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.
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 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
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
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,
All that changed in the 1930s. The signs developed
their kinky humor and surprise endings. Here's one
from the history of shaving:
THE MIGHTY CAESARS,
EACH WHISKER OUT,
Those playful red signs helped teach kids like me
to read. They may've saved lives with their safety
RACED 80 PER,
THEY HAULED AWAY,
At the very least, speeding cars slowed to read
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:
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