Burma-Shave – The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times Review [Rider’s Library]

Riders of a certain age—myself included—may remember seeing them. They were those small, unobtrusive but often funny placards in sets of six along the roads that always ended with the placard hustling the “brushless” shave cream called Burma-Shave.

They are only seen now as novelty displays or by collectors. However, from 1926 to 1963, it is estimated that as many as 700 of the chatty jingles—called “verses” by the company—appeared on as many as 42,000 individual Burma-Shave signs across the U.S. and even around the world in locations as far-flung as Antarctica—set up as a gag by U.S. Navy sailors.

Burma-Shave Book Review: Reproduction

A couple of years ago, on a cruise along Country Road M near Boscobel, one of southern Wisconsin’s best touring back roads, I was stunned to come across a series of signs reproducing those classic Burma-Shave signs! I hadn’t seen the nifty series set-up in years, so I made a mental note of where I saw them.

Fast forward to April 2022. Among some used books on sale, I spotted Burma-Shave – The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times by Bill Vossler. It occurred to me that maybe the Burma-Shave story and the existence of some current-day examples might be fun to learn the context of unusual sights to look for on your next motorcycle tour.

Burma-Shave Book Review: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times

So, I stopped in at the place where I saw those present-day Burma-Shave signs. To my surprise, owner Al Hendrick is a big-time motorcycle enthusiast with a collection of bikes that included a Royal Enfield Continental GT café racer, a Sunbeam S8, a WWII-vintage Triumph single, Honda CT90, a modern-retro Triumph Bonneville T100, and several others. He is also a fellow British Biker Cooperative member and has a copy of the Burma-Shave book!

Al graciously let me get pictures of his Burma-Shave signs for this article, and then we had a great time talking bikes—and the history of the Burma-Shave sign campaign. Keep it clicked on Ultimate Motorcycling for potential future looks at some of Hendrick’s unique machines.

“My wife and I have toured old Route 66 several times, and there are still some sets of Burma-Shave signs along that route,” he explained. “My signs are set up at the same distance separation as the originals were, 100 feet from one sign to the next.”

According to Vossler’s book, the verse that Hendrick’s signs used is Verse #77, which reads:

Don’t stick

Your elbow

Out so far

It might go home

In another car

Burma-Shave

Due to space limitations along the road, Hendrick put the first two lines of the verse together on the first sign to read, “Don’t stick your elbow,” resulting in the set having five placards instead of six. Otherwise, the display is faithful to the original Burma-Shave concept.

Vossler relates that the Burma-Vita company was founded by Robert Odell in 1925 in Minneapolis, producing Burma-Vita, a liniment, not shaving cream. By 1926, the company had come up with the Burma-Shave brushless shave cream, but little in the way of sales.

By that time, Robert Odell’s son Clinton, and Clinton’s sons Allan and Leonard, were running the company and working to save it from insolvency. It was then that Allan Odell noticed a series of small signs along an Illinois highway between Aurora and Joliet promoting a service station. He was inspired by the concept.

In late 1926, using second-hand boards purchased from a Minneapolis wrecking company, a dozen sets of signs were set up along Highways 65 and 61 in Minnesota.

Though the early verses weren’t written to rhyme, the signs worked. In January 1927, the company got its first repeat orders from outlets along the routes with the signs. Sales leaped from near-nothing to $68,000 for that year.

By 1929, the company moved toward the use of catchy, rhyming, and very brief messages on the signs. As another unique twist in the story, the company turned to the public for inspiration.

In 1930, the company ran its first nationwide jingle contest for the “bards of the open road.” That year, more than 700 entries came in. A dozen were chosen, each winning a $100 prize. Eventually, as the scope and scale of the operation increased, so did the entries, eventually swelling to more than 65,000 with an average of 20 selected per year. The prizes grew to $1000 each.

All things come to an end, and by 1963, changing times, high costs, diminishing market share, and competition spelled the end of Burma-Shave and its serial signs. The company was sold to Phillip Morris, and by 1977 the Burma products had disappeared from the market.

Vossler summed up the loss of Burma-Shave signs in his book in almost Burma-Shave-like prose: “Whatever conspired to take Burma-Shave from the lives of people who loved the signs, they are gone. People could jaw about their loss all they wanted, but in the end, they have to face it. It was one more indignity from modern life they had to take on the chin.”

If you see a set of Burma-Shave signs out there, drop us a line and let us know. And, since many of the original Burma-Shave sign verses focused not only on the product, but other topics such as highway safety, we can’t finish this article without sharing one of those—Verse 72:

Don’t take

A curve

At 60 per

We hate to lose

A customer

Burma-Shave

Burma-Shave the Rhymes, the Signs, the Times Fast Facts

Burma-Shave the Rhymes, the Signs, the Times Price: $10 MSRP 

Rider’s Library Note to Readers: Many of the books featured may be out of print, and some may be difficult to find. That could be half the fun. The Internet should make the search relatively easy. However, none of the books currently scheduled for eventual retro-review for the Rider’s Library section were found with the help of the Internet. They all were found at bookstores, used bookstores, antique shops, motorcycle shops, yard sales, and wherever used books are discovered.