A Sign of the Times

by Terry Hogan

"If You

Don't Know

Whose Signs

These Are

You Can't Have

Driven Very Far"

It was a sign of the times. Their origin went back before my memory. Their death was in my youth, but they went so quietly, I never noticed. One day, they were gone.

Their birth was linked to the automobile and the two-lane paved highway. These two items, combined, provided American families with mobility. They gave dad the opportunity to load up the family and Fido and head out for extended road trips. Gas stations popped up to provide fuel and perhaps a soft drink and "smokes." The little cabins that evolved into motels provided a place to stay along the side of the road. As the family traveled down the road, eager for some sort of distraction, the setting was made. A captive audience.

If you read the poem with a pause between each line, and passed your 50th birthday, you probably have figured out that the sign of the times, was none other than Burma-Shave. These six Burma-Shave signs posted sequentially along the highway provided a little humor for the whole family. Each sign was posted 100 paces from the proceeding, with the last showing the Burma-Shave name. At 35 mph, it is claimed that this gives the reader about three seconds to read the sign. At a 100 paces between signs, it also prevented the reader from jumping ahead. As a result, Burma-Shave had the family's attention for about 18 seconds.

These advertising efforts were part jingle, part art, and a whole lot of Americana. It reflected the simple, low-key innocent American humor, out of the vein of Will Rogers. Some have suggested that the cadence and forced pause between lines reminded us of our childhood books filled with rhyme and song. Who knows? All I know is that they broke the tedium of a long trip, before cars had air-conditioning and when AM radios weren't much to listen to.

The little signs initially provided just humor to get your attention and to plant their name in your mind. For example,

"The Bearded Lady

Tried a Jar

She's Now

A Famous

Movie Star"

As time went on, the little Burma-Shave signs broadened out to provide public safety messages, such as:



Take it Slow

Let The Little

Shavers Grow"


"Don't Take

A Curve

At 60 Per

We hate to Lose

A Customer"

Perhaps in the same good-natured and good-humored public announcements, Burma-Shave signs also offered advice to the lovelorn:

"Use our Cream

And We Betcha

Girls Won't Wait

They'll Come

And Getcha"

These little signs hit the road with American drivers in 1927 and lasted until Burma-Shave was sold to another company in 1963. By then, the cost of the signs had climbed and it was felt that the advertising money could be better spent elsewhere. The signs were removed and there were no more little rhymes to make your trip a little happier.

They were a sign of the times.


Rowsome, Frank. 1965. "The Verse by the Side of the Road". Stephen Green Press. Brattleboro, Vermont.