From a modest start during the fall of 1925, consisting of ten to twelve sets of three-foot-long signs placed in measured intervals along two roads out of Minneapolis--one being Route 69 to Albert Lea, the other on the road to Red Wing--a local advertising idea from Minnesota grew to encompass every state but four in the continental United States, and a new advertising concept was born.
~David L. Earp, Caledonia, MN
Burma-Vita corporation, based in Minneapolis, produced shaving cream but its advertising signs at the side of the road had a greater impact on America. The rhyming six little signs at the side of the road not only brought billboards to America's highways, it also inspired advertisers to woo their customers with humor and fun.
A set of signs are in the Smithsonian, and a national advertising museum included the company in a recent exhibit.
In this vale of toil and sin, your head grows bald but not your chin. Burma-Shave.
The Edina Historical Society exhibit on Burma-Shave was very popular. People fondly remember these rhymes, but most do not know that Burma-Shave was based in Minnesota. We held the exhibit because the owners lived in Edina.
~Marci Matson, Edina, MN
It's a wonderful story about how they almost gave up, lost all their money, etc. but aren't there many MN stories we could find like that? I see Burma Shave as the beginning of a new kind of advertising. A billboard that provided entertainment instead of messing up the scenery. A game for the family on a Sunday drive to play together. And laugh together. It was the age of the Sunday drive especially the 1940s. And then there were the farmers who maintained them and rented the spaces on their land for very little money. They became a part of this exciting new wave of advertising. They got a newsletter and special attention when they had sign stories to tell. The campaign has never been forgotten. Many folks can still recite the slogans. Most of all, Burma Shave signs, to the generations who experienced seeing and reading them, always bring a smile when the subject comes up. Always.
A revolution in American advertising
The year was 1925. Clinton Odell and his sons, Allan and Leonard, had a problem. Their company, Burma-Vita, had just perfected the formula for a shaving cream that could be applied without a brush. Known as Burma-Shave, it was a great product-but no one was buying it.
Then Allan had a brainstorm. Inspired by a series of gas station signs he had seen in Illinois, Allan suggested that successions of road signs carry Burma-Shave jingles. Clinton put up $200 for reclaimed lumber; Allan and Leonard painted the first signs, which went up between Minneapolis and Albert Lea and between St. Paul and Red Wing. While Allan negotiated with farmers to place signs on their land, Leonard dug the postholes. The signs were one hundred feet apart, for easy reading at thirty-five miles an hour.
Within a year, Burma-Shave sales had increased from next to nothing to $68,000. The signs spread first across the Midwest. Within ten years, more than 7,000 signs were distributed across the United States. By the early 1950s, when Burma-Shave sales peaked, there were some 35,000 signs lining the nation's highways.
The Eisenhower era development of the interstate highway system-and the accompanying increase in speed limits-meant that by the early 1960s, Burma-Shave signs were left in the dust. Some ended up in the hands of collectors; others were recycled as shelving in farm outbuildings. But they were never completely forgotten. They're an indelible part of the American cultural landscape.
Who guard you
When you drive
Retire at 65
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