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Sense and Nonsense: Burma-Shave signs: A bygone era in highway advertising

September 11, 2013

By Lynda Hollenbeck

Travel in the car today is drastically different for kids from what it was like when I was a youngster.
We didn't have TVs or DVD players and such for entertainment. We did have a radio, but mainly we amused ourselves using something that seems lacking much of the time now: A thing called imagination.
We loved singing and especially singing in harmony, imitating some of the big stars of the day. And we played games like the Alphabet Game — you remember it - A is for Astronaut, B is for Buttermilk, C is for Catastrophe — and you'd pick your letters from signs you saw along the roadway. The first person to be able to spell out a whole word was the winner of the game.
But the most fun, by far, came from reading a particular kind of road signs — especially those advertising Burma-Shave.
These were great little sayings, usually spaced on four (but sometimes more) signs, that gave messages that were clever sometimes, silly sometimes, but always fun. You didn't want to miss one because you'd have gaps in the saying.
My children — and certainly my grandchildren — probably never heard of Burma-Shave. To enlighten the ignorant, I share some history here.
Burma-Shave was an American brand of brushless shaving cream, famous for its advertising gimmick of posting humorous rhyming poems on small, sequential highway billboard signs. While some focused directly on the shaving cream, others featured such topics as public safety messages (like speeding).
An example was:
•Train approaching. Whistle squealing. Stop. Avoid that run-down feeling. Burma-Shave.
The product name was always the final message.
There were thousands, such as:
•Keep well. To the right. Of the oncoming car. Get your close shaves. From the half-pound jar. Burma-Shave.
•Riot at. Drug store. Calling all cars. 100 customers. 99 jars. Burma-Shave.
•Smith Brothers. Would look immense. If they'd just. Cough up 50 cents. Burma-Shave.
Of all the ones I perused on the Internet, this was my favorite:
•My job is. Keeping faces clean. And nobody knows. De stubble. I've seen. Burma-Shave.
Others were:
•Free! Free! A trip. To Mars. For 900. Empty jars. Burma-Shave.
Some had clever — and maybe not so clever — puns. Examples were:
•You've laughed. At our signs. For many a mile. Be a sport. Give us a trial. Burma-Shave
•If harmony. Is what. You crave. Then get. A tuba. Burma-Shave.
Some had safety messages, such as:
•Hardly a driver. Is now alive. Who passed. On hills. At 75. Burma-Shave.
•Don't take a curve. At 60 per. We hate to lose. A customer. Burma-Shave.
•Passing. Schoolhouses. Take it slow. Let the little. Shavers grow. Burma-Shave.
•If you dislike. Big traffic fines. Slow down. Till you. Can read these signs. Burma-Shave
There were many varieties, including:
•A peach. Looks good. With lots of fuzz. But man's no peach. And never wuz. Burma-Shave

Internet research noted that the demise of the signs was foreshadowed as busy roadways approaching larger cities featured shortened versions of the slogans on one, two, or three signs. In some, the messages included a play on the Maxwell House Coffee slogan and many standard puns, such as:
•Good to the last strop. Covers a multitude of chins. Takes the "H" out of shaving. Burma-Shave.
There were references to designated drivers in some of the sayings, such as:
•It's best for. One who hits. The bottle. To let another. Use the throttle. Burma-Shave.
Other safety slogans included:
•Don't stick. Your elbow. Out so far. It might go home. In another car. Burma-Shave.
•At intersections. Look each way. A harp sounds nice. But it's. Hard to play. Burma-Shave
•From. Bar. To car. To gates. Ajar. Burma-Shave.
•Broken romance. Stated fully. She went wild. When he. Went wooly. Burma-Shave.
Some put the reader to a sort of test:
•If you. Don't know. Whose signs. These are. You can't have. Driven very far. Burma-Shave.
The war years found the company recycling a lot of its old signs with new ones mostly focusing on World War II propaganda:
•Let's make Hitler. And Hirohito. Feel as bad. As Old Benito. Buy War Bonds. Burma-Shave.
•Slap. The Jap. With. Iron. Scrap. Burma-Shave.
Others were:
•Don't lose. Your head. To gain a minute. You need your head. Your brains are in it. Burma-Shave.
•Car in ditch. Driver in tree. Moon was full. And so. Was he. Burma-Shave.
•I use it too. The bald man said. It keeps my face. Just like. My head. Burma-Shave.
•In Cupid's little. Bag of trix. Here's the one. That clix. With chix. Burma-Shave.
•He tried. To cross. As fast train neared. Death didn't draft him. He volunteered. Burma-Shave.
•Her chariot. Raced 80 per. They hauled away. What had. Ben Hur. Burma-Shave.
Like so much of the charm that once dominated this country, the Burma-Shave signs are now a thing of the past.
I'm glad I have the memories.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.

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