Burma Shave

Owned by Clinton Odell, the Burma-Vita Company introduced a liniment named Burma Shave in 1925. The product was purportedly named because it was made with “products from the Maylay Peninsula and Burma”.  

After introduction, sales of the product were poor and the company began conducting the successful Burma Shave advertising sign campaign, first in the State of Minnesota, then in most of the contiguous United States.

The small signs were intended to be read in sequence by passing motorists and were typically red and white and orange and black. South Dakota restricted the use of red on signs to official warning notices, so a special set of white-on-blue signs were developed for that state.

Because of Massachusetts’ high land values and view-obstructing foliage, it was eliminated from the national ad campaign. Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico were thought to have too little highway traffic, so they too did not have Burma Shave signs.

During the early years of the automobile road speed were relatively low, which is probably just as well since the tires were of universally poor quality and prone to sudden blowouts. The low speeds helped make the small Burma Shave signs readable and the sign campaign was highly successful.

Vehicle speeds increased with the building of the Interstate Highway system after World War Two. The increased highway speeds made it more difficult to attract attention with the small signs.   

The sign campaign remained active along America’s highways until the Burma-Vita Company was sold to Phillip Morris in 1963, when the campaign was discontinued and the signs were removed. It was quite common to see the sets of signs along highways when I was a child during the 1950s. Examples of various original signs are on display in several museums.

I was surprised to encounter several sets of the signs along Route 66 in Arizona between Kingman and Seligman in late September of 2012. The signs along that stretch of Route 66 are recreations and primarily address the dangers of speeding. The original Burma Shave signs usually advertised the product, but sometimes were about road safety and speeding.

Though I had two film cameras in my saddlebags, I took the photos shown here with an ancient digital point-and-shoot camera, a Canon PowerShot A400. This sequence of signs can be viewed when traveling west on Route 66 from Seligman, Arizona. As always, click on the thumbnail to view the larger photograph.

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