Presentation to the Annandale History Club
April 5, 2004
America has had a love affair with cars since the 1920s. Some of the old cars were Reo, Overland, Pierce Arrow, Dusenberg, Packard, Model T, Essex, Nash and Franklin. Gas pumps were at the livery stable. Roads weren't paved and followed section lines with right angles. Cruising speed was 35 mph. Jim Rudolph remembered that it took 2 hours from NE Minneapolis to Annandale on dirt roads with seven R. R. crossings. As roads and cars improved, car speeds increased to 50 mph. Lodging started along roads with roadside cabins.
A lawyer named Robert O'Dell in Minneapolis manufactured a liniment called Burma-Vita in the Globe Building. The product was not selling well and the company was destitute in 1925 when Robert's son Clinton saw the need for a brushless shaving cream. He paid a chemist to come up with a product. The chemist named Carl Noren tested 300 formulas using Burma-Vita as a base. Number 143, which had aged on the shelf for awhile, filled the bill. Burma-Shave did not sell well. One marketing plan that didn't work was to give people jars to try on approval. Allan Odell, Clinton's son, was driving in Illinois when he saw five signs along the road with one word on each sign. GAS, OIL, TIRES, RESTROOMS and the last one had an arrow pointing to the station. He read every sign. He talked his dad into giving him $200 to try the idea. In September 1926 the first Burma-Shave signs appeared along Hwy. 65 to Albert Lea and Hwy. 61 to Red Wing. By January 1927 druggists along the road were giving repeat orders. Clinton's sons, Leonard and Allan O'Dell, scouted out locations for signs and made deals with farmers for rent. Signs were placed 100 feet or 100 paces apart with about three seconds from one sign to the next for a controlled reading pace. At the time humor was unheard of in advertising. There were also safety and public service themes.
|Slow down pa
Ma missed signs
At 60 per
We'd hate to lose
Out so far
It might go home
In another car
At first the O'Dells wrote all the signs until they ran dry and came up with the idea of contests. One of the first winners was this one in 1930: Does your husband Misbehave Grunt and grumble Rant and rave Shoot the brute some Burma-Shave. Ken told the story of Arlyss "Frenchy" French of Appleton seeing a Burma-Shave sign in 1958: Free-free A trip To Mars For 900 Empty jars Burma-Shave. He decided to take them up on it and what ensued turned out to be good publicity and a good time. In 1941 Bob Hope used Burma-Shave slogans in his show. Permission for radio and TV was usually given by Burma-Shave as long as it didn't offend.
Top sales were $3 million a year. By the 1960s, cars went faster. The company was spending $200,000 a year on signs. In 1964 or 1965 the last signs were pulled. The Smithsonian asked for a set. The company sold out to Phillip Morris.
Ken based his presentation on the book The Verse by the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles by Frank Rowsome Jr.
Secretary, Annandale History Club