Joy of Roadside Signs

Some folks save stamps, art glass or 1950 Chevys; but I cotton to roadside signs - particularly Mail Pouch barns and Burma Shave ditties.My yard and bank account are much too small for the real things. However, my memory and computer files have ample capacity.Back when two-lane highways and 50 MPH cars were the norm, motorists had time to enjoy the scenery.

Welcome diversions were Mail Pouch Barns to count, and Burma Shave signs to read.Speed limits in the second quarter of the twentieth-century - my formative years -- were leisurely. Free-standing "bill boards" were not yet cost effective for advertisers.Bridging the advertising gap was the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Co. of Wheeling, W.

Va.Aaron and Samuel Bloch were grocers who also made cigars. They retrieved tobacco cuttings, flavored them with licorice and introduced it in 1884 as chewing tobacco.

They also had advertising instincts. They named and packaged their product in a soft container styled after the familiar and respected U.S. mail pouch.As competition increased, the Bloch brothers in 1910 began painting their brand name and slogan in large letters on rural barns along well-traveled roads.

Farmers were a segment of consumers partial to chewing tobacco inasmuch as fire-lit tobacco was a hazard around barns.Bloch "field agents" solicited advertising rights on strategic farm routes - mostly in the Midwest.Farmers readily signed up in return for a choice of about $5 annually -- depending upon location and bargaining skills -- free tobacco, magazine subscriptions or a pocket watch.After company reps had lined up a dozen or so barns in an area, two-man painting crews known as "wall dogs" moved in.If the barns were close together, and in good repair, a crew could paint two signs a day.The crew leader viewed the barn surface from the road to gauge the size of letters needed.

These he lined in by eye and spotted with a dab of paint in the color desired.His helper followed to lather on a thick mixture of white-lead paste thinned with linseed oil and gasoline and colored with appropriate dyes.Painters earned from $50 to $125 a week. They furnished their own paint, brushes, ladders truck and lodging. They were assigned territories they could maintain.At the peak of chewing tobacco use in 1930, Mail Pouch had 20,000 barns under contract and enjoyed 65 percent of the product market.

Under the impact of "eye pollution," Congress in 1965 enacted the Highway Beautification Act. This banned all commercial signs within 660 feet of a federally funded highway.Barns with Mail Pouch signs were classified as commercial advertisements. Many thousands were demolished. In their places are eyesore billboards readable from across a proscribed strip of featureless ground.It is estimated that there are only 2,000 original Mail Pouch barns remaining - objects of pilgrimages by history buffs and photographers.

Smile While Driving.Another roadside advertiser, pre-billboard days, was Burma Shave. This was a soothing, pleasant smelling whisker lubricant that replaced shaving mugs, soap and brushes.According to the Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design, the product began in 1925 as Burma-Vitae liniment.

This allegedly was concocted by the father of Clinton Odell from a recipe sent by a sailor-friend in the Orient.Clinton Odell was a lawyer at Minneapolis, Min. The liniment did not sell well so he asked a chemist friend, Carl Noren, to improve the patent medicine.

His formula 143 turned the medicine into a slushy cream ideal for use with the new "safety razors.".Odell's sons, Leonard and Allan, set about selling the new product re-named Burma Shave.

However, it also did not sell well.Young Allan suggested they advertise with a series of small, related signs. He had seen them along a road while peddling the "brushless" shaving cream to drug stores.

Father Odell was skeptical but finally consented. In 1926, he gave his son $200 for lumber with which to build a dozen sets of signs for two roads into Minneapolis.Allan hurried to install them before winter froze the ground. The first series-signs were straightforward:.

Save Modern Way.Fine For The Skin.

Druggists Have It.Burma Shave.

Druggists sent rush-orders for the cream.

On this basis, Clinton Odell sold 49 percent of the company's stock to raise money for a sign shop.Sites for series-signs along straight, country roads were rented from farmers. There had to be enough space between signs to allow easy reading at 50 miles per hour - then considered the top, safe speed.Burma Shave expanded, and expanded again, to meet demand.No one remembers who conceived the style of catchy witticisms. The earliest remembered was:.

With In This Vale.Of Toil And Sin.Head Grows Bald.But Not Your Chin.Burma Shave.
The resulting fervor over the roadside verses is considered the most successful advertising campaign of all time.

It was the right technique for the roads of that day. They continued popular until discontinued in 1963. By then, increased driving speeds and proliferation of out-door signage by others made Burma Shave verses less effective.Prior to World War II, Burma Shave signs were cultural icons. People collected the verses.

On family trips, my mother read them aloud to entertain father and we youngsters.When the company's advertising department ran out of ideas, it conducted a contest to obtain new verses. More than 50,000 entries were submitted.The verses featured safe driving and romantic advice as well as whisker wisdom.

Odell was careful not to offend, but some of the romantic ones occasionally raised an eyebrow or two.I still remember one that made Mother pause, Dad laugh, and we kids giggle:.

Dinah Doesn't.Treat Him Right.If He'd Shave.

Dinah-might!.Burma Shave.

The hidden meaning probably would have been missed if the exclamation point hadn't made it explicit.One year the American countryside was flooded for a year with this series:.
Free Offer.

Rip A Fender.Off Your Car.Mail It In.Win A Jar.Burma Shave.

To the company's surprise, it was flooded with fenders scavenged from junkyards and toys. However, Odell was pleased to pay off.Odell took great pride in the commendations he received from highway safety officials for Burma Shave safety tips like this:.
Past Schools.

Take It Slow.Let The Little.Shavers Grow.

Burma Shave.

The sale of shaving cream, of course was the primary objective. Whisker witticisms dominated the verses:.
Whale Put Jonah.Down The Hatch.

Coughed Him Up.Cause He Scratched.Burma Shave.

No one knows how many different verses were put on sign sets - one collector has catalogued 600.Certainly this is only a fraction of the 60-year history of the campaign.

My own collection consists of about 150.At the peak, there were 35,000 Burma Shave signs throughout the United States.After World War II, electric razors became popular.

Highway speeds increased to the point that leased space for wider-spaced signs was prohibitive and distracting.The signs were taken down in 1963. Sales of Burma Shave plummeted and the product was discontinued.The company was sold to the American Safety Razor Company in 1997. It reintroduced the wonderful shaving cream for old-timers who still like to shave with it and recall favorite Burma Shave sallies.

Sorry, aficionados, I use electric.

.Lindsey Williams is a Sun columnist who can be contacted at:.LinWms@earthlink. http://www.lindseywilliams.

org with several hundred of Lin's Editorial & At Large articles written over 40 years.Also featured in its entirety is Lin's groundbreaking book "Boldly Onward," that critically analyzes and develops theories about the original Spanish explorers of America. (fully indexed/searchable).Article Source:


By: Lindsey Williams

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