I do a lot of traveling throughout our state and find myself bouncing down all kinds of roads that are in various states of repair – some appear to be almost passable. As I headed Down East the other day to entertain a group of conventioneers with some Maine stories I realized that almost every driver on the road was talking on a cell phone.
Makes you wonder how people drove distractedly in those innocent times before cell phones?
Then it occurred to me. Drivers were distracted by Burma Shave signs! Remember?
Before going any further I may as well include a few words here about the Burma Shave phenomenon for the readers under 65 who have no idea what we’re talking about.
The Burma Shave story begins in 1925 when a young man named Allan Odell told his father, Clinton Odell, who just happened to be a shaving cream maker about this great idea he had for advertising.
Son Allan's idea was to use small, wooden roadside signs to pitch their product, Burma-Shave, which was one of the country's first brushless shaving creams. Dad wasn't wild about the idea but with a name like “Clinton Odell” he probably never got wildly excited about anything.
But being a good father and wanting to give the kid something to do, Clinton gave his son $200 to give the advertising idea a try. Soon after his first Burma Shave signs went up, shaving cream sales soared.
Before long Allan and his brother Leonard were putting up signs all over the country. At first the signs were strictly sales pitches but after a few years the signs began showing a little of the Odell wit and humor. They say at the height of popularity there were 7,000 Burma-Shave signs along the highways and bi-ways of America.
At least two or three sets of them were placed on the roads we took to our grandparents house when I was a kid. The familiar white on red signs, grouped by fives and sixes, were as much a part of our family trip as any important cell phone or iPad of today.
How could drivers fail to be amused, distracted and entertained by lines like: “She put a bullet/through his hat/but he's had closer/shaves than that/with Burma Shave. Or, Every shaver / Now can Snore / Six more minutes / than before / By using / Burma Shave.”
As a tribute to our nation’s agricultural roots, they composed gems like: “Said farmer Brown/who's bald on top/wish I could/rotate the crop/Burma Shave Shave.
During the 1960s, in what some might consider the “beat: influence on Burma Shave, there were offerings like "Ben met Anna/made a hit/neglected beard/Ben-Anna split/Burma Shave.”
It probably says something about how dull our lives were back then that we actually lookd forward to our next encounter with a string of Burma Shave signs. Now that they’re gone people have nothing to look forward to but their next cell phone call, so I guess not ALL change has been for the best.
To stress how modern Burma Shave was its writers would produce this classic: Your shaving brush/ had its day/ so why not /shave the modern way / With / Burma-Shave. Or: Shaving brushes/ You’ll soon see ’em / On the shelf / In Some / Museum/ Burma Shave.
The poet Robert Frost never felt threatened by these road-side verses but it’s likely lessor poets were. It’s not known if public safety officials at the time thought considered the signs early examples of “distracted driving.”
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or 899-1868.