Road Safety Education Burma-Shave Style: Part 1: A New Traveling Companion

If you drove on American roads in the second quarter of the 20th Century, some of your road safety knowledge  would have come from an unusual source: a neatly-rhymed BurmaShaveSigns-Brakeverse printed on a series of outdoor signs which advertised, of all things, shaving cream. For almost forty years Burma-Shave, made by the Burma-Vita Company, marketed its products by means of these red and white signs, each bearing just a single line of text. They were spaced along the road so that one could read the complete verse by passing five or six signs (the last one invariably bore the product’s name). In this series of posts you’ll read how this familiar roadside campaign grew, embraced the cause of road safety as it flourished, and finally declined – all in the space of a generation.

The campaign, which began appearing in the mid-1920s, started off by touting the joys of a clean-shaven face, as in:

burma-shave-prayer

The ads proved popular, and more and more of them sprang up on the nation’s roads. A frequent theme was a man’s need for a good shave in order to attract a wife:

burma-shave-ring
Before long Burma Shave signs had become a much-loved diversion for drivers on long travels. As the company had the attention of motorists, Burma-Shave decided to perform a public service, and add roadside safety hints to the campaign. The advertisements warned their captive audience against speeding, driving while sleepy, and drunk driving – all in verse, of course.

burma-shave-friskyDuring these ads’ heyday – the 1930s through the 1950s – drunk driving accounted for more than half of all road fatalities. It was an era before designated drivers and DUI legislation, and while the messages were humorous in tone, they left no doubt of the dangers of impaired driving:

burma-shave-drunks

In the second part of this series you’ll discover how the campaign’s messages reflected a growing nation’s driving habits.

Part 2: The Campaign Picks Up Speed →