Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 754
BURMA SHAVE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 754.

Today, if you're under 35, you may not know what I'm talking about. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Advertising, like pun-making, is human ingenuity of a kind we all love to hate. When it's good, it creates folklore. It helps us define ourselves. God help us if we can't ignore advertising. But it would be a grave error to ignore it utterly.

Each summer before WW-II my family made a great automobile journey through the American West. The car ground its way through Laramie, Kanab, Bozeman, and Santa Rosa. Endless empty 2-lane highways marched through Nebraska, climbed the Colorado mountains, and offered sleep in a 2-dollar, one-room cottage with a stove and a detached privy.

Those roads held one delight we never forgot. Every hour or so we'd pass a string of six red signs, each with a few words of doggerel.

SHIVER MY TIMBERS,
SAID CAPTAIN MACK,
WE'RE TEN KNOTS OUT,
BUT WE'RE TURNING BACK,
I FORGOT MY,
BURMA-SHAVE.

Burma-Shave signs were as surely the mark of the American landscape as windmills, barns and purple mountains in the distance. They delighted us from 1927 'til 1963. Then Burma-Shave sold out to Phillip Morris, and their good-humored verve left us.

It was all the work of the Odell family in Minneapolis. Grandpa Odell was a lawyer. He sold liniment on the side -- said he'd got it from a sea captain. Maybe he did. Sea captains once trafficked in nostrums from exotic lands. Then Odell's son, Clinton, formed a company and got serious about selling liniment.

Clinton put his two sons, Leonard and Allan, onto the idea of creating a brushless shaving cream. They worked with a company chemist and stirred up some 300 recipes. Finally they made one that really worked. They took it to market.

That was 1925. By 1927, they'd put out their first set of signs. They didn't have the rhythm at first. This one said,

SHAVE THE MODERN WAY,
NO BRUSH, NO LATHER,
NO RUB-IN,
BIG TUBE
35 CENTS
DRUG STORES,
BURMA-SHAVE.

All that changed in the 1930s. The signs developed their kinky humor and surprise endings. Here's one from the history of shaving:

PITY ALL,
THE MIGHTY CAESARS,
THEY PULLED,
EACH WHISKER OUT,
WITH TWEEZERS,
BURMA-SHAVE.

Those playful red signs helped teach kids like me to read. They may've saved lives with their safety messages.

HER CHARIOT,
RACED 80 PER,
THEY HAULED AWAY,
WHAT HAD,
BEN HUR,
BURMA-SHAVE.

At the very least, speeding cars slowed to read them.

Today, most of us do use brushless shaving creams. More than that, those signs really did shape America's sense of self. And those of us over 35 will all smile at this one:

IF YOU,
DON'T KNOW,
WHOSE SIGNS,
THESE ARE,
YOU CAN'T HAVE,
DRIVEN VERY FAR.
...

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Rowsome, F., Jr., The Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: The Stephen Grene Press/Pelham Books, 1965, 1990.

Some seven hundred Burma-Shave verses are known. Here's a quick sampling in roughly chronological sequence.
 

HINKY DINKY PARLEY VOO 
CHEER UP FACE 
THE WAR 
IS THRU 
BURMA-SHAVE
SHAVING BRUSH
WAS LIKE
OLD ROVER
WHEN HE DIED
HE DIED ALL OVER
BURMA-SHAVE
RUDDY CHEEKS
AND FACE
OF TAN
NEATLY SHAVEN
WHAT A MAN
BURMA-SHAVE
IF YOU THINK
SHE LIKES
YOUR BRISTLES
WALK BARE-FOOTED
THROUGH SOME THISTLES

BURMA-SHAVE
ED'S FACE
IS ROUGH
AND RUGGED
ED'S WIFE
DOESN'T HUG ED
BURMA-SHAVE
IF HARMONY 
IS WHAT 
YOU CRAVE 
THEN GET 
A TUBA
BURMA-SHAVE
THE CREAM
ONE HEARS
THE MOST OF NOW
COMES FROM A JAR
NOT FROM A COW

BURMA-SHAVE
SAID JULIET
TO ROMEO
IF YOU
WON'T SHAVE
GO HOMEO
BURMA-SHAVE
FROM 
BAR 
TO CAR 
TO GATES 
AJAR OF 
BURMA-SHAVE
AS YOU DRIVE
PLAY THIS GAME
CONSTRUCT A JINGLE
WITH THIS NAME
BURMA-SHAVE
WITHIN THIS VAIL
OF TOIL AND SIN
YOUR HEAD GOES BALD
BUT NOT
YOUR CHIN -- USE

BURMA-SHAVE
BIG MISTAKE
MANY MAKE
RELY ON HORN
INSTEAD
OF BRAKE
BURMA-SHAVE
PROPER DISTANCE
TO HIM WAS BUNK
THEY PULLED HIM
OUT OF SOME
GUY'S TRUNK
BURMA-SHAVE
SAID FARMER BROWN
WHO'S BALD
ON TOP
WISH I COULD
ROTATE THE CROP
BURMA-SHAVE
THE WOLF
IS SHAVED
SO NEAT AND TRIM
RED RIDING HOOD
IS CHASING HIM
BURMA-SHAVE


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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