Hardly a driver … is now alive … who passed … on hills … at 75.
That roadside Burma-Shave jingle is vividly remembered by one of the editors of Our Iowa magazine.
“It added a bit of fun to each drive as everyone in the car read the sequence of signs aloud,” he says. “I always wished someone would bring those signs back.”
After some thought, the staff of the magazine decided, “Who better to do that than us?”
With that, they announced the program to their 76,000 subscribers, offering to post a single set of the humorous signs in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Readers were urged to nominate their town and provide reasons why it would be the best site.
Representatives of Oskaloosa moved quickly to put together an application, recognizing that having the county’s only set of the signs could become a tourist attraction and bring more customer traffic for dining and shopping.
After some consideration by the Our Iowa staff, Oskaloosa was selected as the winner for Mahaska County.
The set of signs has arrived and will soon be erected northeast of town along 220th Street (county road G39). Local representatives had the opportunity to choose the jingle from a list of original Burma-Shave rhymes that were supplied, and they chose this one:
“His cheek was rough … his chick vamoosed … and now she won’t … come home to roost.” The last sign carries the Our Iowa logo as the sponsor of the program. Drive by 220th St. today to see the signs!
Coming to a Highway Near You
As the singular sets of signs begin appearing in other counties across the state — the jingle for each county will be different, making the rhyme in each of Iowa’s 99 counties an “exclusive” — their exact location will be noted in future issues of the magazine, which should add a little fun to drives across Iowa.
The background of the Burma-Shave signs is almost as interesting as their teasing jingles. The roadside rhymes were started by Allan Odell in 1925, with $200 he borrowed from his father, who owned the Burma-Vita Company.
Young Allan came up with the idea — a unique way to promote the family’s brushless shaving cream. At first his father was hesitant about this “new fangled advertising idea.” But, reluctant to discourage an ambitious son, he went along with it. And the rest is history.
Odell wrote the original jingles himself, and personally erected the first set of signs in southern Minnesota along U.S. 65 near Albert Lea.
The signs quickly caught the attention of drivers — and buyers. The idea not only worked, it became an American institution.
Each set of rhyming lines was broken into short snippets and placed on sequential signs that could be read up to 50 mph. The last line always said, “Burma-Shave,” in its flourished logo. The lighthearted jingles added a smile and a lift to driving trips. A typical rhyme: “To kiss a mug … that’s like a cactus … takes more nerve … than it does practice.”
Odell kept a flashlight, pencil and pad next to his bed to write down ideas for jingles, many of which came to him in the middle of the night.
A Roadside Hit for 40 Years
For almost four decades, the signs dotted the American countryside. At one time there were 7,000 sets of Burma-Shave signs in 45 states. Many regarded them as “a slice of Americana.” Many promoted safe driving: “A guy who drives … his car wide open … is not thinkin’ … he’s just hopin’.”
Everyone in the car read them aloud — so often that many people can still recite their favorite jingle today.
As highways improved and interstates crisscrossed the country, the signs unfortunately become more of a blur than a buzz. Beyond 60 mph they proved hard to read, which eventually led to the demise of both the signs and the company.
But it didn’t dim the memory of either in the minds of Our Iowa’s subscribers. When the restoration of the historic signs was announced, many not only sent in their favorite rhyme, but even pleaded, “Please put that single set of signs for our county near our town!”
The eventual selection was based on a number of things. First and key was the proposed location of the signs — preferably along a route where there is a lot of traffic, but near a town where the traffic would be slower. Also judged was the community’s commitment to maintaining the site — trimming grass and weeds regularly, keeping the signs standing straight, etc.
To assure the latter, the Our Iowa staff is selecting a “secret subscriber” in each county to regularly check on that community’s set of signs and report on how they’re being maintained.
Now that the magazine’s “Bring Back Burma-Shave” program is well underway, you can look forward to spotting a chuckle along the roadside all across Iowa in the near future. Such as: “Ben met Anna … made a hit ... neglected beard … Ben-Anna split.”
Hardly a driver … is now alive … who passed … on hills … at 75.
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