma Shave signs, that no other company ever tried to copy. Perhaps a proof of their effectiveness comes with the end of the story. It became impractical, nearly impossible, to mount Burma Shave signs along Interstate highways. The last of the signs came down in 1963. Sales plummeted so steeply that in 1966 Burma Shave was taken off the market.
One of the first rhymes in the series:
“Within this vale/of toil and sin/your head grows bald/but not your chin. Use Burma Shave.”
I actually backed into these Burma Shave signs. (What a mess!) I was trying to learn the history of stop signs.
It turns out stop signs — today’s octagons, red with white letters — are 94 years old. The first in the octagonal design were erected in Michigan in 1915. The originals were white with black lettering. From 1935 to 1971, stop signs were yellow with black lettering. The red ones are standard in every community in every state in America.
A puzzling thing when you try to learn something about stop signs is references to NO STOP signs.
Why would there be NO STOP signs? Someone thought there should be a sign at every corner where no stop is required?
It turns out NO STOP signs were for street car and bus routes. They were erected at no stop corners so we would never wait for a street car that rolled on by.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.