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It was 1925, and young Allan Odell of the then Burma-Vita Corporation of Minneapolis pitched a great sales idea to his father, Clinton: small wooden roadside signs to promote their product, Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving balm. Allan's dad wasn't entirely convinced, but eventually gave Allan $200 to give it a try. Before long, Allan and his brother Leonard were erecting and pounding in signs all over the place and sales almost immediately began to increase.

Launched merely as a sales pitch, the road signs eventually found their good humor and old-fashioned wisdom extending to safety tips and whimsy. By the mid 1930s, Burma-Shave signs could be seen from coast to coast--with the notable exception of Arizona and Massachusetts. Eventually, there were 7,000 Burma-Shave signs stretching across America, coast to coast.

Actual Burma Shave Sign from c. 1930's
Actual Burma Shave Sign c.1933

The signs were ultimately standardized to a uniform white text on red background. They were grouped by fours, fives and sixes and became a ubiquitous visual element of every American family's outings, day trips, and vacations over the roads across the country.

Though very supportive and wildly successful during the Depression and the wartime economy of World War II, things changed in the late Fifties due to the implementation and construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System of super-highways. Cars, trucks and buses had gotten faster and superhighways were needed to accommodate them. The smaller signs eventually became unnoticeable and were soon supplanted by far larger--and more unsightly--billboards.

1963 was the last year for the newest of the Burma-Shave signs. Burma-Shave's sales had plummeted to the point that in 1966 the line was discontinued altogether. Three decades later--in 1997--the Burma-Shave product line was re-introduced through a division of the American Safety Razor Company. But it had become the end of an era for the amusing little red and white icons of roadside wisdom. One of the very last sets of Burma-Shave signs has been preserved by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. A a few of them can still be seen on portions of Route 66 and The Lincoln Highway--lovingly restored and maintained by dedicated preservation nuts like us.

Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving balm or cream, was envisioned as a means to retire the old brush and mug system of shaving that had become the de facto civilized way to shave for two centuries. It's said that a sailor who was stationed in Burma (today's Myanmar) gave the recipe for the balm to the company's founders at a time when far more men wore beards and/or moustaches. Burma-Shave correctly saw great potential in a product that could do away with the brush and mug forever--and allow men to simply smooth the cream onto their skin to shave.



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The Odell Family c.1944




Alan Odell Shows a map of the U.S., locating Burma-Shave signs. c. 1945


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Traditional Jar of Burma Shave