Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


The definitive history of the original Burma-Shave signs remains Frank Rowsome's The Verse by the Side of the Road.

In my youthful experience, all BURMA SHAVE signs were red, and the company name was rendered in sans-serif Gothic.  Mr. Rowsome's book explained that once upon a time, the company alternated black on an orange background, and the company name was also presented in a script style.  Original signs turn up on occasion in antique stores, and one internet vendor has a few sets on offer.

Bill Vossler's Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times, builds on Mr Rowsome's work, drawing on recollections from his Minnesota neighbors, including some employees of the old Burma-Vita Company (which gave the impression of being a much larger company than it was, on the strength of the word of mouth its signs produced.)  The title of Book Review No. 20 suggests one unusual feature of the book:  if you want to find the jingle about the "cough drop" brothers, it's listed; oddly, it makes one reference to "halos" when there are at least two jingles that use the concept, but you have to look up "harp" to find the second one.  The complete list of jingles is not in chronological or thematic order: for that you have to look at Verse by the Side of the Road, or this site.  A chronological ordering would help unravel an intriguing story from Idaho, in which one badly-maintained set of signs had two from one jingle and three from another jingle, and somehow the convex combination made sense.  The story sheds light on the construction of the signs.  Verse suggests signs were either pine boards or for a while aluminum sheets (the latter being more easily perforated by gunfire).  This book describes original board signs being overlaid with new jingles on aluminum (perhaps another reason to go to all red for the signboards, the last sign not having to be overlaid?)  The author also gives in to the temptation to interpret and analyze ... perhaps it's Minnesota Blue State Smug, perhaps it's recognition that the end of the roadside jingles was another E-T-T-S moment for The America that Worked(TM).


The book ends just before the 1997 return of Burma-Shave, complete with signs. (Somewhere in the slide collection is the illustration of a sequence outside Wenonah, Illinois.)  That return was an effort of the American Safety Razor Company.  Such an archaic name; apparently the product launch didn't take, and the company filed last year for bankruptcy.  The author also chose not to mention the use of the format by other companies.  I want to say Country Living magazine used some of the original jingles (again, somewhere in the slide collection) and Illinois ethanol promoters mimic the format.  Just this month, and just for fun, Iowa is resuming what Burma Shave begun.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: business, history, human spirit

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