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Signs of the times
Now and Then
burma shave

Ever since people began shaving — sometime in distant prehistory — the instrument for hair removal primarily has been some sort of blade. In movies, rough and tough men are depicted using swords and big knives for that task. If made of high-quality steel, such instruments can be sharpened to a shaving edge, but they are awkward to handle for a task that requires careful precision.

The chosen tool for shavers was the straight razor. Its very name is the catch word for exceedingly sharp. Its blade folds into its handle, much like a pocket knife. It was kept sharp with a polished stone and regularly brushed to renewed keenness with a razor strap, actually two straps about two inches wide by 18 inches long tied together at one end. One was thick leather, likely horsehide, and the other was polished canvas. Leather is an excellent sharpening medium and the cloth strap just finished the edge.

Straight razors were, still are, dangerous. If careless or clumsy, one could hurt oneself with one of those things. They have also been used as weapons, sometimes with deadly effect.

Their use by individuals and barbers continued well into the 20th century. My father, steady-handed as a young man, used his straight razor until about 1950. He said that he could never get as close a shave with anything else. I took his word for it. I was never tempted to touch it except to fetch it to him. My maternal grandfather had already adopted the single-edged safety razor by 1940. It did not hold an edge for many shaves and couldn’t be sharpened. It might sometimes cut and scrape, but would not kill. By the time I began to shave, Gillette had come out with a safety razor with a double-edged blade that was also less likely to nick and scrape.

Another shaving necessity was lather, a soapy coating for whiskers to soften and lubricate. Tools included a shaving mug fitted with a round bar of soap, which could be turned into lather by warm (preferably) water and stirring briskly with an appropriately designed brush. Everyone used these tools: barbers, grown men, mostly grown boys and women who shaved their legs. They worked well at home but not so well for an increasingly mobile population. Innovations came quickly: thick paste in tubes, creams in tubes and then lather in aerosol cans.

The first such invention with which I am familiar was a paste in a metal tube, which still required a brush or finger massage to produce anything like a lather. It was called Burma Shave, a name remembered long after its short-lived popularity because of its unique advertising. Introduced in a time when highways were not cluttered by signs, it was still unobtrusive but might be called the forerunner of billboards.

Burma Shave advertisements consisted of a series of small rectangular boards attached at intervals to fence posts beside well-traveled highways. The boards were about 2 feet long and 4 inches wide. White in color, each board was painted with two or three words, which combined to make a humorous rhyme followed by Burma Shave. They did not tout the virtues of the product. They simply indicated that this funny poem to break the monotony of travel was courteous of Burma Shave.

After World War II, travel to and from Florida on major north-south highways like U.S. routes 1 and 301 increased dramatically. There was a large field alongside U.S. 1 just north of Lyons that was well suited for Burma Shave jingles, fence posts in a straight line for a long distance. No doubt the company paid the landowners for the use of their posts because the signs were replaced with new ones from time to time.

Since I traveled that way almost daily on the way to school, etc., these rhymes got etched into my mind, where some of them remain. Allow me to recover and recite.

“His whiskers scraped his cookie’s map (face). That’s what made his Ginger snap. Burma Shave.” “If hugging on highways is your sport, trade in your car for a davenport (couch). Burma Shave.”

This one requires some explanation. Once many farming activities took precedence over the privileges of motorists, to the great irritation of motorists. Farmers who owned fields and pastures on both sides of a highway had the right to move their cattle across the road from one field or pasture to another. Frequently used places were marked by highway signs, “Cattle Crossing.” Motorists who hit cows were liable for loss of the animal and had to pay for their own car repairs.

A Burma Shave message out in the country served as a reminder of the law and as a bit of humor for the road weary. “Cattle Crossing means go slow. That old bull is some cow’s beau. Burma Shave.”

It is all gone now. Much of the long distance travel to and from Florida is via routes on the interstate highway system. Even the older routes are mostly four-lane so that travelers would be hard pressed to capture the Burma Shave messages. The big field where posts were adorned with funny rhymes is the site of a modestly successful industrial park.

Of course, the only ones among us who are familiar with Burma Shave are those old enough to have the words of those funny signs stuck in their heads. Those who shave at all and who have not opted for electric razors or depilatories, can choose among razors with up to five blades and a range of lathers and gels in aerosol cans.  Finally, roadside signs are intrusively ugly, not funny. Burma Shave.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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