Road sign’s clever verse made for amusing Sunday rides

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You know how it is, right? You’re looking for something on the Internet, and suddenly something else appears and grabs your attention, right? A while back I was looking for some obscure verse that I was thinking of alluding to for a column idea, and when I typed in “verse,” one of the sources that came up was a book called “Verse by the Side of the Road” by Frank Rowsome. So I looked it up. Actually, the complete title is “Verse by the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles.”

The description of the book on Amazon says “all 600 of the roadside rhymes are indexed.” Wow! Remember Burma Shave signs? They seemed to be everywhere on the highways when I was a kid. We didn’t do much traveling when I was young, just day trips to visit relatives in Wisconsin or Sunday afternoon “rides.” My parents loved to go for rides. My parents, my sister, Joyce, Grandpa VanHaren and I would pile into the car and we’d go for a ride. No particular destination, no agenda, just a ride.

Along the way, we’d often see Burma Shave signs. Typically, the Burma Shave ads consisted of six consecutive, small signs, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists, each with a short phrase that was part of a jingle or rhyme. The last sign was always the name of the product. And in our family at least, we read them aloud in unison! Something like this: “If you dislike/Big traffic fines/Slow down/Till you/Can read these signs/Burma-Shave.”

It never occurred to me when I was kid, but why was it called Burma Shave? What did Burma have to do with it? Burma was a country in Asia. Since 1989, Burma is now officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, commonly shortened to Myanmar. It is bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. What did Burma have to do with a shaving cream?

Good old Wikipedia. It told me that Burma-Shave was introduced in 1925 by the Burma-Vita company. Its original product was a liniment made of ingredients described as having come “from the Malay Peninsula and Burma.” The liniment didn’t sell very well, so the company decided to try marketing a different product, a brushless shaving cream that they called Burma Shave. And they introduced the highway signs campaign. Sales took off.

At one point, Burma-Shave was the second-highest selling brushless shaving cream in the United States, but sales declined in the 1950s, and in 1963 the company was sold to Philip Morris. The signs were removed at that time.

As super highways increased and speed limits kept getting higher, the signs were less effective than they had been in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

Some of the signs had featured safety messages about speeding and paying attention to the road instead of advertisements: “Hardly a driver/Is now alive/Who passed/On hills/At 75 /Burma-Shave.” Or “Train approaching/Whistle squealing/Stop /Avoid that run-down feeling/Burma-Shave.”

I have to confess I spent quite a bit of time on the website that had all 600 jingles. Some of my favorites: “Dinah doesn’t/Treat him right/But if he’d Shave/Dyna-mite!/Burma Shave”; “Cattle crossing/Means go slow/That old bull /Is some/Cow’s beau/Burma Shave”; “Within this vale/Of toil /And sin/Your head grows bald/But not your chin/Burma Shave”; “Don’t take /a curve/at 60 per./We hate to lose/a customer/Burma-Shave”; “Past/Schoolhouses/Take it slow/Let the little/Shavers grow/Burma-Shave”; “Drinking drivers—/Nothing worse/They put/The quart/Before the hearse/Burma Shave.”

And how about this one, warning about forest fires: “The blackened forest/Smoulders yet/Because/He flipped/A cigarette/Burma Shave.”

The last year for the signs was 1963, and most of these were repeats, including this one, probably the ultimate in self-referencing signs, leaving out the product name: “If you/Don’t know/Whose signs/ These are/You can’t have/Driven very far.” The final slogan to appear on the highways was this one, which had appeared in 1953: “Our fortune/Is your/Shaven face/It’s our best/Advertising space/Burma-Shave.”

I’m going to end with one of my favorites: “A guy/Who wants/To middle-aisle it/Must never scratch/His little violet.” Is that a great rhyme or what? “Middle-aisle it’ and “Little Violet”!

Contact Roger VanHaren at