Books by Rowsome, Frank, Jr.

Rowsome, Frank, Jr. The Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: Plume, [1965] 1979. ISBN 0-452-26762-5.
In the years before the Interstate Highway System, long trips on the mostly two-lane roads in the United States could bore the kids in the back seat near unto death, and drive their parents to the brink of homicide by the incessant drone of “Are we there yet?” which began less than half an hour out of the driveway. A blessed respite from counting cows, license plate poker, and counting down the dwindling number of bottles of beer on the wall would be the appearance on the horizon of a series of six red and white signs, which all those in the car would strain their eyes to be the first to read.







In the fall of 1925, the owners of the virtually unknown Burma-Vita company of Minneapolis came up with a new idea to promote the brushless shaving cream they had invented. Since the product would have particular appeal to travellers who didn't want to pack a wet and messy shaving brush and mug in their valise, what better way to pitch it than with signs along the highways frequented by those potential customers? Thus was born, at first only on a few highways in Minnesota, what was to become an American institution for decades and a fondly remembered piece of Americana, the Burma-Shave signs. As the signs proliferated across the landscape, so did sales; so rapid was the growth of the company in the 1930s that a director of sales said (p. 38), “We never knew that there was a depression.” At the peak the company had more than six million regular customers, who were regularly reminded to purchase the product by almost 7000 sets of signs—around 40,000 individual signs, all across the country.

While the first signs were straightforward selling copy, Burma-Shave signs quickly evolved into the characteristic jingles, usually rhyming and full of corny humour and outrageous puns. Rather than hiring an advertising agency, the company ran national contests which paid $100 for the best jingle and regularly received more than 50,000 entries from amateur versifiers.

Almost from the start, the company devoted a substantial number of the messages to highway safety; this was not the result of outside pressure from anti-billboard forces as I remember hearing in the 1950s, but based on a belief that it was the right thing to do—and besides, the sixth sign always mentioned the product! The set of signs above is the jingle that most sticks in my memory: it was a favourite of the Burma-Shave founders as well, having been re-run several times since its first appearance in 1933 and chosen by them to be immortalised in the Smithsonian Institution. Another that comes immediately to my mind is the following, from 1960, on the highway safety theme:







Times change, and with the advent of roaring four-lane freeways, billboard bans or set-back requirements which made sequences of signs unaffordable, the increasing urbanisation of American society, and of course the dominance of television over all other advertising media, by the early 1960s it was clear to the management of Burma-Vita that the road sign campaign was no longer effective. They had already decided to phase it out before they sold the company to Philip Morris in 1963, after which the signs were quickly taken down, depriving the two-lane rural byways of America of some uniquely American wit and wisdom, but who ever drove them any more, since the Interstate went through?

The first half of this delightful book tells the story of the origin, heyday, and demise of the Burma-Shave signs, and the balance lists all of the six hundred jingles preserved in the records of the Burma-Vita Company, by year of introduction. This isn't something you'll probably want to read straight through, but it's great to pick up from time to time when you want a chuckle.

And then the last sign had been read: all the family exclaimed in unison, “Burma-Shave!”. It had been maybe sixty miles since the last set of signs, and so they'd recall that one and remember other great jingles from earlier trips. Then things would quiet down for a while. “Are we there yet?”

October 2006 Permalink