A drive down memory lane
April 23, 2008 12:21 AM   Subscribe

    The wolf
    Is shaved so neat and trim
    Red Riding Hood
    Is chasing him

If you happen to be a Mefi reader who's over 60 years old, or if you have family members who reminisce about the good old days, then there's a strong possibility that the subject of these ads might've come up before. They were a bit before your time (if you're in my age group) and were a constant source of entertainment (via) for the motorists driving along the US highways of that era. From the first (not too original) ones that showed up in 1927, to the (sad yet solemn) last which was put up in 1963, and the many many more creative ones in-between, they have been a part and parcel of the American journey on the open roads of the past. (Even so far as making sure that they did their bit for the community which they served.) And, sometimes, even keeping the promises that you thought they couldn't.

Burma-Shave: now being sold at a store near you, but, somehow, quite not the same.
posted by hadjiboy (33 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The Crowd You See

Around That Store

Are Burma Shavers

Buying More

Burma Shave

My dad has these signs hung from the ceiling in his shop.

Great post.
posted by clearly at 12:39 AM on April 23, 2008

These things vary in quality pretty wildly. Many are very poor, but the good ones are very good indeed.

One I liked, from 1932:

Lawyers, doctors
Sheiks and bakers
Mountaineers and undertakers
Make their bristly beards behave
By using brushless

posted by Malor at 12:56 AM on April 23, 2008

American road haiku.

Love these, and was quite recently considering doing a few in needlepoint for the long stairwell which leads down to our bath. Thanks!
posted by squasha at 1:04 AM on April 23, 2008

Burma Shave by Tom Waits

"Burma Shave is an American shaving-cream company, like Colgate. They advertise on the side of the road and they have these limericks which are broken up into different signs like pieces of a fortune cookie. You drive for miles before you get the full message.

"PLEASE DON'T"... five miles...
"STICK YOUR ARM OUT SO FAR"... another five miles...
"IT MIGHT GO HOME"... five more miles...

They reel you in. So when I was a kid I'd see these signs on the side of the road - BURMA SHAVE, BURMA SHAVE - and I'm young and I think it's the name of a town and I ask my dad, "When we getting to Burma Shave?" So in the song I used Burma Shave as a dream, a mythical community, a place two people are trying to get to. They don't make it."

(Tom Waits in Time Out magazine,interview by Richard Rayner. Date: New York, October 1985)
posted by CheshireCat at 1:06 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Now that they call it Myanmar Shave, it just ain't the same...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:20 AM on April 23, 2008 [11 favorites]

Stephen King's novel It is where I first heard of the Burma-Shave advertisements, so the phrase always carries a delicious touch of creepiness.....*whispers* Buuurrrmaaaa Shaaaaave.

I'm sort of obsessively reading through all of them...good literature. Thanks hadjiboy.
posted by annathea at 1:22 AM on April 23, 2008

posted by wendell at 1:31 AM on April 23, 2008

Now that they call it Myanmar Shave, it just ain't the same...

I know there's no such thing as an original idea, I just don't want to see the proof.
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:37 AM on April 23, 2008

As I read this post I immediately think of a saying from my Mum's side of the family (who I've had cause to mention before).

There used to be an advert for a product called "Milliner's Straw Hat Cleaner" in, I assume, the fifties. The schtick on the advert used to go something along the lines of:

(And this is better is you imagine Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson reading the lines.)

Man: "I say, is that a new hat?"
Woman: "No, it's the old one done up with Milliner's Straw Hat Cleaner"

So for the past 60 years in my family (whose size is considerable) whenever someone asks "Is that a new coat/car/house/iPod" they tend to get the answer, "No, it's the old one done up with Milliner's Straw Hat Cleaner."

I've searched all over the Googles and can't find a reference to it. I don't suppose, however, it would make the tendency any more explicable.
posted by Jofus at 1:52 AM on April 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

Also: great post!
posted by Jofus at 1:53 AM on April 23, 2008

Jofus: never trust an oral spelling. Try Milner's.

That was one of only two hits, though. Here's the other.
posted by darksasami at 2:22 AM on April 23, 2008

Ahh! Take 10 Internet Points. Thank you!
posted by Jofus at 2:29 AM on April 23, 2008

Good gravy, if you didn't catch hadjiboy's fine print, I'll write it large here: that "Burma-Shave" they're trying to push is shaving soap! With a brush! I'm honestly shocked and kind of disgusted.

And Jofus, I just noticed that that package is dated ca. 1900. Your family has some serious oral tradition!
posted by darksasami at 2:39 AM on April 23, 2008

Darksasami: You betcha. Did you check out the second of my links?
posted by Jofus at 2:47 AM on April 23, 2008

I don't know where I first heard about Burma-Shave, possibly in a Stephen King novel, who I read a lot of in my youth, possibly from my dad, who lived in the US in the early 60's, but I associate Bill Bryson with these ads. Here's the passage from Lost Continent where he talks about them:
I drove through Kentucky thinking of sad losses and was abruptly struck by the saddest loss of all—the Burma Shave sign. Burma Shave was a shaving cream that came in a tube. I don't know if it's still produced. In fact, I never knew anyone who ever used it. But the Burma Shave company used to put clever signs along the highway. They came in clusters of five, expertly spaced so that you read them as a little poem as you passed: IF HARMONY / IS WHAT YOU CRAVE / THEN GET /A TUBA BURMA SHAVE. Or: BEN MET ANNA / MADE A HIT / NEGLECTED BEARD BEN-ANNA SPLIT / BURMA SHAVE. Great, eh? Even in the 1950s the Burma Shave signs were pretty much a thing of the past. I can remember seeing only half a dozen in all the thousands of miles of highway we covered. But as roadside diversions went they were outstanding, ten times better than billboards and Pella's little twirling windmills. The only things that surpassed them for diversion value were multiple-car pileups with bodies strewn about the highway.
posted by Kattullus at 3:41 AM on April 23, 2008

This style of verse

Is easier

Than iambic


posted by louche mustachio at 4:06 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just a note on Tom Wait's scabrous lie:

The signs were never five miles apart. They were placed so drivers would pass them at several-second intervals--that is, they were at most a few hundred feet apart.

And I just remembered this from my own departed childhood (Image: guy in tiny spaceship, signs on a series of tiny 'asteroids'):
When you ride
a magnetic wave
look your best
Burma Shave.

posted by hexatron at 4:06 AM on April 23, 2008

She eyed
His beard
And said no dice
The wedding's off--
I'll COOK the rice!
from page here
posted by dabitch at 4:09 AM on April 23, 2008

Planned Parenthood uses the Burma Shave method in some of its local awareness-raising activities. (That's just one example of many!)
posted by Stewriffic at 4:16 AM on April 23, 2008

Pella doesn't have little windmills anymore either. Well, as of the last time I was there, which was like 20 years ago.

I did see a Burma Shave poem once when driving cross country. But that was a while ago and I'm associating it with Wall Drug, so maybe it was a fake.
posted by DU at 4:40 AM on April 23, 2008

A while ago I was ordering a MacBook for my younger sister, and finagled a way into getting her a free older-model iPod Nano. I had it engraved with:
    get a tuba
Burma Shave
It's as much as would fit.

Because it was late in the 'free iPod' campaign, I had to order over the phone. It took quite awhile to talk the nice call-center worker on the other end through it!
posted by blasdelf at 5:10 AM on April 23, 2008

I remember these from cross-country trips as a kid in the '50s. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 5:34 AM on April 23, 2008

posted by Tube at 5:42 AM on April 23, 2008

I have occasionally seen either recreated sign sets or survivors in the wild. I believe the recreated set was here in Washington state, and I think it was a recreation because it was brand-new looking and may possibly have included a tag-line advertising something else (an antique shop or something).

The original-looking set was very weathered in appearance and was glimpsed over a decade ago on a rural North Carolina road somewhere on the coastal plain. I couldn't tell if it was a legitimate survivor, a bit of recreated old-timery, or something else entirely.

A quick Flickr search shows that I was probably not imagining things in either case.
posted by mwhybark at 8:28 AM on April 23, 2008

A gun advocacy group in Central Illinois has taken the Burma Shave idea and run with it - they've got these kinds of signs up all around the area. Unfortunately, they're not very clever. For example:






P.S. DU, I think Pella still has windmills. I've never been there, but here 40 miles away in Grinnell they're still known for it, although with their tulips and bakery.
posted by dd42 at 9:22 AM on April 23, 2008

along with, of course, not although with.
posted by dd42 at 9:29 AM on April 23, 2008

I remember those little red signs from my boyhood, traveling with my folks in the car on vacations. I loved them. I haven't thought of them in years. This is a wonderful post, thank you very very much, hadjiboy!

So do you think Firesign Theater got their inspiration for the Antelope Freeway signs on their first album from Burma Shave?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2008

A macabre example exists in an 5 story stairwell in Carnegie Mellon's Wean Hall, known as Architect's Leap:

If you're feeling like a jerk
'cause your project just won't work
Go ahead and take the leap
Then finally you'll get some sleep
Burma Shave
posted by ALongDecember at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2008

Through winding roads

And steep inclines

Please watch the road

And not the signs

(which would have been funnier if it hadn't been an old B.C. cartoon).
posted by Paragon at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2008

Just a note on Tom Wait's scabrous lie:
posted by hexatron

Go easy on him: he was a child at the time. He thought it was a town. Likely, the intervals felt like 5 miles. Do you remember the way time bent when you were a kid?
posted by NationalKato at 12:36 PM on April 23, 2008

I remember these from the early 1960's, there was a set near Kankakee, IL that we passed when going to my grandparent's house. That might have been the only set I ever saw.
posted by pjern at 2:46 PM on April 23, 2008

"No, it's the old one done up with Milliner's Straw Hat Cleaner."

That reminds me of the French
"Oh c'est doux, c'est neuf?"
"Non, lavé avec Mir Laine. Avec adoucissant!!"

I can still hear the exact intonation of that "avec adoucissant."
posted by ClarissaWAM at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2008

posted by anotherpanacea at 7:29 AM on May 7, 2008

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